The Demise of Local Journalism

In 1958, when I began work at the evening Hartford Times, I drew the most demanding beat on the paper:  Covering West Hartford. I was expected daily to fill five columns of type – more than a half page of the newspaper every weekday; less on Saturdays.

I was not alone. We had reporters in every Greater Hartford town, each responsible for give-or-take a half page of news daily. Because West Hartford was our most important circulation town, I drew the heaviest burden: With daily quotas of maybe 2000-plus words, I reported on the activities of virtually every board and commission in town.

The morning Courant had the same setup, but covered more towns. Between us, the average resident of any Greater Hartford town had available detailed information about every aspect of his or her government’s activities, as well as much private-sector activity. We covered events in person, or followed up by phone, or in desperation read the minutes.

That’s probably the kind of news coverage you were accustomed to as young adults. Although it is seldom remarked, that kind of saturation coverage is one of the ways that young leadership is discovered and promoted: Someone does a good job on some minor board or commission, and people remember that So-and-So should be considered when elections loom.

Hold that thought; I’ll come back to it.


First, though, let me get some biography out of the way. I was born in Union, New Jersey, a factory town and was diagnosed with tuberculosis as I neared school-age. My parents were not wealthy, but managed to send me to Saranac Lake, New York, where I spent six months in the then-standard therapy: Breathing clean fresh air in an all-window porch that I shared with an unseen priest across a thin wall, with almost nothing to do but read . . .  and occasionally chat with my neighbor. He obligingly tuned in Uncle Don for me on his radio most evenings, and must have given me occasional words of encouragement.

But mostly I read. By the time I went back to school for third grade – the folks had by then moved to suburban fresh air – I had an extraordinary vocabulary for my age. That shaped my future: I started a school newspaper in fourth grade, began covering Boy Scout activities for the weekly West Orange Chronicle in seventh, and by high school was the Chronicle’s sports reporter.

I met and married my wife Brad at Cornell, and on my graduation we joined the American Friends Service Committee in Tokyo to spend two and a half years organizing volunteer work camps with Japanese youth. We then parlayed the price of homeward-bound trans-Pacific ship tickets into cash to spend 11 months wandering home on the dirt-cheap through Asia and Europe. We returned to live with Brad’s mother in West Hartford while I looked for the first job of my real career.


I was hired by the Hartford Times in 1958, starting with a rare three-month internship. Before I began in the newsroom, I spent one to three weeks in every department of the newspaper. It was a great program, and a pity that they dropped it. When I became editor, I knew more about how to collaborate with other departments than any of my predecessors.

My first three weeks were in advertising, where I learned, among other things, that the Times spent a lot of effort trying to show how many people read or looked at each copy of the paper. Husband, wife and kids at home, maybe three or four people, secretaries and colleagues at the office, maybe two or three. We claimed readership that came close to tripling the actual number of copies we printed each day. It was, of course, an effort to persuade advertisers to buy ads. I suspected that if we saw someone grab a page of the paper flying down the sidewalk in the wind, grab it and put it in the trash can, we might count yet another reader.

We sold ads for a fixed price per column inch on the explicit understanding that every ad would adjoin, even if only for an inch or two, a “news story”. No one paid for placement, but the big advertisers – the biggest being G Fox – told us what pages they wanted, and they got them. No one paid more in high shopping season, nor less in off-seasons. Advertising took up, on average, 70% of each day’s paper. What we call the “newshole” (which included comics, TV listings and obituaries), was 30% of the space available.

Then as now right hand pages were preferred placement for ads because most of us hold the paper and turn pages so that we see the right-hand pages first. G Fox always dominated Page 3. When advertisers wanted to advertise more, we just added pages, making the paper bigger, but still ensuring that every ad adjoined some “news”. On Thanksgiving, we printed what we call the Holly Edition to kick off Christmas shopping. It ran about 300 pages, and had a lot of pre-written junk features that only an ad man could describe as news.

One more note from my internship: In the circulation department, I learned that if we ran raw newsprint through empty presses with no type – that is, no news or advertising, simply folding and delivering blank paper to subscribers – what readers paid would not cover the costs. Advertising was essential to journalism. It was true then, and true now. (In a moment, I’ll elaborate on the advantage of online digital newspapers with minimal delivery cost.)


After a year covering West Hartford I served a few other news beats – labor, state government, business, the arts – and a few special assignments, and won a few prizes. Then in 1963 my editor gave me six weeks to study the African-American population of Hartford and write about its origins, achievements, aspirations. He gave me the time in part because our owner, Gannett Group, was encouraging reporting on “the road to integration”.

