The ever-evolving news media landscape has reached a crossroads — both nationwide and in Connecticut.
Digital First Media, which counts three daily papers in Connecticut among its holdings, announced last week that the failure of Thunderdome, an innovative platform to provide content to DFM’s 75 daily newspapers, has failed to live up to expectations and will soon be on the chopping block.
It’s a blow to the evolving model of local journalism on a par with the recent firesale of Patch. But unlike the online-only Patch, DFM is still saddled with legacy printing costs.
Moreover, the move is widely assumed to signal that since DFM’s hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital, is growing impatient with DFM’s struggle to provide a sufficient return on investment, a sale of the company’s newspapers will soon take place.
And of course, the Hartford Courant’s parent company, the formerly bankrupt and still-troubled Tribune Corporation, announced last year that, in a desire to focus on its profitable TV division, it would spin off its newspapers into a separate company in advance of a likely sale of those assets. The sale would have the ironic effect of forcing the Courant to pay rent on the Broad Street building it has owned since the 1950s and which it currently shares with Fox-CT, which also is owned by Tribune.
The problem with newspapers has remained the same since the digital revolution. Advertising revenue has plummeted. Along with print audience declines, the migration of classified ads to cheap digital alternatives like Craig’s List has been a devastating blow to newspapers. Adding to the litany of woes, there are growing calls — in Connecticut and elsewhere — for states to stop requiring that legal notices be published in newspapers.
Annual print advertising revenue losses in most papers are still in the high-single percentage points. And digital revenues, while growing, simply do not generate nearly enough cash to cover the losses.
As its name suggests, DFM’s goal under new CEO John Paton has been to put digital newspaper content front-and-center because it’s only a matter of time before the oldsters currently reading print die off. Advertisers, however, remain unconvinced of the efficacy of web ads, so rates are far lower than in print. That makes paying a skilled newsroom staff rather difficult.
So what would a change in ownership mean for DFM’s Connecticut group? Of, course, it depends on who the new owner of the Register Citizen, Middletown Press and New Haven Register is.
Disclosure: through a content-sharing agreement with CT News Junkie, this column appears weekly in the print editions of the Middletown Press and the Register Citizen.
If and when the new bosses take over, it would behoove them to keep some of the same people they have now. Matt DeRienzo, DFM’s Connecticut group editor, has shown remarkable leadership in guiding his papers through this phase.
In addition to reviving the papers’ tattered reputation from the dark days of their abuse at the hands of the old Journal Register Company, DeRienzo is a much-sought-after radio and TV commentator who has increased DFM’s visibility.
His reporters have broken some important stories, such as the revelation that 5th District congressional candidate Mark Greenberg was in 2012 offered the same shady campaign consulting deal by former Gov. John G. Rowland that Rowland later allegedly obtained from fellow Republican Lisa Wilson-Foley. Wilson-Foley and her husband recently pleaded guilty to federal election law crimes, and Rowland was indicted in connection with those plea deals on Thursday. Rowland’s offer to Greenberg established a pattern of behavior that could be invaluable to federal prosecutors in their prosecution of the felonious ex-governor.
As for the Courant, I am told by people who work there that it is still profitable, and there remain some outstanding journalists among its thinning ranks. But the paper’s newsroom has been decimated over the years by multiple rounds of layoffs. Its best hope lies in the possibility, floated by concerned readers, that in-state-investors might restore local ownership to the nation’s oldest continuously published newspaper, lest it be bought by the infamous Koch brothers.
But even local owners will face the same kinds of pressures that confront other publishers. They’ll still need reporters to write stories and a sales staff that can peddle ads to meet the payroll. There will be trees to cut down, newsprint to buy, presses to run and trucks to move the product. Oh, and one minor detail — there will still be those pesky investors to satisfy.