By Ken Krayeske • 10:00 AM EST
The Cover of the Jan. 2003 Echoes from the Streets youth newspaper: hard hitting first person journalism from teen moms, about their predicaments. To view a full size .pdf of the cover, click here.
Before I write about the fall of the New Britain Herald and the Bristol Press, I must fully disclose that I worked as a freelancer for the Herald in 1997, and worked full-time for its sister paper, the Register-Citizen in Torrington, CT for a year from mid-1997 to mid-1998.
When I left the Register, I filed a complaint for unpaid overtime with the federal Department of Labor (because the state D.O.L. promised to take three years to deal with the complaint, while the feds said they could do it in 18 months). We won the lawsuit against the Register.
Reporters and photographers, including me, got thousands in backpay, and this prompted a number of other overtime-recovery suits against papers owned by the parent Journal Register Company, whose policy it was to violate federal wage and hour laws.
That being said, the fall of the Herald and the Press are easy to understand. The JRC, like its peers, abused the First Amendment as a profit center, paying reporters practically poverty wages. Reporters used the papers for a year or less to get better jobs. Without a stable newsgathering staff, the papers could not sustain connections to the communities.
JRC execs were greedy, overextending debt, and buying more properties than it could manage, a direct result of the Reagan-Clinton policies of relaxing rules on media ownership.
By 2000, JRC had colonized a significant number of Connecticut media properties, among them the New Haven Register, the Middletown Press, Connecticut Magazine, the Litchfield County Times, the Imprint weeklies in the Farmington Valley, the Shoreline Weeklies and the previously mentioned dailies.
Instead of quality journalism and dealing with the internet revolution, the company focused on an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange and making money for out-of-state owners. Today, the stock is worth pennies, if that. Thus, last week, the JRC announced plans to close the Herald, the Press and the Imprint and the Shoreline weeklies.
Even with the horrible editorial job the JRC passed onto the community, and I can’t say I’m sad to see them go. This closure represents a travesty for democracy and the marketplace of ideas. In the wake of this, others have proposed turning these papers into non-profits.
With my distaste for the 501(c)3 section of the IRS code, I do not believe that the papers can survive solely as privately-run non-profits. It takes a special group of people to make something like the St. Petersburg Times and its owner, the Poynter Institute, survive as a non-profit (starting with a positive bottom line, a visionary owner and a stable media landscape).
The New London Day, run as a non-profit, is having its own financial difficulties, laying off staff, cutting back expenses. In this economic climate to create expense-heavy, donation driven enterprise is suicide.
The key is to not take a failing business model that refused to innovate and turn it into something that will only be a burden. The innovations in the news industry are happening online. Witness the New York Times story earlier this week about websites like the New Haven Independent cropping up across the country.
Yet I don’t think that the New Haven Independent model will work in Bristol and New Britain for a number of reasons, aside from the size of the cities they cover. And, aside from the fact that print is still an important component of news delivery. Perhaps I am wrong, but I see a different vision.
To maintain the community services provided by the Herald and the Press, I propose that the state bring together a number of educational, literacy, media and technology partners – both public and private – to create a media academy within the shell of the old New Britain Herald and Bristol Press.
I have some experience with establishing youth media education programs. Bear with me if you have heard this story before, but it is important to the concept of what I propose we do with these failing dailies.
In 2001, I helped start what became a nationally recognized job training newspaper called Echoes from the Streets. It featured partnerships between the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, the federal Department of Labor and private enterprises, including Northland Investments, Trinity College, and the Hartford Courant.
During the next few weeks, I will be putting digital versions of some editions of Echoes online. In its heyday, we served more than 20 youth a day in an after-school entrepreneurial program.
Echoes’ students received a small stipend for participating, but they often told me they learned more in our small newsroom in the Hartford Civic Center mall than in school. Many of these students we educated have gone on to college.
I am proud of the successes we achieved, but I understand that with the closure ofEchoes in 2007, more remains to be done. I also know this because I can type names from old Echoes’ staff rosters into the Department of Correction website and find former writers doing 10 and 15 year bids. Or worse.
While depressing, based on statistical evidence, I understand that those children need to have been helped in kindergarten, or even before that, which is why we need to fully fund prenatal care, universal preschool, (Head Start?), and reduce class sizes in elementary school.
That would prepare youth for their entrance into more rigorous high schools, like what I envision for the Herald and the Press: a larger version of Echoes that can be established employing not just a print component, but a web-based component, featuring video, too.
Basically, this is taking the best of the New Haven Independent and combining it with the academic features of dead tree media, to create a vibrant experiential educational opportunity. To reduce the cost of paper, we should implement a goal of a 99 percent statewide newsprint recycling rate, and examine annual crops (kudzu, hemp, bamboo) which can provide pulp to make paper (and jobs).
While the Herald and the Bristol Press sold their actual printing presses, the project should look to find another press. A press is a license to print money. Presses can generate revenue alongside the advertising income generated by young salespeople working with veteran instructors. The niche value of a paper as an educational tool could attract advertisers and subscribers that a normal paper could not.
Youth journalists from high school, community colleges and local universities could provide a well-needed boost to civic reporting, while developing critical thinking and entrepreneurial skills.
Imagining this institution as a daily immediately stretches credibility, but within a five-year ramp-up period, it is feasible that central Connecticut could support a small 8-page afternoon daily. Instantly, though, imagine start an online daily with a weekly print supplement.
The need for information in a democracy never subsides. While the internet will continue to serve national and international news needs, there is and will remain a demand for small, local papers to serve community interests for the considerable future.
See it as a place where media professionals mentors work alongside youth mentees to create a vibrant contribution to the marketplace of ideas, and the local economy. I am under no illusions that this would be an easy row to hoe, and that it would take a year or two of solid planning to initiate.
It is highly unlikely that Gov. M. Jodi Rell would kick in $10 million ala Cabela’s (which I will write about soon enough) to make this happen. But that is what we need – a state bailout for the news industry (already fantasized by Andy Bromage).
State support would allow us leeway to reshape media civically, in a way that serves the community and pedagogical interests, not private, for-profit demands. Eminent domain could help shape this policy.
I invite you to take a momentary effort to believe in this dream, and consider it significant not just to me, but to students and professionals who would work there in the future. Our state faces many challenges in the future. We can all agree we must embrace creative solutions to overcome budget problems and provide critical services to youth in urban environments.