As I got into it, I asked for and got a few more weeks ­– and then a few more. I traveled to Georgia to see where most of our immigrants had come from. I eventually spent six months. The result was a no-advertising, 40-page tabloid called The Negro in Hartford. The 5000 extra copies we printed were soon gone, and it became a staple of libraries and academic studies. I fell one vote short of the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Deadline Reporting, but my work was cited as the decisive factor in awarding the Gannett Group a special Pulitzer.

You may recall my mentioning that news coverage of minor town boards and commissions is one way that talented young residents are recognized and earn higher political office. My six-month exploration of the black community turned out to have a similar effect. Here’s a story:

A few months ago, someone complained that white males had a lock on the mayoralties of all large Connecticut cities, and that the last six mayors of all the state’s biggest  cities had been white men.

No, not Hartford.  Only two of our last six mayors have been white men. All the black men and women who have governed Hartford had been profiled or quoted in my The Negro in Hartford in 1963. They had been elevated in public awareness, and so could attract routine news coverage – and financial support for political careers. Other factors were in play, but newspaper attention made a huge difference.


 Seven years later, when I was editor of what was by then a failing evening newspaper, I had a painful reminder that ads were not just a necessary evil; subscribers wanted them. Sage Allen, a new tenant of the then-new WestFarms mall, had an opening sale. The Courant had 10 pages of advertisements; we had two pages. Readers called me to complain that we had so little advertising, and some threatened to cancel.

It wasn’t only what we call display ads that sustained the newspaper. Classified ads were a profitable service. And we ran eight or so pages a day: want ads, but also legal ads (formal notices of government action, required by state law to be published in “a newspaper of general circulation” and a boon to newspapers. There was a bill in the General Assembly this year to end that anachronism; newspapers lobbied it to death. Newspaper legal ads will live a big longer).

Obituaries were at the time, a free service. Later, they would become more like classified ads, paid for word by the word. At the time, thanks to our florist advertisers, obituaries were not allowed to say, “in lieu of flowers, please give to some charity”. I mention that because it showed the subtle power of advertisers. The funeral directors who phoned in to dictate obituaries could get away with “gifts to such-and-such charity are encouraged”, but not “in lieu of flowers”.

The death of my particular afternoon paper was accelerated by our approach to advertising. Our slogan was “news where it counts” – which meant where G Fox delivered. The morning Courant’s publisher realized that a growing number of post-war advertisers – cigarettes, liquor, cars, tires, pharmaceuticals, much other stuff – didn’t care where people lived or where they bought products that by and large were not delivered anyway.

So the Courant expanded out into far suburbs and small cities that we didn’t bother with. The Times had been dominant just after World War Two. By the time I arrived, we were neck and neck, and they soon outstripped us in circulation. Like all morning papers, The Courant had two advantages as it expanded into the exurbs. First, delivering in the middle of the night with no traffic. And second, having on morning doorsteps news that most people hadn’t yet heard.

By contrast, all American evening newspapers suffered the opposite. By the time we got the paper to doorsteps, having printed early in the afternoon because we had to fight daytime traffic, much of the page one news was aimed at people who’d heard the same news on their car radios on the way home from work. The growing attractiveness of the 6:00 o’clock TV news exacerbated our problem of offering stale news. People not only heard our page one news on the car radio; they sat in their living rooms and watched it  – in color.

Faced with the new TV competition, we and every other newspaper began printing color photos on page one. A colleague remarked that the Hartford Times’ first page one color photo looked as though it had been printed on cornbread. It took all of us time to get the hang of printing color on a few pages; it was years longer before color could appear anywhere in the paper.

We were part of the Associated Press, obliged to share our news stories. There was actually an AP telegrapher in the Times newsroom who got carbon copies of every story, and chose which to keyboard out by telegraph. If we wanted to be sure we got credit for a story, we copyrighted it so that others would have to say, “and in a copyrighted story today, the Hartford Times reported such-and-such.”

What was on television in those days was largely drawn from The Times and The Courant. Let me tell you about the Green Stripe, a late, street-sale-only edition that my predecessor as editor had begun. It was printed right after the stock markets closed so that we had closing prices and also the results of most New England and East Coast horse races that day. We sold 10,000 copies daily, sending them as far as Rhode Island despite the afternoon traffic.  I was never sure whether most people bought it for the horse racing or the stock market results.

Besides stocks and races, we always found a late-breaking news story, often a wire story whose importance we exaggerated, bannering huge two-inch headlines across the top of page one just below the trademark green stripe. And Channel 3 sent a kid down the street every day to wait for the Green Stripe, buy two copies from the coin box and run them a few blocks back to the television studio. Usually that story was read by an anchor on the 6:00 o’clock news. (They probably had it on the AP wire anyway, but our 2 inch headline persuaded them that it was worth using.)

