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Courant Guild and Supporters Make Last Stand against Alden Sale…

Former Hartford Courant building

Vestiges. (WMP&I)

HARTFORD—The signs of Connecticut’s largest paper still linger around downtown side streets within view of the State Capitol. The name is everywhere. Lights flash on idled shipping docks. Signs denote parking for Hartford Courant employees though nobody from the paper works at the Broad Street building anymore. Staff are indefinitely remote even as the coronavirus flags. The paper is printed in Springfield. But on Saturday, Courant staff rallied here against the greatest threat yet.

This Friday Tribune Publishing, the Courant’s parent company, will vote on Alden Global Capital bid to purchase the company. Tribune employees nationwide rallied this weekend to raise aware of the sale. The Courant Guild organized the Save Local News rally, which drew current staff, alums and even politicians who declared the paper an invaluable state and local asset.

“The first thing is to just send a message to those shareholders that they need to reject Alden. That’s the most important thing,” said Alex Putterman, a Courant reporter active in the Guild.

“And then additionally, we just want to increase awareness in our own community of what the Courant is up against, and how it affects them, and what happens to a community if a local newspaper goes away,” he continued.

The troubles echo those of the Daily Hampshire Gazette up I-91 in Northampton. The Gazette newsroom has deflated while printing now occurs near Worcester. Rumors abound, but so far no dubious buyer has reached for the Gazette as Alden has for the Courant and its sibling papers.

Despite clothing itself in the garb of a savior, Alden is notorious for sacrificing journalism via layoffs and cutbacks while still reaping profits.

Tribune papers like the Courant have already endured painfully lean times. A bankruptcy a decade ago battered the papers amid an industrywide shift that undermined the economics of print journalism.

Courant staffers past and present were realistic about these trends, even while lamenting the paper’s decline from a 400-person newsroom to roughly 50 now. However, they also emphasized the paper remains profitable.

“A misconception is that the Courant is in some desperate financial straits. It’s just not the case. As far as we know, we have been profitable,” Putterman said.

Rather than let that profit go into Alden pockets, Guild members said it should be reinvested in the newsroom. That, in turn, will drive more subscription, readership and, ultimately, revenue.

The Courant is widely considered the longest continuously published newspaper in the United States dating to 1764. Multiple speakers described how the paper covered historic events like the Civil War. For decades, reporters have cultivated beats and worked them to inform the community and own stories when something big breaks.

David Owens, a former Courant reporter who left last August, said current and past owners were indifferent to the paper’s decline. Indeed, the Guild has pressed for local ownership since well before Alden’s latest bid.

“All they care about is sucking every bit of value out of the institution and just tossing it aside when they’re done,” he said.

“There are things we just don’t cover,” Owens continued. “I mean, there’s there were about 100 people covering the communities of Connecticut when I was hired [in 1994]. There’s three reporters doing that today.”

Christine Dempsey, a breaking news reporter, told the crowd she started in the Courant’s long-gone Manchester bureau.

Speaking to WMP&I, she said in the 90’s, every town had a reporter assigned to them. She covered East Hartford and Manchester. Competition to get on the front page was fierce.

“It was like a small newsroom,” she said of Manchester’s bureau. “And it was it was great, diverse group of people, really smart people.” Working up to the “mothership”—now the closed Broad Street building—was hitting the bigs.

The Courant’s former Broad Street entrance, once an aspiration now a memory. (via Google Street View)

As cuts continued and job security seemingly withered, Courant staffers organized with the NewsGuild in 2018. Although the union and management have not agreed to a contract, Putterman said they were able bargain over pandemic-related cuts, blunting the impact.

Connecticut AFL-CIO President Sal Luciano offered a full-throated defense of local journalism and its role in bringing backroom deals to light. He condemned Tribune’s treatment of the Courant and what Alden could do next. In short order, there would be nothing to cut “before you start amputating.”

“They don’t give a damn about the community,” he inveighed.

Last fall, Tribune closed the Courant’s presses and farmed out printing to The Republican in Springfield. Weeks later, Tribune disposed of the physical newsroom as the Courant vacated the building entirely. Reporters had been working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the permanent loss of a working space stung.

