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TERRY COWGILL

It might sound a little self-indulgent, given my status as a member of the Fourth Estate, but at the end of the year I always surrender to my urge to reassess the condition of the free press in both Connecticut and the United States.

While there have been some positive developments in the effort to stave off complete ruin, the news about the news media itself, especially newspapers here and elsewhere, is mostly discouraging.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, which publishes a depressing but handy “layoff tracker,” there were 3,160 verified newsroom job losses in the U.S. in 2019. The longer-term numbers from organizations like the Pew Research Center are even more sobering. Between 2008 and 2018, newsroom employment dropped by 25 percent. And in 2018, newspaper circulation dropped to its lowest level since 1940. Adding to the distress, most of the losses in jobs and circulation have been in local news. The best estimates are that since 2004, about 2,100 newspapers have gone out of business, resulting in losses of about $35 billion in advertising revenues. About 70 of those newspapers were dailies.

The phenomenon has given rise to some creative terms. Communities without meaningful media coverage are now known as “news deserts.” We’ve seen evidence of it here in Connecticut as well, though the media landscape is perhaps healthier here than in the nation in general.

By my count, there are 18 daily newspapers currently publishing in the state, down considerably from 46 in 1900 but not terrible for a state of our small size. Some are clearly struggling. All are operating with far fewer resources than they had 15 years ago.

It’s difficult to tell how many weekly newspapers are still publishing in Connecticut. I’d estimate the number at between 50 and 60, though the online lists I have seen are outdated and contain obvious omissions.

By far the greatest villain in the decline of newspapers is massive losses in classified advertising — once a cash cow for the industry — to cheap online sites such as Craig’s List.

Also cited is the fact that most papers did not charge for content when they went online in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. That created, or so the logic goes, a culture of entitlement that convinced consumers that all digital information should be free.

I don’t entirely disagree with that assessment but I’d argue that an even larger problem is shoddy corporate ownership. Or as media critic Dan Kennedy has argued, local news “has been murdered by greed.” The worst offender — and one of the first — was the old Journal Register Company, which bought up smaller-market newspapers in the 1990s and early 2000s, stripped them bare, soaked up the remaining profits and either closed or sold them after grabbing the goods. The JRC had several properties in Connecticut, including the flagship New Haven Register.

What was left of the JRC eventually merged with other companies to become Digital First Media, which was later acquired by the secretive hedge fund Alden Capital. Thankfully, Hearst eventually bought DFM’s Connecticut properties, including the Middletown Press and the Torrington Register-Citizen. DFM closed the Middletown Press’s office and Hearst recently closed the Torrington office, while continuing to publish the two products, thus exemplifying another new term: “ghost papers.”

But even as Hearst’s Connecticut acquisitions calmed some nerves among media watchers, there is great alarm to the north at the Hartford Courant. Alden has acquired a 32% stake in Tribune Publishing, sparking a protest among Tribune employees. The hedge fund has a well-deserved reputation for steep cost-cutting and harmful reductions in local news.

Some larger papers such as the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe have been acquired by wealthy people who are concerned about the possible disappearance of those publications and are willing to accept lower profits.

And there is another problem with corporate ownership. The Berkshire Eagle, just up the road from where I work, was acquired from Digital First in 2016 by a group of investors with local ties who wanted to revive the paper and restore its position in the community. But the new owners quickly discovered that it had been an easy decision for advertisers and readers to give up on the paper when it was a poor product, as the Eagle was under DFM. But it was much harder to win them back even when the product dramatically improved.

The problem is especially bad at the hyperlocal level, where lack of scale makes small weekly newspapers unattractive even to third-rate corporate buyers. The Lakeville Journal, my former employer, recently announced that after years of having its wealthy board of directors subsidize its losses, the paper needed to raise enough money to put it on a sustainable path or it would likely have to shut its doors. The award-winning newspaper, founded in 1897, has since launched a successful membership program and told its readers it was pursuing the possibility of becoming nonprofit, though of course that is not exactly a silver bullet to success either.

This brings us back to the original problem identified in this column. What happens if more small- and medium-sized newspapers close and local news all but disappears? Recent studies have shown that an absence of media coverage at all levels correlates with higher government spending and rising taxes. Perhaps worst of all, corruption increases through lack of oversight.

Clearly small- and medium-sized newspapers need to find a new path to success — be that a membership, nonprofit or pay model. Or in the case of CTNewsJunkie and the CT Mirror, an online-only model with a membership component. One easy way to help ensure their survival is to support your local media outlet through paying for content or advertising.

Some of my conservative friends have cheered these developments. They tell me the liberal bias of newspapers has finally caught up with them. Leaving aside how ridiculous that is, do conservatives really want to cheer the disappearance of a watchdog entity that helps control waste, fraud, abuse and corruption? Take it away, Jon Lender and Christine Stuart!

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at thenews@hotmail.com.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

CORRECTION: The original version of this op-ed incorrectly reported that Hearst closed the local offices of both the Middletown Press and the Register Citizen in Torrington. However, DFM had closed the Middletown Press’s local office before the publication was acquired by Hearst.