Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Closure on Connecticut (Part 1 of 3): The Post-Herald

Following through on the details to leave Connecticut again — packing up, arranging to shut off gas and electricity and such — also begged some closure on what I tried to accomplish there as editor of the Bristol, Middletown and New Britain dailies. (I really didn’t have too much to do with the day-to-day creation of content for the related weekly newspapers, and most of those are sadly shut down now anyway.) Lacking another venue, I figured I might as well throw it on my long-defunct blog.

Apologies to anyone who ventures into the older material here at Misanthropicity. My advice is: Don’t bother. I’d estimate 99 percent of it is worthless.

And a warning to everyone about this posting (and those that may follow on the matter of central Connecticut): It’s for me, basically, to get some thoughts down. I’m aware this is a public blog, and the posting may be stumbled across by any number of people, but it’ll be deadly dull for nearly all. It’s merely unfortunate that the closest thing I have to a diary is appended to something that also holds items of more general interest. Unless you’re having trouble sleeping, then, you’d best stay away! “Remembrance of Things Past” is more concise! You’ll undoubtedly find “The Phantom Menace” more entertaining! And better written! Et cetera.

For those who still haven’t gotten the message …

The job I took was a killer. Since I was responsible for some 20 publications, there were many seven-day weeks, during which I worked from 72 to 80 hours, and even when I had a day off, I was almost always on call and working in some way. I didn’t just edit. Like many other editors in the chain, I designed pages. I wrote stories. I even took photos. In the roughly two years I was there, I had only a single actual weekend, meaning two nonholiday days off in a row (and I worked, I think, every holiday), and yet for all the hours put in there was never a paper published with my name on it that didn’t embarrass me in some way. Although it will astonish some readers to see, I have high standards. The typos we let go, the shortcuts we had to take and the failure to pursue important stories and even entire beats were humiliating and hurtful to me. But the realities of the situation were overwhelming, made up in large part of extremely low pay and dire understaffing. Such problems are endemic to the industry, and all my hours on the job couldn’t make up for it.

Still, even with those hours and the difficulties of the job, I was interested in staying in central Connecticut just on the merits of serving the newspapers’ communities and seeing if I could finally make some needed improvements; there was also justification when contemplating the horrible economy and worse job market for journalists.

If anyone from New Britain finds this posting, they’re likely to wonder about one aspect of my time there: reporter Rick Guinness, as controversial a topic (or metatopic) as you can find in local journalism. Over the years, Rick has been a great shoe-leather reporter, and he was for a long time ideal for the papers I was given to run. That is to say, I inherited tabloid newspapers, and I was told by the publisher at the time of my hiring to pursue a tabloid strategy — one main story on the front, and a bold headline that could be read from some distance away. This was deemed necessary because The Herald, especially, was reliant on sales from vending machines and news racks rather than from subscription sales, even though it was my goal to produce a newspaper of such quality that people who bought an issue here or there were ultimately inspired to subscribe.

Until we reached the point where subscriptions reigned again, we were encouraged to focus strongly on New Britain, not the surrounding towns, and to sell the paper with stories that some would consider sensationalistic. I tried to follow my bosses’ orders in this regard as responsibly and sensitively as possible, and sometimes I failed. But for quite a while, Rick Guinness fulfilled the publisher’s needs extremely well; his stories drove Page One, and that drove sales, and I feel we did some good work in that time.

For what it’s worth, a look at the Monday-to-Friday sales averages in the spring of 2008, a year after Rick, the education reporter and I started in New Britain, shows circulation topping 10,000. (This is around where sales were a year earlier, but those 2007 figures had been described as soft and suspect — the implication is “unreliable” or “faked” — by the circulation director, who said he was working to ensure reliable numbers. While it was dispiriting to see numbers dip over that year, despite assurances the newsroom was not to blame, it was conversely very exciting to see the numbers rise again to that peak and be able to credit the work of staff throughout the building.) The most recent figures I have, in mid-January of this year, puts Monday-to-Friday sales at 7,882. By now, the spring of 2009, the numbers may have risen again, but I don’t have access to them. Either way, for at least a year, the publisher’s tabloid strategy and the newsroom’s work to fulfill it seemed to be working. The Herald has a different strategy now, with the text of stories appearing on Page One and jumping inside. It was not a strategy I was asked to pursue, nor one I would have fought.