Pointing to a bank of windows overlooking the parking lot where Guild members had rallied, Owens said a physical working space was vital for a newspaper.

“It’s where young reporters can go ask an older reporter or more experienced reporter for help,” he said. “People start talking about stories. Have you thought about this? Have you talked to this person? Oh, I didn’t think of that.”

A spokesperson for Tribune did not respond to a request for comment. Alden could not be reached for comment.

When it closed the newsroom in December, Tribune attributed the move to public health and economic uncertainty due to the pandemic.

However much scrutiny can be irksome, the politicians agreed the loss of coverage carried a greater cost. Alongside Courant staff and labor officials, pols from every layer of government spoke at the rally.

Save the Courant rally May 2021

Politicians say the hassle of press scrutiny is worth it. What an idea! (WMP&I)

Hartford Councilwoman Marilyn Rossetti called Alden the killer of newspapers. Mayor Luke Bronin admitted that he did not always like what the paper printed, but Courant reporters care about truth and integrity in the community. As many as five once covered various city beats. Today, only one reporter covers Hartford specifically.

Earlier this year State Senator Matt Lesser introduced a bill that would allow suits against the Courant and/or its owner, if either tried to “loot” the paper. Such a law would almost certainly face legal challenges. Yet, the idea is plausible because the Courant operates under a charter the state granted in the 19th century.

At the rally, Lesser made clear he did not care what it printed about him or any other politician. It was about the convening force a newspaper provides.

“There is nothing more vital to a community than a newspaper,” he said.

US Senator Richard Blumenthal argued that democracy was on the line. However, he, too, leaned into the impact on communities. Alluding to studies finding greater public trust in local outlets, even across partisan identities, he said the Courant’s survival was crucial for Connecticut.

“We need local news now more than ever,” Blumenthal said.

Still, Alden may be the only bidder. That reality was on Guild members’ minds.

“Our message,” Putterman said, “is just vote no, because Alden is bad news.”

Maryland hotel magnate Stewart Bainum has been trying to outbid Alden after his own efforts to buy the Baltimore Sun hit a snag. However, the deep pockets that once expressed interest in the company’s Chicago namesake backed out. Civic-minded individuals in other Tribune cities exist, but nobody new from the Windy City has stepped up.

If Bainum succeeded—or if Alden agreed to part with the it—Guild members think a local buyer for the Courant would appear.

“What I can say about that is that we are confident that if there is a willing seller, who is willing to sell the Courant at an appropriate price, that people in the Hartford community will step up and make that happen,” Putterman added.

So we’ll march day & night, near the capitol tower, they sold the plant, but we have the power [of the press]. (WMP&I)

He and others also believe the Courant could thrive with civic-minded ownership. There are national efforts to help news outlets.

In an interview, Senator Blumenthal said legislation pending before Congress could require Facebook and Google to share ad revenue with media the tech giants appropriate.

“I’m prepared to consider supporting required compensation from Big Tech, but it ought to be accompanied by protection for reporters and newspapers,” he said.

Another avenue is nonprofit status. Were Bainum successful, Tribune’s papers would likely move to nonprofit ownership like The Philadelphia Inquirer or Tampa Bay Times. That could open up access to funding, not unlike public radio and television. Those both fundraise and receive money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

“As long as the independence of those organizations is preserved and protected,” Blumenthal said of government support. “It’s essential that government funding in no way compromise the independence of journalism, no matter what the form, whether it’s nonprofit or otherwise.”

As Courant staff look ahead to Friday’s vote, they contemplated the unwritten stories. Like her colleagues, Dempsey does not expect the paper to return to the flush days of decades past. Still, constant cuts have left less and less coverage, especially of government.

Printing in Springfield pushes up deadline. What meetings reporters can cover may not make timely editions of the paper. Key to newspapers’ survival is quality, relevant content.

“We had two layers of editors,” she said. Nowadays, “we’re lucky if we have one editor.”

Sometimes, she said, readers email in and fill that gap.