When I became editor, the effects of that journalistic larceny came home to me vividly. Several days a week, it seemed, I’d get phone calls from subscribers asking why a story that they’d seen on Channel 3 hadn’t been in their Hartford Times. I found it painful to explain that we printed their paper in early or mid-afternoon in order to get it to them, and that Channel 3 had gotten that news item us, from our street-sale-only late edition. Sometimes those callers would ask to be transferred to circulation so they could cancel their subscriptions. It was not the kind of call that a new editor wanted to hear.

All those factors, plus our lack of a Sunday paper (which we finally started, too late) meant The Courant grew increasingly profitable, while The Times slid into the red and died in 1976, joining a parade of evening newspapers across the country going belly-up.


A bit of personal biography. Gannett – cutting its losses – sold the paper in late 1973 to the very conservative New Haven Register. I had become editor-in-chief while continuing as editorial page editor. But in my second year of leadership, the new owners decided my prize-winning liberal editorial page should sound like theirs.

I would have preferred to go down with the ship; The Times was to close a year later. But after a half-year’s skirmishes with my new publisher, I had to resign. After three months considering offers from newspapers in other cities, my wife and I decided that we had a lot invested in Hartford. I moved to Channel 3, recently bought by the Washington Post and no longer WTIC – Travelers Insurance Company, but WFSB-TV, for a member of the Post board, Frederick S. Beebe.

I began learning new kinds of journalism — and new kinds of advertising.


The first thing I discovered was that every reporter – there were ten of us when I arrived – found rolled into the platen of his or her typewriter every morning one or two missives from the assignment editor, almost invariably a clipping from the Hartford Times or the Courant or some other Connecticut newspaper. The assignment: Go out and tell this story with pictures. Improve it if you can, but come back with at least a video version of what newspapers had already reported.

I’d been hired in part to help Channel 3 develop more independent journalistic chops, and we did.

What that meant, in part, was better coverage of the State Legislature. You may recall recent stories that about 100 new laws took effect this week – but you heard or read very little about them.

Newspapers, back then, would have written about most of them; television, almost none. It takes time and skill to report on a proposed law: Understand the issue, talk with proponents AND opponents. With a good photographer, one might weave in some of the debate. I made that a specialty, and helped my colleagues learn how to do it.

And other stations began to follow our lead. We all got beyond talking heads, shootings and accidents. But when I left after 10 years, there were still newspaper clippings on most typewriters every morning.

Again: The economics of journalism. I learned that TV advertising was sold differently. Whereas newspapers had to guess how many people glanced at their product every day, TV relied on independent analysis – sophisticated polls – to find the size of our audience at any given moment, and even the age and gender of those tuned in.

Midway through my decade at Channel 3, a very sophisticated poll found that at 6 pm every weeknight, 90 percent of all TV sets within reach of the signals of Channels 3, 8 or 30 – essentially, the whole state – were tuned to one of those stations. No wonder evening newspapers were dying! And although we were competitors, all three stations basically agreed on what news mattered – and most citizens accepted our judgment, and believed we were telling them the unvarnished truth.

That survey also found, by the way, that something like 52 percent were tuned to Channel 3 every evening. Imagine: Not yet quite 50, dean of the newsroom, and more than half the state poised to hear what I would report! My ego was inflated out of any proportion to reality; I’m not sure it’s entirely deflated yet.

Unlike newspapers, which printed a different number of pages every day, television stations couldn’t add more hours to the day, so time slots were in effect auctioned off. The station manager’s most important task was to establish each week the bid price for each slot in each hour of the broadcast day. His goal was to get income from every minute of ad time, lest he have to fill any prime-time minutes with free PSAS, public service announcements.

TV stations have to renew their licenses periodically and show the FCC that they operate in the public interest. PSAs are submitted as evidence of serving the public interest – but in management’s view, they are best relegated to the middle of the night when few people are tuned in and even fewer advertisers want to buy ads.

One result of the way ads were sold was that just before Christmas, stations set a very high rate for prime time and even off-peak hours, and made a lot of money. After Christmas, demand fell, so the price per minute was set low, to attract ads for inexpensive stuff like ginsu knives and home remedies that couldn’t afford TV advertising in high season.

By the way, in those days we ran, at most times of the day, 10 minutes of ads each hour. I don’t need to tell you that the ratio is now higher.


