Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Courant cut to shreds

As reported late in the day on the Courant website (notice the lack of a byline on the story), after an email sent to employees leaked, the Hartford Courant will cut 25% of it's staff and an equal percentage of its news pages as it tries to recover from a huge dip in advertising profits.

It doesn't seem likely that by cutting news the Courant will be able to sell more ads. Maybe we'll see bare tits on page 3, gossip on page 6, and lots of contests!

I've been thinking a lot about the venerable gray lady on Broad Street this week. I've always loved and hated the Courant simultaneously. I've been reading it for 40 years, and when it was the conservative foil to the liberal crosstown afternoon paper, The Hartford Times, where I was a stringer back in 1975 and 1976, the competition made both dailies better.

But evening news on TV killed afternoon papers across the land, the Hartford Times included, in 1976. In fact newspapers have been fending off other media news deliverers since radio began regular broadcasts. In the fifties, TV began taking a big bite, and continued to bite hard. Then came cable, 24-7 news channels, and with another nail for the coffin, the internet.

My generation may be the last that truly loves sitting back with newsprint and inky fingers as we delve as deeply as we please into the news, local, national and international.

That has been changing, and for the print version of the Courant, will change permanently when the "new" Courant debuts in a few months. The new Courant will have less news, more advertising, and national and international stories will be relegated to bullets on the last page of the front section.

The Courant has experimented with handing reporters and photographers video cameras, and laptops with Final Cut, to create video stories, but these video stories have gotten few hits. Leading with video ads. people clicked away to other sites in droves. One source says that still photo essays were far more popular than video on the Courant website. Proving that readers of news want quality and depth, still.

The Courant will re-design its print edition to death. And though the woes of newspapers can be laid most directly in the laps of the giant media corporations who gobbled up local newspapers, the blame will be carried by the reporters who are laid off, and by the reporters who are left behind to follow two and three times the assignments they had previously carried. The web version of the Courant will not save it - the Courant, depending for hits on obscene, hateful commentary by demented readers, and not ever having figured out how to charge the obscene advertising rates they charge for the print version. iTown, indeed. You want me to write your news, and then pay for it? Not likely.

This week one of my favorite Courant writers, Susan Campbell, was recognized by her peers in the National Society of Newspaper columnists (I hope New Orleans was fun as you celebrated, Susan), as the top columnist in the country this year. It's writers like Campbell, and Condon, and Lender and Catlin and Green and Gombosy who will save the paper. Writers and reporters who know how to find, research and shape a story until it's something that grips you from the get-go.

Also this week, I've had close contact with a few journalists for the Courant who are working on a story for which my filmmaking company is the focus. One of the journalists is a beginner, an intern (I understand that the Courant gets some of the best interns in the country), the other is a veteran. The intern is smart, and sharp as a razor, asking insightful questions, and digging to find her answers. The veteran carries the wisdom of his decades. Both love what they are doing. Both are wondering what will become of their beloved industry.

I've spoken to a handful of Courant reporters over the past few weeks as the rumors of layoffs filtered through the newsroom, and over pints of beer. Morale has been as low as some longtime employees have ever seen. When one grizzled editor heard one of the most determinedly optimistic employees mutter, "I'm worried," he looked back and said, "We're fucked."

The news today confirmed the worries.

And when the reporters skitter off to jobs at universities, publishing houses, and public relations firms, and the newspaper shrinks and shrinks, we're all fucked, because democracy rests on a vigilant, intelligent, responsible press. And when it's gone, those who cower in the shadows to do their nasty deeds (and that means everyone from grifters to political hacks), will step into the light and wreak havoc with impunity.

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