OP-ED | Media Watch: What Will Become of The Courant?
Everyone, it seems, loves to hate corporations — unless you’re fortunate enough to have a really good job at one, or you love one of their products. Apple fans can tell you all about that.
But it seems there are few exceptions to the I-hate-corporations rule when it comes to newspapers. Corporate owners of newspapers are widely viewed — sometimes unfairly — as distant masters who value profits over excellence and whose connections with the communities they serve is tenuous at best. And for the most part, that sentiment is correct. All things being equal, local ownership is best.
Gannett, the largest newspaper company in the nation as measured by daily circulation, has made what amounts to a hostile takeover attempt of Tribune Publishing, which owns Connecticut’s oldest and largest newspaper, The Hartford Courant.
While it’s not clear what kind of impact a Gannett takeover of Tribune would have on the Courant, it might be a moot point. All indications are that Tribune is using the equivalent of parliamentary financial maneuvers to stave off the takeover. Gannett, whose motto is “It’s all within reach,” may find Tribune will elude its grasp.
If, as now seems likely, the takeover is thwarted and Tribune continues its reign over the Courant, it’s not clear whether the nation’s oldest continuously published newspaper will be better off. Gannett seems to be the better run company. As a brilliant New York Times exposé by the late great David Carr made clear, as recently as 2010, Tribune was a company run by a bunch of incompetent pigs who laid off workers and cut budgets, while lavishing bonuses on senior executives. Amazingly, the man who would later be named Tribune’s CEO reportedly thought it would be amusing to offer a barmaid $100 to show him her breasts.
The new Tribune chairman had a successful first career but does not inspire much confidence in the content sector. Michael W. Ferro Jr., a well-connected tech entrepreneur who has no journalism experience, promptly appointed a bunch of his cronies to the board and changed the name of the company to “tronc.” That’s right, the talented journalists at the Courant now work for tronc, an all-lower-case acronym which stands for TRIBUNE ONLINE CONTENT.
Even worse, a poorly written press release tronc sent out announcing its rebranding said very little about content. Instead, we learned that tronc, in Ferro’s words, “is focused on leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the user experience and better monetize our world-class content . . . [and] drive value for all of our stakeholders.” What does that mean? Do they think technology will replace reporters and editors?
I really do think The Courant would have been better off under Gannett, most of whose leadership does at least value good journalism. But better yet, what if a group of well connected people in the state marshalled their resources to rescue the Courant from its corporate clutches?
The Courant thrived under local ownership until 1979 when it was bought by Times Mirror, the parent company of the Los Angeles Times, and later acquired by Tribune in 2000. Under local ownership, The Courant not only had a first-rate newsroom but embraced an employee-first culture that gave its workers a stake in the company through sales of common stock.
For a thorough accounting of the turn for the worse the Courant took under Times Mirror, take a look at Andrew Kreig’s book, Spiked: How Chain Management Corrupted America’s Oldest Newspaper. It paints an unsavory picture of duplicity, a refusal to publish investigative reporting, deference to the powerful, and hush money paid to reporters.
No, a return to local ownership would benefit not only The Courant but all of its workers and readers. Just up the road in the Berkshires, there is a recent example. The Berkshire Eagle and three smaller papers in Vermont were recently sold by Digital First Media to a distinguished group of investors who either live locally or have part-time homes in the area. They have pledged to reinvigorate The Eagle and strengthen its commitment to quality journalism. The community leaders and Eagle journalists gathered at the announcement of the sale looked like they could barely conceal their glee.
Ten years ago the family of Connecticut communications magnate David Chase, who died only last week, was interested in acquiring The Courant, but the idea eventually fizzled.
One thing appears certain. Connecticut’s only statewide newspaper — the one that’s been continuously published since 1764 — will soon have a different owner. Corporations do offer more resources but distant owners can be a lot like absentee landlords. As former Courant columnist Susan Campbell wrote over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2007:
“I hold out hope that local ownership is a big part of the answer to the malaise that affects American newspapers. I am thankful that I work for a corporation that gave me a good dental plan, but I am willing to trade my teeth for a (local) owner who gets it.”
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