And I had another look at advertising. I began marketing a Jamaican vacation rental property, placing my ads in the Saturday Review – anybody remember the Saturday Review? – The Atlantic, Harpers and others serving an upscale audience likely to vacation in the Caribbean.

Within that decade, I encountered a brand new way to gauge my audience – on the Internet, an approach that then was called pay-per-click. I chose a few words like “Jamaica Hideaway” and contracted to pay for each response. Another kind of auction. I won’t bore you with details. The key was that if someone Googled those words, they might see my ad; if they clicked to read more about my place, I paid. If no one clicked, I paid nothing.

For all of us here, this sort of thing is so routine that it hardly seems worth comment. But it represents a radically different approach from that of The Timesor WFSB, or Saturday Review. I paid only for the audience that responded to my ads. It was the wave of the future.

Since then, Internet advertising has become ubiquitous, and even more sophisticated. Unless we take cumbersome steps to prevent it, all outlets keep track of what we look up or ask about, and sell the information to each other. Our lives and tastes and prejudices, and even approximate incomes, are an open book.

Just an example: I wrote a short story about an old man who found his old high school trombone in the attic, and had him buy something to lubricate the slide. I had been a trombone player, and we kept the slide limber in my day with Ponds cold cream, spritzed with water. But when you put a trombone away for a few months, let alone years, it got pretty gunky. Trombone oil, a commercial product, came on the market just as I gave up the instrument.

I couldn’t remember the name of that oil, so I Googled, found the brand that I remembered, finished the story, got it published and forgot about it. But I couldn’t forget: I was barraged with ads not only for trombone oil, but for trombones, trumpets, other brass instruments and sheet music for bands. You’ve probably experienced this kind of thing yourselves. It is now possible to specify in extraordinary detail who is exposed to your Internet advertising – or to your tweets or comments on social media, or the news hoaxes that you plant here and there.


In this brave new world, newspapers have a hard time selling space. Classified ads, once a major part of ad revenue, are a shadow of their former self. You can sell stuff less expensively, and buyers can find it more easily, on Craigslist, eBay, or dozens of other websites.

Television stations have a harder time selling ads, too. Far from the efforts at Channel Three in the 80s, none of them spend much time (or money) covering legislation, or even government. I told you the kind of effort that takes. Instead, stations fill their time with “breaking news” about fires, auto accidents and crime ­–distorting most viewers’ senses of the frequency and importance of such events. Mayhem can be covered with less expense than exploring more sophisticated news and ideas.

And TV keeps urging us to get their app so we can stream their news and weather at our convenience, making it easy to skip their carefully-programmed half-hours of news and ads. I can’t imagine how that helps their bottom line.

The point of my emphasis on advertising is that journalists’ news-gathering costs money. All traditional news outlets are struggling –and cutting back. A 2015 survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that since 2000 the number of full-time daily journalists nationwide had been cut in half, to about 30,000. That number I’m sure, would be even smaller today.

Again, let me make the numbers personal. When I left the failing Hartford Times, I’d had to cut our staff by 10 percent — to 98 reporters, editors and photographers. The journalistic staff of today’s Hartford Courant, I’m told, is less than 50!

So long-term projects are increasingly hard to justify. Forget a half page a day of every town’s news; forget even one story per town per day. Forget letting a reporter take six months to produce a 40-page Negro in Hartford. The Hearst papers do some investigative work – like revealing how state troopers exaggerate how many traffic stops they make – but such efforts by Hearst, and by the Connecticut Mirror, are measured in days or weeks, not months.


Local journalism as I knew it is in the irretrievable past – and, I would argue, democracy will suffer. Citizen involvement will dwindle, to the detriment of the democratic process. As just one marker, consider the abysmally low turnouts in last month’s local primary elections. A well-informed, engaged electorate depends on aggressive, sophisticated work by stable, profitable newsgathering.

My grandson, who is setting out on a film-making career, thinks there may be a place for online video to complement online written news and engage the attention of our younger generations, many of whom nowadays learn “the news” from social media. He’s talked with a few news executives who find the idea worth exploring.  I wish him well, but I’m not optimistic.

Whatever succeeds, it will be online. The New York Times, today’s dominant new organization, sells about 750,000 print copies daily – and more than ten times as many copies, 8 point five MILLION – online. The cost of delivery to each added online subscriber: almost zero.

Those of us who want to keep abreast of governments’ actions at the local level will have to tune in to Zoom-like streaming of meetings – to the extent that we can make the time.

We won’t be able to rely on a cadre of competitive journalists keeping us abreast of what our elected leaders do.

It’s a different world.


Delivered to the Seabury Men’s Breakfast October 5, 2023

Video of that talk ==>here




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