The recent news on newspapers has not been good. Stalwart, established papers are abandoning newsprint altogether and moving to the web. In Connecticut, the Hartford Courant keeps shedding reporters while its corporate owner moves through bankruptcy proceedings. The New Haven Register's parent company is also bankrupt.
A report this month from the Pew Research Center called the newspaper industry "perilously close to free fall."
That's a familiar sensation to reporters in New Britain and Bristol. They were just days away from shutting down their papers in January when a new buyer swooped in. It was straight out of Jimmy Stewart movie. Doom hung in the air. In just days the out-of-state owner of newspapers in New Britain and Bristol planned to shut them down.
"Needless to say it was daunting," said Lisa Backus, who covers courts and crime for the New Britain Herald. "They rounded us up and brought us downstairs and told us, you know, if we don’t have a buyer, we’re closing. And truthfully, we all looked at each other and said, who is in his right mind would buy these apers? So we thought we were done. Done, done, done."
Enter Michael Schroeder. From the beginning he was more than just a businessman new to town. Schroeder is a former Newsday reporter and media entrepreneur. His last venture, a free daily in Boston, had folded eight months before. He was looking for his next step, and he found it in an news story about the trouble in New Britain and Bristol.
"I had always wanted to retire as a gentleman publisher. Being able to participate in the community, but also being able to run a business and do something I enjoy. That was the plan," he said at the celebratory press conference. He offered some lofty talk about the importance of journalism, but he made clear: this would be a business. "I'm not here to save the papers, I'm here to give enough time, so the communities can save the papers," he said.
That's the first part of his business plan: Give the community what they want, and they'll pay for it. And more of them have. Circulation has ticked up three to four percent since Schroeder took over.
The second part of the plan was to stop wasting money. Schroeder bought only the parts of the papers he wanted. That didn't include the New Britain Herald's aging, concrete headquarters in the middle of town, or the idle printing press in its basement. The newsroom is moving into rented offices in about two months.
To get this process started, Schroeder called in a deputy from Long Island, Bob Keane.
"When I first got here, this office, actually was a horror," he said. Keane was in the New Britain Herald's newsroom before the deal with the Journal Register company was even done. He's an old newspaper man himself. Schroeder actually worked for him as a copy editor years ago. "This building is very much like the first paper I ever walked into. The only thing missing was the blue air - nobody smokes here. Thank god, because the place would have probably burned down."
Keane also found basic infrastructure lacking in the newsroom. He quickly instituted things like daily news meetings, which had fallen by the wayside. "The good news was that they have some very good reporters," he said.
Lisa Backus is one of them. Her desk in the newsroom is lined with front page spreads of full-color mug shots. A police scanner squawks beside her desk. "For me, this is my life. I just had such a love of it," she said. " For instance, I had a pedophile that hadn't been prosecuted yet. A serial killer who was arrested in the middle of all this, and he literally was walking the streets of New Britain. All those cases, and those are all pending, and I’m thinking, am I going to get to see the end? Who was going to cover this?"
Jim Smith also knows that feeling. He's the new executive editor for both the New Britain Herald and the Bristol Press. He just started this month. Before that, he had been out of a job since June, after leaving the Connecticut Post.
"Newspapers are cutting back everywhere, so it’s not a happy time in newspapers, but I tell you right now, it’s a happy time in New Britain and Bristol," he said.
He's happy because his reporters get to turn their focus back to doing what they do best: covering the local the community and reflecting it back to the readers. "And readers are smart. They know if we’re hitting the mark or not."
And Smith says having a local owner makes that job easier. "It’s really a terrific feeling to know you don’t have to call corporate to get a decision made because corporate is right down the hall," he said.
So that's the plan: Local ownership. Comprehensive community coverage. Direct appeals for advertising dollars and local investment, including on the web. In about a month, reading the New Britain Herald on the web will cost you if you don't subscribe to the print edition. They're still settling on a number, but it will be less than ten bucks a month.
It's nothing fancy or particularly innovative. But for an industry desperate for optimism, Jim Smith knows this isn't just a local story.
"Here is a very tangible example of a new way to invigorate newspapers, and so everyone’s watching," he said.
But if the big newspapers are watching, publisher Michael Schroeder doesn't think they have much to learn from him. His success depends on one-on-one relationships with the community and advertisers. Move that to a bigger scale, he says, and it doesn't work. He hopes there's a model out there to save those failing papers, but like everyone else, he doesn't know what it is.