TERRY COWGILL
TERRY COWGILL

Few things in America – and Connecticut, for that matter – are sadder than the decline of the newspapers that help us make sense of the places we live in and contribute to the fabric of our communities.

Since 2005, roughly 2,200 local print newspapers in the U.S. have shuttered – over one in five. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit us hard two years ago, 100 more closed as advertising revenues plummeted along with the business climate. Still hundreds more have become “ghost newspapers” – papers that appear to be functioning but in reality have tiny staffs, thin local coverage, no newsroom, and carry mostly shared regional news from outside the immediate area. The phenomenon has given rise to yet another depressing term: “news deserts.”

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 alone. That trend has surely accelerated with the pandemic-era closures.

The main culprit appears to be the loss of classified advertising to cheap online sites such as CraigsList, which Forbes prophetically dubbed the “Newspaper Killer” more than 15 years ago.

Of course, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, along with search-engine titan Google, have not helped matters either, collecting the lion’s share of online advertising revenues, while leaving the scraps to those who do the hard work of reporting reliable news.

And a relatively new feature on Google has caused little white puffs of smoke to come out of my ears. If you type an oft-posed question into Google’s search terms, the answer appears in a sentence or two below the result, meaning that users don’t even have to click on the link to find the answer, further depriving newspapers of monetizable pageviews.

Large newspapers such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe appear to be doing fine. They have the scale to make online journalism work.

One interesting phenomenon has occurred at the Times. With more than 7.5 million paid digital subscribers (including yours truly), income from digital subscriptions now outstrips advertising revenues. This raises a key question about content. Some newspaper sections such as real estate and “style” were published largely because advertisers coveted them as important venues to market their products. If the money comes mostly from the audience, what does that tell us about the future of content at publications like the Times?

It is difficult to say with any degree of certainty how many newspapers have closed in Connecticut and how many jobs have been lost in the industry. Reliable statistics are scarce, but it’s safe to say that the survivors have all undergone a period of retrenchment.

For-profit and nonprofit online-only publications such as CTNewsJunkie, the Connecticut Mirror and the New Haven Independent continue to do well, or at least well enough to continue to provide valuable coverage of state or local government and maintain or expand their niche advertising or underwriting bases. These sites are free to read but they cost plenty to publish, which is why they’ve also launched voluntary paid membership models to support some of their operations. One previously defunct legacy brand, The Hartford Times, has resurfaced but more as an online social-justice vehicle than as a traditional newspaper.

But it’s been an uphill battle for the legacy print newspapers. The paper long regarded as the gold standard in the state, the Hartford Courant, seems to be exhaling its last gasp. But the Courant‘s situation is in some ways worse than it is in Connecticut’s other struggling newspapers, mostly because of the Courant‘s extraordinarily poor ownership.

The oldest continuously published newspaper in America, the Courant has, since 2000, been owned by Tribune Publishing, which was itself acquired last year by Alden Global Capital, the rapacious hedge fund that has a habit of buying newspapers, stripping them down, wringing any remaining profits out of the organization and either closing them or selling them off.

Over the last 10 years or so, the Courant has lost dozens of its most talented journalists, including Dan Haar, Jeff Jacobs, Colin McEnroe, David Owens, Dave Altimari, Daniela Altimari, and Rick Green. Most have migrated to the Mirror or to the rapidly expanding Hearst Connecticut Media Group. Green, who had been at the Courant since 1987, landed at WTNH, the ABC affiliate in New Haven. And the symbolism was hard to ignore when Tribune shut down its presses, outsourced the printing to Springfield, Massachusetts, and closed the Broad Street newsroom at the end of 2020 to “evaluate its real estate needs.”

But yes, that’s right. In the previous paragraph, you heard the name of a print newspaper publisher and the phrase “rapidly expanding” in the same sentence. After acquiring the New Haven Register, the Middletown Press, the Register-Citizen, and several weeklies from Digital First Media in 2017, Hearst announced last week that it was dramatically expanding its coverage into the Hartford area, adding 13 staff positions, including 11 journalists.

The new coverage will be published online at CTInsider.com, which Hearst is branding “Connecticut’s newspaper.” It looks like Hearst, the fourth-largest newspaper owner in the nation, is betting heavily on the Courant‘s demise and the company wants to be ready to pick up the pieces when it happens.

I have conservative friends who naively suggest that newspapers are on the ropes because they’re all biased in favor of the left. But if that’s true, why are the conservative newspapers, like the Republican American in Waterbury, also struggling?

Conservatives should be just as concerned about this trend as people of other political stripes – if not more. 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. To wit, look at what happened in Bell, California, where no one was watching the crooks in the city council who were paying themselves $700,000 a year.

So there is some good news on Connecticut’s media landscape. At least one major player is betting on the state’s news consumers and advertisers to support for-profit journalism. Now, if we could only find a way for smaller papers to survive and prosper …

Terry Cowgill

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

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 or any of the author's other employers.