With Journalism Faltering, Courant Prepares for Sale

America’s oldest continuously published newspaper is now the country’s newest paper without an office of its own. The Hartford Courant announced last week that it is terminating its lease on the building it has occupied for 70 years just across Broad Street from the state Capitol, the building from which the paper once dominated the news of state government and all Connecticut.

The Courant’s employees will keep working from home, as many journalists have been doing during the virus epidemic. The Courant already had arranged to shutter its press and have its printing done by the Springfield Republican in Massachusetts, where many other Connecticut papers (including the Journal Inquirer) now are printed.

So while disconcerting, the working from home and the press outsourcing aren’t new. Technology long has made them possible and sometimes more efficient. But since the virus epidemic will end eventually, or at least government will realize that destroying the economy is no way to protect the frail elderly, what’s new here is that the Courant brazenly has left unanswered whether it ever again will have a place of business in Hartford or nearby.

This implies that the newspaper, part of the Tribune chain, is preparing for a change of ownership. There long has been turmoil among the chain’s biggest shareholders — rich guys and investment houses — and there has been much speculation that its papers may be for sale as a group or individually.

The Courant no longer has use for the large space taken by its press, and with everything computerized — not just news reporting but also advertising design and page creation — much newspaper work fairly can be done remotely, though the loss of newsrooms impairs formulation and execution of news coverage. Without a lease for excess real estate, the Courant’s balance sheet will look better to a buyer, and a buyer will have complete flexibility in choosing another headquarters.

But will a buyer want to pay Hartford’s outrageous property taxes any more than WFSB-TV3 did when it moved from Constitution Plaza downtown to Rocky Hill in 2007?

The Courant’s abandonment of its headquarters has renewed controversy over chain ownership of newspapers. Respectable opinion at the moment is that local ownership is better because of its superior commitment to place. The reporters union at the Courant already had appealed for local angels to buy the paper, and last week’s announcement prompted U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal to endorse new ownership, while U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy denounced “private equity firms and billionaires” and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin chided “hedge funds.”

Yet local ownership also can be corrupt and self-serving, while chain ownership can increase a newspaper’s resources, as Hearst’s acquisition of eight Connecticut dailies has done.

As for those awful billionaires, none of those right thinkers is complaining about Amazon owner Jeff Bezos’ operation of the Washington Post or pharmaceuticals magnate Patrick Soon-Shiong’s rescue of the Los Angeles Times.

And ironically, while Courant employees resent the loss of their building, in heading for the big city and chain ownership some of them left papers that are keeping their local offices and aren’t run by hedge funds.

What the right thinkers seem to want is a rich guy willing to lose a lot of money with the Courant until someone figures out how to make regional and local newspapers profitable in the era of the internet, civic disengagement, social disintegration, burgeoning illiteracy, declining demographics, and an advertising-destroying epidemic.

The Courant is a shadow of what it was even a few years ago. Its circulation has fallen sharply, its staff has been slashed, and most of its local coverage, the most expensive part of journalism, has disappeared. But of course this is common to the industry. Traditional journalism — state and local government and community coverage — has become unprofitable, and not because of the internet, which, while competing for people’s time, seldom provides such journalism and, when it does, functions on charity, which is hardly a business plan.

No, people increasingly are just losing interest in their geographic community’s public life. Journalism about it may remain vital, but to get a better public life you need a better public.

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Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.

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