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The disappearing newspaper editorial

On Tuesday, July 6, the Hartford Courant did not have an editorial/opinion page. This is something I had never seen in reading the newspaper nearly every day as a customer, employee, competitor, contributor, critic and admirer since coming to Connecticut 63 years ago.

The next day, I was somewhat relieved to find what’s called an Opinion page, with three syndicated columns, two leaning right, one left, but no editorials. (These pages used to be known as “op-eds” as they appeared opposite the editorial page with opinions that might differ from the paper’s, but as a friend noted, to have an op, you have to have an ed.)  

The nation’s oldest continuously published newspaper did not have an editorial for the rest of the month and the first week in August. The string was broken on Sunday, Aug. 8, when the paper editorially supported mandated COVID-19 vaccinations.  Then, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, there was once again no Opinion page in the very slim edition of the paper and no explanation.  Imagine the reader anger if the paper had, for example, omitted the comics pages.

For weeks, readers have been offered an occasional local opinion piece, often by an advocate of the particular point of view, along with letters from readers. But most of the opinion columns were by liberal and conservative columnists from news syndicates or by columnists with The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and other major dailies.

 

Except for a Sunday political column by the talented part-timer Kevin Rennie, the Courant has no columnists on its staff. It lost two of its best, Colin McEnroe and sportswriter Steve Jacobs, to the Connecticut Hearst newspapers, along with several  reporters who joined Hearst for better pay or after leaving the Courant because of staff-reducing buyouts.

Until the 1970s or thereabouts, Hartford and many other Connecticut cities were two-paper towns, although some of them had the same owner. So, during the many decades Hartford had the Courant and the Hartford Times, readers in the large portion of the state they served had two editorial views on issues of importance. These views were often at odds, as the Courant was more conservative than the Times. Each paper published two or three editorials every day, the afternoon Times six days and the Courant, seven days a week.

However, as television news attracted larger audiences, afternoon papers couldn’t compete and the Times folded in 1974. By that time, though, some television stations had started editorializing every day. (I wrote the first Channel 3 editorial for the Hartford CBS affiliate in 1968 and the last soon after I retired in 1998.)

Editorials are not exactly profit centers and when The Washington Post, a strong supporter of TV editorials, sold the station to Meredith in 1998, Hartford was left with only one editorial voice, the Courant’s.

The only other opinions expressed today in the Hartford area come from the hosts and the often uninformed listeners of the conservative talk radio stations. The strongest voice is that of WTIC, which offers a diet of far right, locally produced talk shows from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

I am told the absence of editorials at the Courant this summer is due primarily to thin staffing and summer vacations, with the staffing expected to be further reduced by Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that bought the Tribune newspapers, a group that includes the Courant, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News and other dailies, in May.  Alden owns about 200 other newspapers and is notorious for making deep cuts into each paper’s news staff for the sake of its bottom line.  

It should be noted that staff reductions had been going on at the Courant for many years, a consequence of changing reading habits among newspaper customers and a drastic reduction in ad revenue since the rise of the internet. But Alden, with a national reputation for transforming great newspapers into shadows of themselves, is the worst possible owner. 

What disturbs me most about the weeks-long absence of Courant editorials was the fact that nobody seemed to notice or care. That’s because so many readers don’t know how to read the paper, to differentiate news and opinion. You even hear some of the supposed journalists on cable TV refer to opinions expressed by individual commentators as “editorials.”

Even The New York Times now goes days at a time without an editorial on its editorial page and with an opinion column where editorials usually appear. These opinion pieces are usually by members of the paper’s editorial board but to my knowledge, there’s been no explanation from the Times or curiosity from readers.

Are we seeing the end of newspaper editorials?  Or, of more consequence, does anyone care?

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

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