Every reporter at The Herald came with pluses and minuses, and while Rick was no exception on the minuses side, his reporting was energetic and substantial. And he could write in complete thoughts, in actual English. Believe it or not, that wasn’t always a given at The Herald’s level of hiring before I came on. (It’s a strange thing to say that when I had the opportunity to hire, I felt I had to ensure applicants could simply write a coherent sentence.)

Rick’s personal life sometimes overtook his professional skills. That’s no secret. Rick has been open about the more problematic aspects of his life. As his boss and friend, sometimes I had to hang on and wait for those personal problems to be ironed out and for his work to rise to more ideal levels, but that wasn’t just because of Rick as an individual or a legal obligation to hold jobs for people with illnesses or similar problems; it was also due to company policy that made it extremely difficult to hire when the newspapers I edited lost a worker. An example of this is when New Britain education reporter Fran Morales left the paper in March 2008; surely many in the city noticed we never got to replace her, and with her leaving, The Herald lost 20 percent of its news staff.

The bottom line: As crazy as it may sound, if Rick had left or been fired from his role as city hall reporter, it was a gamble whether the company would give permission to fill the gap, and The Herald could have had three reporters scrambling to fill the pages once filled by five. So it was necessary to move with extraordinary caution on any personnel changes.

But there was more going on than weakness or misjudgment on the part of Rick, me or the company that owned The Herald. The mayor of New Britain, Timothy Stewart, decided to punish Rick and the newspaper in early February 2008 by withholding information needed for stories and quotes needed to balance them. He vowed not to speak with us and to force us to “FOI” for everything, meaning any information wanted from his employees at City Hall would have to be formally requested through a formal Freedom of Information filing — a process that could be followed for a longer-term piece written over a matter of days, weeks or months, but impossible for people trying to put out a daily newspaper. I tried to talk to the mayor by cell phone and e-mail shortly after his decree, but he would not talk to me and did not reply by e-mail.

The mayor’s order, placed only on The Herald as punishment and not on The Hartford Courant, obviously runs contrary to what the state is trying to accomplish with its FOI law, and is certainly fodder for a lawsuit (if only I had the means or energy). But Stewart’s City Hall has been bad on freedom of information for a long time, obliging the Common Council to pass two local FOI laws to reinforce state statutes. The state Freedom of Information Commission also heard four complaints filed by The Herald against New Britain’s City Hall, finding in The Herald’s favor three times. The loss of the fourth was unnecessary and pains me.

The awfulness of this may be too esoteric or dull for some to fully grasp or care about. A better way to put it might be: No public official should be allowed to choose which laws to enforce, or to enforce them for some people but not for others, and nor should a law ensuring a freedom be used to deny that freedom. How can you have faith in a government acting this way? Even if you do, are you automatically willing to allow the next regime to act in exactly the same way, with the same caprice and whimsy, the same willful ignorance of laws it dislikes or finds inconvenient, not knowing who will be leading it? It’s why we’re a nation of laws and why no one is supposed to be above those laws, and every voter and citizen must ask themselves whether they believe that. The alternative, at least at the extreme, is a cult of personality, shadow government and dictatorship. At a more mundane level, decisions that are made out of the public eye stand a good chance of being made incorrectly and for the wrong reasons. It allows corruption and waste to take root and flourish.

Newspapers are supposed to watch out for those things, and that requires the asking of questions that may seem offensive, stupid or that sometimes go nowhere. But they must be asked, just as in any kind of reporting. A most basic example: Reporters should confirm the spelling of even the most basic of names (Is it Jon or John? Is it Smith or Smythe? Etc.), and feel stupid doing it. When the questions aren’t asked, reporters can get information wrong. When the questions aren’t answered, the information can come out skewed as well.

Sometimes I felt even people in the newsroom didn’t understand I wanted questions asked or accusations investigated not because I wanted them proven, but because they had to be pursued if true and disproven if not. If true, we’d get a helluva story. If untrue, we did our due diligence, and the truth about elected officials is worth knowing whichever way it comes out.

