Hartford Courant in dire need of a white knight

When I worked for the Hartford Courant in the late 1950s, Connecticut’s capital was a two-paper town and the larger of the two papers was the afternoon Hartford Times.

The Courant, founded in 1764 and the nation’s oldest, continuously published newspaper, wouldn’t become the circulation leader until 1965 when it attracted 136,000 readers, 2,000 more than the Times.  

In the next decade, television news replaced the afternoon paper in many homes and in 1976, the Times, its circulation down to 69,000, ceased publication after 159 years.

Today, more than 40 years after the death of the Times, the Courant’s average weekday circulation is around 60,000, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.  That’s 9,000 fewer readers than the Times had when it folded. The paper’s staff is a third of what it was a few years ago and its owner, Tribune Publishing, is looking for a buyer in a market that has experienced a staggering drop in daily newspaper circulation — from 270,000 readers of two newspapers 50 years ago to 60,000 today.

The new readers in the 1960s and ‘70s came from the rising middle class, created by the GI Bill of Rights and its generation of educated veterans, who wanted to be informed. But the later postwar era also saw a change in reading habits, thanks to the rapid development of television as a viable provider of news, especially at the end of the day.  

When I left the Courant for the CBS affiliate in Hartford in 1961, the station offered 30 minutes of local and network news in the evening and 15 minutes at 11 p.m., but that was soon to expand to an hour and then two hours in the evening and a couple of hours in the morning. It didn’t hurt the Courant but the TV news viewers found they could do without the company of the afternoon paper.  

Then, with the internet, everything changed for daily newspapers. The lucrative classified ad market that filled several pages of most dailies was put out of business by internet interlopers like Craigslist and its many imitators. Amazon and other outlets have altered the shopping habits of the populace and the advertising habits of the surviving retailers.

In a recent report on the Courant’s troubles, Quinnipiac journalism professor Richard Hanley told the Hartford Business Journal that Connecticut’s faltering economy, coupled with “the decline of brick-and-mortar retail, including stalwart print advertisers like Sears, have increased pressure on local newspapers.”  Hanley said this is especially hard on dailies the Courant’s size because they lack the scale that digital advertisers seek.

Unfortunately, papers like the Courant have had to cut staff continually to make up for falling revenue. The paper, which thrived on reporting from nearly half of the state’s towns, has closed its regional bureaus and laid off dozens of journalists. According to the Business Journal, Courant newsroom staffing peaked at 400 in 1994 and has since dropped to 135.  

Before the demise of the Times, the Courant’s circulation area even had three strong editorial voices with the two newspapers and the CBS affiliate broadcasting editorials. A new owner dropped Channel 3’s editorials 20 years ago and the Courant can only manage a few editorials a week from its shrunken staff.

With the paper for sale, some of its best bylines have been lost to the Connecticut Hearst Newspapers. In recent years, Hearst has become the dominant newspaper force in the state as owner of The Connecticut Post, New Haven Register, Stamford Advocate, Greenwich Time, Middletown Press, Danbury News Times, Torrington Register-Citizen, 20 weeklies and Connecticut Magazine, giving it more than 800,000 readers in the state and the influence that goes with that number.

This still leaves the state and its readers with some very good, independently owned dailies like the Journal-Inquirer, The Day and Norwich Bulletin in eastern Connecticut and the Republican-American to the west, in Waterbury.  

But it needs the Hartford Courant, so not the badly shrunken paper we read today, but a paper owned by someone willing to reinvest in its ability to gather the news.  Former Channel 3 colleague Duby McDowell echoed many of us in expressing the hope that a “white knight will come in and save the Hartford Courant.”

Ideally, a white knight is a billionaire with other interests, who buys a struggling newspaper with the intention of rebuilding it and leaving it alone, like Jeff Bezos of The Washington Post or John Henry of The Boston Globe. There are fears the Courant’s white knight will be Hearst, leaving the chain in control of too much of the state’s press and a threat to the few remaining independent dailies. 

We hope it doesn’t happen, but better Hearst ownership than no newspaper in Connecticut’s capital.

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.