Sunday, June 29, 2008

The amazing shrinking Courant

I don't envy The Hartford Courant's managing editor, Barbara Roessner. As the architect of the "new" Hartford Courant, she is, and will be, the target of scorn from readers and reporters alike. If Roessner pulls off the transformation of the Courant, she will be acclaimed a genius, but the odds are against her. Those who do feel that if anyone has a chance, Roessner, who is reportedly smart, tough, shrewd and creative, likely does.

In her column today about the changes to come, Roessner explains the uphill battle she faces, with a sense of humor, and a sense of what's possible given the resources she'll have at her disposal. In addition, she's sizing up her options, considering an alternative career as a Vermont bartender if the Courant thing doesn't work out. By the way Barbara, it'll be the rare bar in Vermont where you'll be asked to mix a Goombay Smash.

On the positive side, the folks at the Courant likely understand that there will not be an immediate mass exodus of readers since the paper is still considered a daily must by thousands of readers across the state, as the states's paper of record. Still, as the Courant realizes, readership of the print edition continues to shrink. What they need to consider as well, is the fate of The New Haven Register, and it's associated papers, all of which were well-read until a corporate right-sizing reshaped those papers into rags that readers walked away from in droves. On the other hand, the Courant should consider successful independent dailies like Manchester's Journal Inquirer, which has maintained its readership by providing local news and insightful state reporting.

As a longtime reader, I can't say I'm thrilled with some of the other projections of what will happen at the paper.

Right now, the first section, the A section of the paper is the most read piece. The Courant plans to reshape that section, but it's time to ask the question "if it ain't broken, why fix it?" By ridding the section of national and international news the Courant seems to be pandering to a dumbed-down audience, when, in fact, the people who are currently reading are not of the "dumbed-down" variety. The people who are not reading the paper may fit that definition, but it's unlikely that the Courant is going to convince the non-reader to suddenly pick up a paper.

What will happen, of course, is that the Courant will be sending us elsewhere - the New York Times, for example - to read national and international stories. How does it help the Courant to send readers like me elsewhere?

Elsewhere in section A, we'll find the stories which formerly appeared in the "Connecticut" section. As a born skeptic, it leads me to surmise that I'll find more stories in that section about towns which I don't care to read about, and less stories about the town in which I live.

Business news will also move into the A section, though I understand that the Courant will abandon its print version of stock prices and sports scores. It's an old axiom, I know, but it's been said that people pick up a paper for the obituaries and the sports scores. Sure, the online scores, and stock reports, are more current (no pun intended), but the Courant seems to be cutting off its nose, etc.

Another new element of the paper will be shorter stories, more "bulleted" stories, and more charts, grafts and statistics, which will replace full-length stories. For the Courant's information, I come to newspapers for depth. I hate USA Today for it's lack of depth. If I want headlines, and soundbites, I'll turn on the local radio news, or God forbid, the local TV news. Again, the Courant seems to be turning its back on its core readership to try to seduce the non-reader, who, I hate to say, will never darken the door of an honor box.

As for iTowns, the pitful weekly review of town stories (what person, who hasn't read the original story, actually will want to read the encapsulated version, and what person who has already read the original, gives a shit that it's printed again), I say ditch it. As I wrote a few days ago, you want me to write the news and then pay to read it? Not likely.

The Courant's predicament is, unfortunately, a direct result of the Sam Zell deal. He was allowed to broker the future health of the paper (and don't be misled, without the debt saddling the Courant because of the deal, the paper could make millions every year), for his own benefit. I think Zell should have stuck to real estate, then again, there ain't much money to be made there these days.

The Courant cannot afford to continue to shed its best, and only asset, it's knowledgeable, experienced writers, editors and photographers, and expect to keep readers who understand the value of a newspaper.

I'm with Colin McEnroe. I think the best writers and editors should take the early retirement package and severance and start an online state news website that will give the "new" Courant a run for its money.

Good luck Barbara, but rest assured, a shot and a beer are easy to serve up.

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