Thursday, February 26, 2009

Circling the drain

That would be the Hartford Courant, which had a huge layoff last year and just announced another 100 today. Great reader comments on the article -- some insightful, some poignant, some just insane (where do these foaming-at-the-mouth right-wing nuts live, anyway?). Aside from the loonies, some point to the obvious -- free news from sources including the Courant itself online -- but some also note that earlier budget cuts meant the almost total loss of local news, so they'd already lost a lot of reader support. Ironically, many of the local papers in that area have gone down in flames as well, so the market for local news (where it will come from and who will pay for it) is an open question. Anyway, here's a sampling of my favorite reader reactions along with some editorial comments of my own:

"Can the public vote on who should go?"

Several specific columnists (panty-waist liberals, of course) were requested as layoff targets by other commenters. I can think of some former Courant reporters I used to know, but they're already long gone. (For those in the know, think about who was tickled pink when Absolut came out with a blackberry product.)

"I take no joy in anyone (well, most folks) losing their jobs. That being the case, I have a bottle of champagne I'll pop when this disgusting liberal rag officially goes to the ash heap in which it so richly deserves to rot for eternity."

Um, okay... so when is your rabies booster shot scheduled again?

"Great! Fewer people to watch over the people that run this state. What will our elected officials get away with now that won't be reported on by the Courant? ... Local TV wouldn't know what is going on in the state w/o reading the Courant, Register or CT Post in the morning... If you listen closely during a live shot on the morning news you can hear the sound of paper crinkling as the article the TV reporter is using for their story is flapping in the breeze out-of-site from the camera."

Oh, is that what that sound was? I thought it was the cover slipping off the boom mike.

"It's not long before the Courant will be on the same level as a community newspaper and the only stories you'll see are AP or wire stories or feel-good stories about how a local PTA raised fifty bucks by having a bake sale.

God forbid they should sink to the level of a community newspaper.

"The decision of many newspapers to have free websites will go down in history as one of the worst business blunders of all time. By the time they figured out that people were just reading the news for free in preference to paying for a subscription the genie was out of the bottle and couldn't be put back in."

You got that right.

"Chain ownership is the worst thing to happen to newspapers. When they were owned by local families, they were not leveraged to beat the band."

There may be a grain of truth to that. My father similarly bemoans the advent of megabucks and free agency in baseball, yearning for the days when rich gentlemen owned teams for fun and didn't expect to make much money.

"Too bad, sorry to see you go, but once the Courant eliminated any semblance of local reporting there was no longer a need to keep my subscription. And now that all the coupons are available on-line along with better more timely news, I no longer need to get the paper. Of course if they start charging for the on-line news, I’ll still have our two local papers and CNN/MSNBC and Google News. The Courant, going the way of… what was that paper’s name in Willimantic? Not that it matters."

That would be the Willimantic Chronicle, a small but decent daily my grandparents subscribed to. And lucky you, that you still have a local paper, let alone two.

"Mr. Carver, It's the height of disrespect to your employees, let alone your readers, to suggest that a cut of 30 newsroom employees will not have an impact on your product. I guarantee your newspaper will suffer for the loss of people who have contributed their hearts and souls to the institution and its community. These are the worst of times for journalists. At least have the decency to recognize their contributions instead of parroting some Tribune marketing gibberish."

I don't know a thing about Carver (the Courant's publisher and CEO) but this commenter hit the nail on the head about Carver's obnoxious quote ("I wanted to get us into an environment where we could focus on our readers and advertisers going forward, and focus on growing the business,. We're going to perform at the level we've been performing"). Why the hell do corporate types and politicians lie and spin when, if they had an ounce of brains, they would realize they're fooling absolutely no one and they look a lot stupider than if they just said something approximating the truth? Like for instance, "We wish we didn't have to do this and we regret the loss of coverage this will inevitable cause, but we're just going to have to do the best we can, and we hope our loyal readers will understand the larger forces at work here."

"I've often wondered.... why do we taxpayers need schools of journalism at UConn and other State U's? Those graduates haven't gotten a livable wage job in their majors in decades."

Tell me about it!

"In 1968 I began working in the composing room of a major metropolitan newspaper with 213 other printers. In 2003 I was the last person to leave the composing room. During that time the circulation fell from almost 200,000 to 55,000. The content of the papers have nothing to do with the demise of them; it is purely a revolution in technology and culture. The upcoming generations have never taken to reading, rather they are glued to the mirad of electronic devices available to them 24/7. Very few of which are a reliable source of news. Unfortunately, the journalists who research and write the articles will go and where will the information to keep society in in a semblance of decency come from? Wait until the politicians have no one watching them and reporting to the public their deeds. When the papers are gone who will be the watchdogs of society -- the blogs? Don't make me laugh."

What's the minimum number of "real" journalists (e.g., hired through a competitive process and paid according to their market appeal and/or or recognized ability) you can have and still call the town/state/country a well-informed population?

"This is an organization that has lost its way and its mission. There's barely any locally written reason to buy the Courant any more."

As a capital-city daily, local town beats were the first to go when things got tough. I guess they figured they'd just do state, national and world news. Except the evil web does #2 and #3 a lot faster and more throughly than the Courant could ever do. and apparently their state coverage went down the toilet as well, at least juding by many of these reader comments.

"What an awkward coincidence this layoff announcement is. Ash Wednesday: From dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return. How sadly prophetic for a historical newspaper, the first to print the Declaration of Independence that created a nation that is on now also on the cusp of collapse. I take no joy for the pending demise of the Courant, which has been the first friend I have seen everyday for more than 75 years."

Impeccable timing and tact have always been the hallmark of how enwspapers do busines,s in my experience. I love how at my old paper, the Pictorla Gazette, the editor was working on an issue and was simply and abruptly told not to bother finishing. Boom. But yeah, the Courant did have a decent history and even some long-standing reader loyalty. It's never a happy day when a newspaper goes on life support, even if it was crappy and mismanaged (and the latter applies to most newspapers these days).

"The managers are cutting the reason why people still read papers: for the reporting. Maybe it is time to contract to a three times a week, or two times a week or even weekly basis. Similar to when many dailies had to cut morning and evening editions in the mid to late 70's (long before the internet). Newspapers' demise have been forecast since the advent of radio."

"I subscribe to the WSJ online. I pay for the content because I like it. I'd pay for the Courant online if I liked it too. I used to subscribe, but we just didn't read it everyday. The papers piled up and became a nuisance. Paper is just plain stupid for news. News changes every hour. It's a throw-away before it comes off the press. Maybe the Courant should cancel print altogether (save lots of costs) and become a niche online paper with high-quality local news that people want. They could syndicate their content and get printed in other little local papers in CT that need depth too. In my view, journalists as a professional class are basically idiots; they live by and for information and yet they completely misunderstood how to monitize the Web. It took the 'conservatives' at the Wall Street Journal to figure it out. They are doing just dandy with paid news."

"People will pay for a high quality product. The Courant could stand out with in-depth town-by-town local coverage online."

These last three make sense, I think. Put the Courant as a paper out of its misery. #1: Go online only, or do a weekly print version, maybe. #2: Concentrate on local news. There are now plenty of reputable online sources of national and intenartional news. Gone are the days when big U.S. papers all had foreign bureaus so they could report first-hand. Competition among journalists is always good, but you can't justify that kind of cost these days while you're also covering local news. As they say, write what you know.

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