Rick and The Herald were consistently denied access and information at City Hall, then criticized for getting facts wrong. Republicans in New Britain refused to talk, then blasted The Herald for talking too much to Democrats. (Here’s a weird but telling example: Once we delayed publishing the schedule of meetings for the Democratic Town Committee so we could run the Republican Town Committee’s schedule as well; the Republicans refused to respond and share their schedule, so we ran the Democrats’ with a note of explanation.) There were accusations Rick and the paper got “everything” wrong, but no examples were offered and virtually no corrections requested.

The Herald, meanwhile, bent over backward to be fair, continuing to call the mayor for comment on stories even after he made clear the effort was pointless and never shying from publishing stories that made the mayor look like a hero. (Every once in a while the mayor would comment to Rick, then suddenly withdraw from contact again, never explaining why.) As editor, I wanted to do things carefully and responsibly, and sometimes that meant losing stories completely. For instance, I have confirmed from eyewitnesses that the mayor once tried to bar Rick from City Hall and threatened to assault him when he saw Rick inside anyway, but a story about this never appeared in The Herald.

Just to be clear: As witnesses describe it, the Dec. 23 incident involved the mayor trying to block a citizen from pursuing legitimate public business in a publicly owned building. Rick had to pass through a common area, a lobby, to get to a meeting with members of the Common Council, and in that common area a holiday party was being held. The mayor didn’t want Rick at the party, and that, on its own, is fine.

But would it be acceptable for some other random citizen to be told they can’t get to their previously arranged meeting with aldermen — arranged without the knowledge there would be a holiday party taking place nearby — because they weren’t liked by the mayor? Perhaps the party could have been held somewhere away from where public business was being conducted. Perhaps passage through the party could have been granted on the way to, and from, legitimate public business.

Rick exacerbated the situation by taking a picture of the party, but that doesn’t justify the mayor’s subsequent threat (again, as described to me by witnesses and confirmed in a conversation with a police officer who became involved) to knock out his teeth or retroactively justify the barring of a citizen from City Hall while engaged in legitimate public business. I think those actions display a lack of respect for or understanding of the law, both of which hardly recommend the mayor as a public figure, as well as a lack of judgment and erratic temperament.

At least in this situation, the mayor hardly took the high road.

The Herald taking the high road never seemed to help. And over time it became clear that what the mayor wanted was a newspaper without Rick, and, I was told by several people, without me.

In a Jan. 31 e-mail to the publisher of The Herald, I wrote:

“I truly hope we can get some peace and progress on this from Stewart; I am beyond sick of this situation, but I keep enduring it because I truly feel it is dangerous to let any public servant get away with bossing around their local newspaper just so they can run City Hall the way they want, without questioning. This is not JFK asking silence as he prepares the Bay of Pigs invasion (and look what happened there!); this is a small-town mayor who seems to think it's more efficient to decide things himself instead of letting the taxpayers in on the process. We've supported Stewart when he's been right on things, we've been beyond polite and forbearing when he's acted up … He badmouths the paper, Guinness and myself constantly, loudly, out in the community. And I really don't see how that helps the community.

“… bowing to his demands would make him the de facto boss of the newspaper, and the word goes out that he ‘beat The Herald.’ I just don't think a public official should have that bragging right, not [ex-governor of Illinois Rod] Blagojevich, not Stewart.”

Rick’s leave-taking from The Herald was ambiguous; he wasn’t really fired and didn’t really resign. I’d spoken repeatedly about the newspapers’ need for reliability from the staff, and health issues left Rick unacceptably out of contact for several days. When he finally called, we both understood that was the end — that he had to focus on his health and couldn’t do that while working at The Herald. Nor could he do the kind of work we needed, the kind we’d once run day after day on Page One, when bogged down by those health issues.

He wrote his last Herald staff story Jan. 30, before health issues led to his disappearance, and his employment limped to an end about a week later. My last day was March 6. Rick wrote later in The Journal-Inquirer of Manchester, Conn., about Stewart’s wishes for me to be gone from The Herald, and comments about Rick’s essay found on the blog of New Britain resident Frank Smith shows that some people — at least those interested enough to comment — felt Rick’s reporting and my editing were damaging the reputation of The Herald and hurting circulation. Any responsible person who shared such an assessment would certainly act to end that.

