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Hartford’s abandoned newsrooms

If You Ask Me

In the spring of 1955, as I was about to graduate from college with a degree in journalism and history, I went looking for an entry level job as a copyboy at one of the big New York newspapers.

There were several to try back then—the Times, Herald-Tribune, Daily News, Mirror, Post, Journal-American and World Telegram—but I started at the top, visiting the Times, the Trib and the Daily News , the latter because my high school yearbook predicted I would someday be “bylining in the Daily News.”

But at each paper, I was told they were only interviewing people from the Brooklyn Eagle. Walt Whitman’s old newspaper had just folded after 114 years, causing me to alter my career plans and that June, I gratefully began my news career in a slightly smaller market, as a reporter at the Wheeling (West Virginia) Intelligencer.  A few years later, New York would have only one more daily than Wheeling’s two. 

After a year in Wheeling and two years as an Army draftee, I answered a classified ad — remember them? — in the Times and took a public relations job at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.   But I missed reporting and in 1959, I was on the state desk of the Hartford Courant.

Although I would spend most of my life in broadcast journalism, I remember my two years in the Courant newsroom as a joyful learning experience, a place where you’d work hard, enjoy every minute of it and make some life-time friends.

Two memories — one solemn, the other, silly — stand out.  There was the night in the spring of 1961 when I watched a grim Gerry Demeusy, the paper’s court reporter, sit at his typewriter on deadline to describe how Joseph Taborsky, “the mad dog killer,” had a banana split and cherry coke before he was strapped into the electric chair and 2000 volts of electricity snapped hard against his restraints.

Then there were the days the publisher, Col. John Reitmeyer, conducted his early version of a focus group, starting in the front of the newsroom with the city staff.  One day, as the colonel was moving from desk to desk, word came back to answer, “Steve Canyon,” when he asked you to name your favorite Courant comic strip.  After several Steve Canyons in a row, the colonel shouted, “Dammit, Steve Canyon’s in the Hartford Times.”

The Courant building was then as now in a renovated car dealership on Broad Street, west of downtown, and the more popular afternoon Times was on Prospect Street near the center of the city.  The Times had a more majestic building with a portico lined with pillars taken from Manhattan’s Madison Square Presbyterian Church.  The church had been demolished to make way for an insurance company only a dozen years after it had been designed by the renowned architect, Stanford White.  

Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Johnson spoke from the Times Portico and candidate John F. Kennedy made the final speech of his successful 1960 campaign there. Imagine a 21st century presidential campaign ending in Hartford, Connecticut.

The morning Courant passed the afternoon Times in circulation in the 1960s and the Times presses stopped rolling for good in 1976. The building first became an annex to the Hartford City Hall and is now part of the University of Connecticut’s Hartford campus with only the pillared portico left as a reminder of the days when Hartford was more than a one paper town. 

And now, a couple of months since it stopped printing the Courant in Hartford after 256 years, the hedge fund controlling the paper’s parent, Tribune Publishing, has decided to close the newsroom and require the surviving  news staff to report and edit the paper from home. That staff, numbering more than 400 in the 1990s, is now around 135.

The Courant, like many news organizations, has been working remotely since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the newspaper-killing hedge fund owner at the Tribune has apparently concluded it is now possible to put out a paper without having a place for its staff to work and interact. Courant editor and publisher Andrew Julien said the decision was a response to “real estate needs.” Since the building had been sold in 2018, these real estate needs must be about not paying the rent.

Whatever the rationale, the decision is further evidence that the bottom line is not the top priority, but the only priority of  Alden Global Capital, described by the Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan as “one of the most ruthless of the corporate strip miners seemingly intent on destroying local journalism.”  

I’m sure students entering the old Times building rarely, if ever, pause to read the inscription over the door: 

“News is an immortal bubble (vagrant but outlasting those who make it), and the press endures within.”

No more, not there or across town.

 

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

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