We beat on a lot of drums in November and December of 2008 in the hope that by creating a stir, a buyer for The Bristol Press might emerge. That the strategy actually worked is still kind of astounding to me. Michael Schroeder, who bought the paper (and the New Britain Herald, too), entered the picture because he read Dan Barry's brilliant piece about our plight in The New York Times -- a piece that got written because of all the attention we stirred up in Connecticut, Barry's old stomping ground.
A key part of what happened was the effort we made to get state officials involved -- the so-called "newspaper bailout" bid that was never anything like it got portrayed. But we (reporters Jackie Majerus, Adam Benson and yours truly) really couldn't stop the bailout focus -- though we tried. Even so, maybe it was just as well because it helped spread the story across the globe, which meant that it came to the attention of more people.
One thing that we never said at the time was that I wrote a memorandum to the state's commissioner of economic development that became a sort of blueprint for what the state tried to do to help. When state officials and legislators met behind closed doors, they read it -- and acted on it, too, to my great joy. The memo had to be secret then because I ripped into the company that was still paying my salary.
Now, though, there's no reason not to share it, because the memo does capture the truth of what was going on. I'm not sure that journalists would generally agree that writing secret memos to state leaders is fine, but I would counter that watching helplessly as an evil company shutters 13 newspapers surely isn't fine either. So we did what we did. And I think the results make it pretty clear that it was the right thing to do.
I really have no doubt the Press and the Herald would not have survived if we'd just gone along doing nothing more than our daily quota of community journalism.
Anyway, here's the memo:
December 4, 2008
Memorandum about the Bristol Press and New Britain Herald
To: Joan McDonald, Commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development
From: Steve Collins, Bristol Press reporter
Subject: What you can do to help preserve Central Connecticut’s newspapers
Let’s say the most important thing right up front: We don’t want a bailout.
What we want instead is the assistance of the many astute development officials in the state government to help identify potential buyers for these papers and to pinpoint what existing programs and policies might prove beneficial to a new owner.
Without that helping hand, there is a good chance that two important dailies and 11 weeklies in Central Connecticut will close on Jan. 12, leaving a number of communities without any source of news, putting more than 100 employees on unemployment and undercutting any number of local businesses that depend in part on the newspapers.
The background on this issue is straightforward. In the mid-1990s, the Journal Register Co. bought The Bristol Press, The Herald in New Britain and a number of weekly newspapers in Central Connecticut. At the time, most of them were profitable to a degree almost unimaginable today. After 14 years of JRC ownership, all of the papers are struggling and most of them are losing money, or so we’re told.
Let’s address the reason why the papers are struggling, because that is the root of the business criteria that must drive what you do now. The JRC’s former management believed that by paring expenses at every opportunity, it could maximize profits. But what happened instead is that almost every step the company took to raise profits instead drove away both readers and advertisers, from switching its dailies to morning delivery to dumping the traditional broadsheet design in favor of a tabloid style. It added a Sunday paper, The Herald Press, without adding any staff at all to give it substance, serving merely to weaken every one of its papers every day. Those of us who worked in the trenches saw calamity after calamity, with everything from customer service to circulation slashed in misguided, nonsensical attempts to turn things around. It’s taken 14 years at The Bristol Press, but the results of the company’s experiment are clear: Eventually, cutting service and ignoring customers leads to losses rather than profits.
Now we hear daily that people can’t get their paper delivered at home, can’t get their letters to the editor printed, can’t get their church or group announcements into print, can’t get even get their advertisements done right. The management of these papers has created a system so inept that many of the things newspapers have always done, from editorials to fire calls, have simply fallen by the wayside.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
We know that the halcyon days of newspapers are gone, perhaps forever, but they can still make money while performing a crucial public function. There is no reason to shut their doors, fire 100+ workers and turn off the lights.
What’s needed to turn them around? Nothing more than a chance to let employees do their jobs under management whose aim is to respond to the public, treat workers with respect and take seriously its role as guardians of the First Amendment. Treat the community as a partner and it will be. Treat it as a place for plunder, as the JRC did for years, and the trust that is the linchpin of a successful paper is undermined.