The comments on Smith’s blog do, however, show some lack of comprehension of how journalism works, and of the sequence of events. They make reference to “a slant in coverage that seemed to favor Democratic members of the city council … many articles were devoid of quotes from the Republican (conservative) members of city government,” for instance. People forget that for a time, before the mayor stopped talking to Rick, The Herald was perceived to be in Stewart’s pocket. When a tape of the mayor cursing was leaked to The Herald during his 2007 reelection run, we ignored it as not being newsworthy, then — after The Hartford Courant ran a story about it — defended him because cursing when awoken at 3 a.m. to deal with a crisis was really a nonissue compared with Stewart’s actions to help his constituents. And we supported Stewart's re-election in an editorial, calling the campaign of his opponent pointless and lacking in ideas.

In short, the lack of GOP coverage was a policy of the mayor and Republicans, not of Rick, me or The Herald. I told the mayor and other Republicans that the party’s refusal to comment would hurt, because Democrats would dominate the conversation, and that was true enough. It hurt in some unexpected ways.

The conflict with the mayor certainly didn’t make my job any easier, and neither did Rick’s health problems, and both hobbled Herald coverage of New Britain as surely as the loss of the education reporter. Journal Register Co. policy at the time, a resistance to bend on journalistic ethics and an unwillingness to hurt neighboring communities and beats by redirecting the work of other reporters contributed to something of a standoff. This probably hurt The Herald, too. I wish there had been another way to resolve these issues.

Had I stayed on, I would have continued efforts to create a pull-out section (meaning the center eight or 12 pages of each days’ newspaper) incorporating coverage of arts and events in the cities and towns we covered; a comprehensive calendar of events of all sorts; and features such as comics, puzzles and television and movie listings. One of the complaints about tabloid newspapers is that they rob readers of the ability to hand one section of the newspaper to a companion while hanging on to another, and this would have been a way to address that.

The arts have been portrayed as vital in formal plans for New Britain’s downtown revitalization, and artists and public officials alike have talked about how the city can and must go from Hardware City to “Artware City,” as The Herald coined it in the headline to a Feb. 7 story about the hoped-for transition. Leading this effort is the Greater New Britain Arts Alliance, which alone represents more than 40 creative local organizations. There are far more individual playwrights, musicians and visual artists at work throughout the area.

That’s why as far back as Dec. 18, 2007, I met with the city’s arts council in the public room of the downtown library and told those assembled of my hopes to hire a reporter solely to cover the arts and other such features — something I’d already proposed to my bosses.

It took 13 months, but I was finally allowed to hire a reporter for that beat. Jennifer Abel, who’d been a columnist for the papers, started Jan. 26 of this year and hit the ground running, providing stories that not only illustrated a wonderful, creative side of the city but served to promote local arts organizations and lead residents to edifying and fun events taking place, so to speak, right around the corner.

The other element to all this is that a consistent focus on arts and events could give people a new or renewed reason to buy the newspaper. I felt this would boost circulation among the paper’s traditional readership but, even more importantly, bring in new and different kinds of readers, including younger ones. (Circulation of newspapers has been plummeting nationwide for more than a decade. The central Connecticut publications I edited suffered also from reports they would shut down, and work to sign up subscribers or renew subscriptions lapsed. A further drop in circulation was brought on by the outsourcing in that time of many aspects of newspaper circulation to a company considered unresponsive to reader — and company — complaints. In the year starting Jan. 17, 2008, recorded circulation dropped 21 percent for The Herald and 19 percent for The Middletown Press, even though The Press didn’t suffer similar political stresses. I cannot give circulation figures for The Bristol Press, which had a different circulation director in this period; I know the figures were better in Bristol, but her reports didn’t get to me regularly.)

When the city’s revitalization plans finally result in the building of downtown apartment towers and a growing population, I had hoped they would find a newspaper that was a must-read for anyone interested in exploring and taking full advantage of their new city.

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