Story by reporter Jackie Majerus:
The former longtime publisher of The Bristol Press said it will be not only sad, but dangerous for the city if the newspaper closes next month.
"I invested 25 years of my life and my family's life in that paper," said Joe Zerbey. "To see it thrown aside like a used Burger King wrapper is disgusting and it's sad."
The owner of the Press, the Journal Register Co., has said it will close the Bristol paper as well as The Herald, a daily in New Britain, and 11 community weekly papers in Connecticut if a buyer or buyers aren't found by January 12. The papers employ about 100 people.
Beyond the initial grief and loss of a daily community newspaper and the jobs and services it provides, Zerbey said he sees trouble in town if the Press closes.
"It's a sad thing, but it's also a dangerous thing," said Zerbey, who said there wouldn't be anyone filling the important role of government watchdog if the Press vanishes.
A community has very few institutions with the job of "governing the powerful," said Zerbey, now the vice president and general manager of the Toledo Blade in Toledo, Ohio. "In my world, that's what good newspapers do."
Without a vigilant press watching what they do, Zerbey said, government officials can "run amok."
"There'd be nobody on their coattails, checking what they do," said Zerbey.
Zerbey said he didn't have any particular official or leader in mind, but said that after awhile, without anyone paying attention, officials could take advantage of the opportunity.
"You can do things you don't have to answer for," said Zerbey.
Zerbey still considers Bristol home. He said he and his wife raised their children here and continue to maintain their house in town, he said. But he dismissed rumors of a return, saying he has no immediate plans to move back to Bristol to run the Press.
Zerbey, who comes from a newspaper family, worked his way up the ranks at the Press, learning from the late Bart Barnes, whose family owned The Bristol Press for generations.
Barnes taught him what a newspaper should do, said Zerbey.
As publisher in Bristol, Zerbey promoted the Press, giving it a presence in town.
He was active in local organizations, including the Greater Bristol Chamber of Commerce. He wrote a column for the Press that often provoked readers. He was quick to criticize and point out problems, but also praised ideas and championed projects in the community.
He said he learned from Barnes to wear many hats as publisher.
"You always did what was ethically right from a journalistic perspective," said Zerbey.
Zerbey had been publisher of the Press for years when the former owner, Media News Group, sold the paper to the Journal Register Co. in 1994. He left when the JRC took over.
Zerbey blamed the paper's downfall on "the inattention to circulation" and lack of investment in customer service.
The JRC blew a golden opportunity, said Zerbey, because it owned so many papers in the central part of the state, including The Herald in New Britain.
The company had "a powerhouse of growing circulation" that it could have leveraged in a head-to-head battle with the Hartford Courant, according to Zerbey.
He'd wanted to try that under MediaNews Group, the former owner of The Bristol Press, Zerbey said, but that company couldn't convince the family owners of The Herald to sell the New Britain paper.
"They were turned off by a large newspaper chain," said Zerbey. But then the price of newsprint shot through the roof, he said, and the family sold to the JRC.
Zerbey said the JRC didn't care about the role of a newspaper.
"They cared about the bottom line," Zerbey said, "to make the people in New York smile, not the people in Bristol, Conn. The people of Central Connecticut deserve better than that."
Local news is what's important, said Zerbey, and it's expensive to do.
Now, the papers like the Press have lost circulation, according to Zerbey, falling sharply from the 22,000 daily he left in 1994.
"It's a sad, sad statement," said Zerbey. "There was a proud tradition there."
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