I was lucky enough to get to know a great old newspaper publisher, Bart Barnes, during his last years. I know that his success went far beyond making some good money for The Bristol Press. He championed Freedom of Information in Connecticut. He pushed for Bristol to get good roads, good schools, new development and so much more. He was an active, interested participant in almost everything that happened in his hometown and in the newspaper world for well over half a century. But Bart was not just a crusader, not just a businessman. He was also a journalist. I remember how proud he was that his story of what happened in Bristol during the 1955 Flood made it onto the national Associated Press wire, even if they mistakenly attributed the piece to his brother. He cared about the news. His successors at the JRC don’t even know what news is all about.
Perhaps the era of Bart Barnes is gone, but the paper he shepherded is not. The JRC’s former management tried in so many different ways to undermine it that it’s a little hard to believe the Press remains alive and still relatively vibrant for something that is a shadow of what it should be. We still serve as a watchdog, still deliver hard-hitting and important stories, still make sure that what’s important to Bristol is in the paper. The Press is, despite the company’s efforts, not dead and it’s not a trifle from the past that can be tossed aside. Don’t let the JRC, which did so much to wound this valuable community institution, turn around now and kill it.
What can you do?
To begin with, get involved. Talk to the JRC’s executives today who are perhaps trying to make the best of the terrible situation they inherited. Talk to the broker in New Mexico who’s trying to sell the paper. Look at the books with a steely eye and see if the numbers presented for the papers that are slated to close – and those that might remain open – actually show the dire situation claimed by management. Consider that newsprint, the most costly part of a paper, is likely going to come down in price quickly in the coming year, helping to cushion the blow of a recession that’s been especially hard on America’s newspapers. And then go out and see if you can find potential buyers because the JRC is unlikely to be doing anything much to round them up on its own. It’s barely afloat at all given its huge debts. Talk to community leaders who might be interested in the role Bart once held. Talk to competing newspapers that remain true to their ideals, such as the Journal Inquirer, the Record-Journal or the Republican-American. Talk to newspaper companies such as Hearst, Tribune and Gannett. Talk to the paper’s own employees and see if perhaps a nonprofit or an employee-owned enterprise could be created to keep them alive. Search for a buyer wherever you can because jobs are at stake, yes, but also because the very soul of our communities is at risk.
Scour the existing programs that Connecticut, Bristol and New Britain can offer to potential buyers, the sorts of incentives and tax breaks that businesses are routinely allowed in order to create or preserve good jobs here. Find the ones that might matter, the programs that might induce a wary buyer to take the chance. This isn’t charity or a bailout. It’s what Connecticut does for businesses that want to be here rather than somewhere else, or simply gone.
I recognize that in speaking so candidly, I’m sticking my neck out, and everything I’ve seen from the JRC for years makes me wonder if I’ll still be around to collect the pathetic little severance package promised to workers who remain on Jan. 12. But this isn’t about what’s best for me. It’s about saving something integral to the functioning of a large region of our state, not just preserving two daily papers and 11 weeklies that are crucial parts of their communities, but pumping life back into them – and partly through that effort, pumping life back into places that face a dire future without a paper to rally them to greater heights.
The Bristol Press, The Herald in New Britain and these weeklies deserve better than to be struck down by a company that drained them for years and now wants to discard them. With assistance, they can be what they always were: the voice of the people, the conscience of the community, the sounding board for cranks and kingpins, the preserver of our history, the path to our future, the most crucial element of our democracy.
This effort isn’t just about lending a hand to some little papers that are easily overlooked in the mad rush of day-to-day living. It’s about securing a path for the flow of information that government and society depends on. And while the Press, the Herald and the weeklies may be the first targeted for closure, they won’t be the last unless we collectively find a way to keep this valuable gift from our ancestors thriving.
Connecticut, where America’s oldest continually operating newspaper is still pumping out pages, should not now be the spot where American journalism begins to die.
We don’t need a bailout to remain in business. We don’t need the taxpayers’ money. We only need a helping hand and some hard work from the people we pay to do just this for us.
I’m not alone in saying thank you for anything you can do, for the papers, their towns and the people of Connecticut.
Note: There are many stories and links on my Bristol Blog at www.bristoltoday.com that go into many of the issues involved in much greater detail. Here are a few worth noting:
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Contact Steve Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org