Bristol has become “Ground Zero in the fight to save American newspapers,” according to an Alabama columnist writing in Monday’s Opelika-Auburn News.
While columnist Jennifer Foster may be putting a little too much spin on her piece, there’s no denying that the fate of The Bristol Press has garnered attention far beyond the reach of its carriers, including some media heavyweights.
The Poynter Institute’s Rick Edmonds said shortly after the news of the possible closure broke in November that Bristol was on its way to the distinction of being “the first to lose its newspaper.”
News of the paper’s plight has appeared this year in dailies around the world, from Qatar to Canada, as well as serving as fodder for scores of bloggers to weigh in on the ethics of government officials trying to lend a hand to preserve The Bristol Press.
The corporate owner of the Press, the Pennsylvania-based Journal Register Co., has told employees it plans to shut down the Press , The New Britain Herald and 11 Central Connecticut weeklies by Jan. 16 unless a buyer turns up.
Though at least a half dozen potential purchasers have been talking with the broker hired to handle the sale, there’s no word yet on the likelihood of a deal going through.
If the 137-year-old Press is shuttered, it will likely be the first daily in the United State to close during the ongoing fiscal crisis that has sent the stock prices of newspaper companies plummeting as advertising revenues and circulations decline. A number of weekly papers have already bit the dust in recent months, including several dozen owned by the JRC.
Spurring the most recent spate of media attention was a New Year’s Eve analysis story by Reuters media reporter Robert MacMillan “about the opportunities and perils that could face struggling newspapers if they wind up surviving because of government help,” as he described it on his MediaFiles blog.
To tell the tale, MacMillan focused on the effort by a group of area lawmakers to push for state economic development officials to help find a buyer for the targeted papers, a move that some commentators, including syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, misinterpreted as some sort of bailout.
His story found its way into hundreds of newspapers as well as a number of broadcasts.
Because he was featured prominently in the story, state Rep. Frank Nicastro, a Bristol Democrat who has vigorously argued for the paper’s continued operation, said he started getting “phone calls from all over the country” beginning early on New Year’s Day.
Nicastro said he spoke with reporters in Georgia, Minnesota, Washington, Florida and elsewhere who wanted to quiz him about the effort to save the two Central Connecticut dailies.
Nicastro said he told them all that "I'm not recommending 5 cents to the current owner" of the papers.
Instead of a bailout, he said, he explained that the effort is focused on making sure any prospective new owner learns about state programs available to any business owner that might lead to tax breaks or low-interest loans to encourage development and preserve jobs.
But some interpret even that as too much government involvement.
The Colorado Springs Gazette, for example, described Nicastro in an editorial as “a John Ford hero arriving with the cavalry in the nick of time,” but went on to castigate his effort to help the targeted papers.
The Gazette said that Nicastro’s worry that news coverage will vanish in Bristol if the Press folds is “simply not true” because “modern journalism is delivered through numerous channels” that include TV, radio, neighborhood weeklies and bloggers.”
The paper said that government should not aid business, including papers.
“Better to have newspapers go under than become wards, and possibly instruments, of the state,” its editorial said.
The Newspaper Death Watch website said Monday that “Nicastro’s campaign has fueled an ongoing debate over whether newspapers are entitled to the same government support as airlines, banks and the automobile industry have received. Some people say newspapers are an essential public utility that a democracy can’t afford to lose. Others think the market will find a way to provide this service one way or the other. Almost everyone admits there’s a conflict-of-interest question when a government funds its own watchdog, kind of like letting the banking industry regulate itself.”
The Connecticut legislators involved in the bid to find a new owner for the papers uniformly say they are not offering anything that isn’t available to every other business owner.
As the New London Day wrote in an editorial Saturday that a paper getting government aid “would lose all credibility.”
But, it said, “the response from the state Department of Economic and Community Development that it would do nothing extraordinary to save the Journal Register newspapers is assuring.”
“There will be no special help, no extra effort. And as difficult as it may be to lose community newspapers, that is the way it has to be,” The Day’s editorial said.
The wave of media attention shows no sign of letting up.
Fox News plans Tuesday to have Nicastro on the air to take up the cause of the Press once again.
A few further thoughts:
I don't have room to include everything for a printed story, especially background material, but I do want to lay out quite clearly here that The Bristol Press remains a viable newspaper.
It's easy for outsiders to think the Journal Register Co., which is worth less than my house but owns the paper, is simply dumping an unprofitable rag. That just isn't the case here.
What we really have is a dysfunctional company ridding itself of papers it ransacked, leaving them for dead after taking everything possible.
What they couldn't grab, though, was the papers deep roots in the community or the core of a longtime staff that managed to love The Bristol Press while loathing its owner.
While I am not privy to financial details, I've heard enough to leave me quite sure that the Press is not losing gobs of money. It's probably breaking even or falling only a little short.
So why should anyone buy it?
Because it is run right now by the worst newspaper company in America. The JRC has a long track record of gross mismanagement, running its papers into the ground, failing to invest hardly anything over the course of many years, cutting staff and resources well into the bone and generally behaving with a ruthless stupidity that gutted a stable of thriving community newspapers that it bought in many states over the course of nearly two decades.
Though I hope the papers it continues to own will find that new corporate managers are better than those of years past, I am certain that The Bristol Press will fare better with a new owner, if only because any owner is better than the JRC.
I really have no doubt that management that could deliver the papers people order, process advertising checks without error and treat its employees, customers and communities with respect would find a groundswell of support that would easily push the paper into profitability.
This is, of course, just my opinion. But I know it is shared by nearly everyone who works for the JRC. They mostly feel they can't speak out. I can, because the JRC hired me as a reporter to tell the truth to my readers. So I will. It's easier to tell all, though, when you know that the end is coming soon, one way or another.
Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.
Contact Steve Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org