Employees of Connecticut’s largest newspaper, the Hartford Courant, cleaned out their desks the other day as the newspaper left the building at 285 Broad St. where it had operated for 70 years. It was well reported that the newspaper will continue publishing as its employees work from home, as they have done since March; that the Springfield Republican will do the printing; and that the Courant doesn’t know if it will have an office again.
But why the newspaper gave up its offices has not been well reported, and it is not just because of the virus epidemic. It’s also because of internal sabotage that carries a warning about ownership of news organizations generally.
From its founding in 1764 and for more than two centuries afterward, the Courant had local ownership. But in 1979 the stockholders sold the paper to the Times Mirror chain, which had arisen from the Los Angeles Times. In 2000 the Tribune chain, which had arisen from the Chicago Tribune, acquired Times Mirror with a plan to merge its papers with Tribune television stations in markets where they overlapped, including Hartford.
Such combinations are anti-competitive and contrary to Federal Communications Commission rules, but Tribune figured that it could get the rules repealed. So began a legal struggle that remains unresolved after 20 years.
But by 2014 it was clear that combining TV stations and newspapers in the same markets was not going to be as profitable as expected, since the internet was draining advertising, especially from the papers. So Tribune split itself into separately owned and operated broadcast and newspaper companies, with the split heavily favoring the broadcast side.
Tribune already had moved its Hartford TV stations, WTIC-TV61 and WCCT-TV33, from a downtown office tower into the Courant’s building, and when the broadcast and newspaper properties were separated, the building was given to the broadcast company. Suddenly the Courant was an interloper in its own house and had to pay rent.
Of course this was a humiliation to the newspaper and an insult to Connecticut as well, since the newspaper’s long public service in journalism was infinitely greater than that of the TV stations that inherited the Courant’s building. Those stations already have been resold to another chain, Tegna, as the expanding chains constantly juggle properties to stay within the FCC’s weak geographic limits on ownership.
Now the building is owned by Alden Global Capital, which owns 32% of Tribune Publishing as well as many other newspapers from which it has been systematically stripping their real-estate assets and redeveloping them.
The country prattles about “diversity” but when it comes to broadcast media ownership, this is a joke. Federal broadcast licenses can be awarded in only two ways — to diversify or concentrate control of the airwaves. There is little public interest in allowing anyone to hold more than one or two licenses. Yet Tribune’s TV company owned 42 stations before it was sold last year to Nexstar, which now has 197 stations.
A recent boast by Nexstar CEO Perry Sook about his company’s acquisitions and growing reach inadvertently conveyed the worsening concentration of ownership. “It took us 15 years to get to 9% of the U.S. homes,” Sook said, “and then, in the last eight years, we went from 9% to 18% to 39%, and now to roughly 63% of the country.”
Tegna, the new owner of Tribune’s Hartford stations, has 60 others.
As the looting of the Courant suggests, few of these behemoths care much about the communities they purport to serve. They are just accumulations of capital that government allows to run wild without enforcement of antitrust law, proving the observation of the philosopher William James: “The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed.”
Presumably the Courant, like many newspapers a shadow of its old self, will be sold soon, with or without the other Tribune papers, if the whole newspaper industry doesn’t collapse first along with the economy, literacy, and civic engagement. But if a new owner for the Courant pursues an office for the paper, maybe Alden at least will donate the big Hartford Courant lettering that remains on the front wall of the old building. After all, it’s of no use to anyone else.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.