Monday, March 30, 2009

Sorry, Winston, it is the beginning of the end

Winston Churchill, marking a 1942 victory in Africa against the Germans, said "Now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

I've always liked that quote. It was inspiring and forward-looking: optimism from one of the great leaders and inspirers of our age.

But it is not for now. After reading that the Hartford Courant's publisher has been given his walking papers and replaced with the general-manager of Tribune's television stations, I knew this was the beginning of the end for real newspaper journalism in Connecticut. 

The two stations, WTXX and WTIC-TV, will have studios in the Courant building. The press release accompanying the New Haven Independent story on the move, crows about "creating the largest print/broadcasting news-gathering operation in Connecticut." 

"This is the future of media," said Randy Michaels, Tribune's chief operating officer. "Whether in print, over the air, or online -- the delivery mechanism isn't as important as the unique, rich nature of the content provided."

Michaels would have you believe this is innovation at its zenith, new, different, forward-looking. Nah. Gannett has been doing this for years in Westchester, with its (lower Hudson Valley - get it?), which started out with a WCBS-TV studio in the Journal-News building and now has a TV camera in the newsroom and a strong Web site, along with a daily newspaper and video updates at scheduled times during the day.

Gannett has figured out that if you put a story uncovered by one of your reporters on line or on television before it is printed in your newspaper, you haven't scooped yourself. I don't think the New Haven Register has figured that out yet. 

Paul Bass, in his Independent story, asks if this move by the Courant is a strategy to save money or to increase the coverage of the state and the region by the Tribune entity. 

It may be both. The Journal-News' newsroom has a lot of empty desks, and those still working there have been asked to do a lot more with a lot fewer bodies -- editing both the paper and the Web site, which is constantly updated.  When you do that, quality has to suffer. I don't care how good you are, quality has to suffer when fewer people are asked to do a lot more. 

Look at today's New York Times. On the front, eight people died in that nursing home tragedy. On the index page, it's six. The story says eight. Years ago, that almost never happened. Now, it's routine.

The Tribune release says the delivery system isn't as important as the news itself. When you are talking about news in papers and on the 'Net, that's right. Television is a whole other thing.

Stories for television are reported and written differently from those in print, whether that print is on paper or Internet. Photos, maps and other graphics are important to newspaper stories; photos, graphics and videos complement Internet-based stories such as those in the Independent. But the written word still conveys the story. Words can create images in readers' minds that photos and graphics cannot. They convey the facts.  

Television is different. In television, the picture is king. Stories are produced differently, reported differently and certainly written differently. There is no 13-second sound bite in newspapers. 

It's just different. So how does a guy who managed a television station run a newspaper? True, most newspaper publishers come from the business side of the business. But they understand newspaper ads, newspaper budgets, newspaper problems. Can this television guy understand the Courant and its problems and, more importantly, its potentials? 

I worked in news in Connecticut for nearly 30 years. I worked in the Hartford-New Haven corridor for most of it. No matter where you were, you compared yourself to the Hartford Courant. It was always the 800-pound guerrilla, whether you liked it or not. 

Were Bob Conrad and Bill Ryan of the Hartford Times better than anyone the Courant had at the state Capitol? Sure, but the overall package at the Courant was better. They had a dozen people to throw at a story, when the Times or the New Haven Register had maybe two. They had the money, the resources. No more.

I hope this works out at the Courant. Connecticut needs at least one strong daily newspaper.

Hearst has newspapers in Fairfield County, but Fairfield County thinks it's New York. Papers in New Haven and Torrington and Middletown are part of the bankrupt Journal-Register. Papers in New London, Norwalk, Waterbury, Rockville-Manchester, Windham and Meriden are independents somehow hanging on. Whether the businessman who bought papers in Bristol and New Britain from Journal-Register can succeed is still way up in the air. 

I think sites like the Independent are the future of print journalism in Connecticut. I'm not saying that because I do work for it. I'm saying that because I don't think this experiment in Hartford will work.

As Tevya said in "Fiddler on the Roof," a fish may fall in love with a bird, but where would they live? I think there is a fish falling in love with a bird in Hartford. And I think that match is the beginning of the end for newspapers in Connecticut.

I hope I'm wrong. As God is my judge, I hope I'm wrong. But I don't think I am.

Until next time...

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