The Middletown Press, one of only 18 daily newspapers remaining in Connecticut, closed down its print edition and went fully digital this past January in an effort to save costs. This move from print to digital follows a pattern throughout the state and nation. Connecticut is now served by fewer printed newspapers than at any time in the past 50 years. How has this shift impacted the traditional watchdog role played by the press and the public’s right to know what its local government is doing?
These and other issues are explored in a question-and-answer format posed by retired journalists Forrest C. Palmer, George A. Krimsky and Tom Crider:
Q. The health of the newspaper industry has been in unrelentingly decline for the past two decades. What, in brief, is happening?
A. The short answer is that the public has gradually lost its 200-year-old newspaper reading habit in favor of new ways of accessing information and images, with the added benefit of audience participation, or “interactivity.” Newspaper readership in Connecticut, based on circulation figures, has declined by 40 to 50 percent since 1990. At the same time, display and classified advertising, which once accounted for 70 to 75 percent of all newspaper revenue, has been cut in half from $49 billion in 2005 to $25 billion today, as advertisers have found new ways to spend their dollars, mostly on the Internet. The loss has been particularly heavy for the smaller papers, which enjoy less financial flexibility than the large urban dailies, although they, too, have suffered mightily.
Q. It’s easy to lay most of the blame (or credit) on new communications technology, but what about changes in news tastes and reading habits?
A. The popularity of television news certainly diverted some attention away from newspapers after World War II, and a later shift in work patterns greatly affected how Americans spent their free time. As women started joining the workforce in greater numbers, and two incomes became more of a family necessity, there was simply less time to read the paper – especially in the evening. This is why Connecticut’s traditionally dominant afternoon papers either disappeared or merged with morning editions. In addition, consumer surveys began to show that the public wanted less news about government and politics and more human interest stories, celebrity news, and so-called “good news” stories.
Q. Haven’t these changes eroded the longstanding role of the press as a “public trust” that is meant to keep citizens informed about public affairs and to hold democratic government accountable to the voters?
A. Absolutely. Loss of newspaper revenue meant cutbacks in staff, which meant fewer journalists to cover events and issues that had earned the press the role of “watchdog” of government. Connecticut’s largest newspaper, the Hartford Courant, has reduced its news staff from 400 to 135 since 1994. Investigative projects have particularly suffered. But the greatest victim has been grass-roots coverage of community affairs, which has always been the province of the smaller local newspapers. Why? Because those daily and weekly papers have always been the ones with “boots on the ground,” covering everything from the local finance board to the high school football team. The shortfall in coverage has only marginally been made up by the Internet from private news bloggers and municipal websites.
Q. Is there any hard evidence that democracy has suffered as a result?
A. This is a subject of great debate, but the circumstantial evidence is compelling. In Connecticut, for example, 54.6 per cent of the state’s eligible citizens voted in the 1991 municipal elections. A decade later, the turnout for similar elections was 41.3 per cent. The downturn in voter participation has been particularly severe in the cities. How much of this can be attributed to reduced news coverage has not yet been clearly demonstrated. Another example: Only three newspaper companies in the state – The Hartford Courant, the Republican-American in Waterbury and the Hearst organization, which owns four Connecticut papers – assign reporters today to the state capitol during the annual legislative session. A digital company, The CT Mirror, now has the biggest legislative cadre – six reporters. Every newspaper editor has a sad tale about not being able to undertake a potentially significant investigative project because of insufficient staff and resources.
Q. Will the electronic media be able to fulfill the watchdog role once played by the press?
A. Evidence to date makes this seem unlikely. Electronic and digital media are still largely dependent upon the old “legacy” workhorses for the most serious news content. Sustainable business models for digital media coverage, particularly of local government, are still rare. Even the fabled Huffington Post, which gets much of its raw material from others, barely broke even last year. Some of the most successful investigative news sites come from non-profit organizations subsidized by foundations and private donations.
Forrest C. Palmer, a longtime CFOG supporter, spent four decades working at Connecticut newspapers, retiring in 1991 as the publisher of the Danbury News Times.
George A. Krimsky is an author and former journalist who reported from the USSR and the Middle East for the Associated Press before returning to the Waterbury Republican, from which he retired in 2012.
Tom Crider is an author and former journalist who began his career on the Waterbury Republican as a reporter and then editor. He is currently president of the Southbury Land Trust.