By Forrest C. Palmer*
Former Publisher of the Danbury News-Times and
A Founding Member of the CFOG Board of Directors
(August 15, 2013)
I have recently spent time looking back at my 40 years in the newspaper business and the changes that have taken place since then. It is sometimes hard to recognize the profession I knew.
My entire career was spent at community newspapers in Connecticut. That may seem to some like a narrow slice of the media industry, but such papers – with circulations ranging from 25,000 to 60,000 copies a day – cover the majority of papers in this country.
I have always believed and acted upon the notion that these newspapers play a special service role in their communities – that of public watchdog.
I also understand, having been a publisher, that newspapers have to make money. If you don’t have the revenue, you cannot afford to adequately serve the public and the readers. You can’t do it.
So you have this age-old conflict in newspapers between the social and political function with its business functions and obligations to shareholders and owners. What is happening today, and I say this with a great deal of sadness, is that the revenue base of newspapers has deteriorated and with it the vigor of a paper’s watchdog function.
I was very fortunate in that during my career newspapers were generally profitable. I’m talking about the period from 1951 to 1990. In those years, particularly through 1985, newspapers were so profitable that groups were buying up the independent, family-owned papers here and elsewhere. Gannett, for example, went from owning 15 or 16 newspapers to close to 100.
The community newspaper company I worked for, Ottaway, owned eight newspapers when it merged with Dow Jones in 1971. That number expanded to more than 20 by the time I retired. These papers were not being purchased for altruistic reasons. They were being purchased because they were damned good investments in those years.
Newspapers back then had a pretty solid hold on the adverting dollar. Prior to World War II most cities had two or more newspapers under different ownership. But in the years following the war, ownership mergers took place, which meant that a community’s advertising revenue was no longer split among two or three competing newspapers.
During these years, display and classified revenue remained strong. Radio and television simply could not in 30-second or one-minute commercials supply the price and product listings that local retailers required. This newspaper advertising strength survived the economic decline in downtown areas, and rode the revenue wave of shopping centers, large malls, and strip malls in the suburbs.
Alas, that print-media dominance no longer exists. The Internet has cut deeply into newspapers’ classified advertising. The merger of large retail establishments and the rise of the large box stores has sharply reduced display advertising, while circulation and newspaper readership has declined.
When I started my newspaper career afternoon newspapers dominated the Connecticut scene. In terms of circulation, The Hartford Times, owned by Gannett, was the largest newspaper in the state. But its competitor, The Hartford Courant, published in the morning, had two great advantages that led to the demise of The Times. First, The Courant published a Sunday newspaper and, second, it followed the population growth to the suburbs. The Times belatedly started a Sunday newspaper but The Courant’s hold on the Sunday market was too strong.
Four of Connecticut’s largest cities – Bridgeport, New Haven, Meriden and Waterbury – published morning and afternoon newspapers under one owner. The morning papers mostly stayed within their metropolitan confines and trailed behind the late-edition papers in circulation. But Waterbury took a different tack. Its morning newspaper, The Republican, went far beyond Waterbury’s metropolitan area to cover all of Litchfield County up to the Massachusetts and New York boundaries, so it had a strong hold on circulation beyond the core Waterbury boundary. That became a model for the future. Demographics and reading habits were changing with the great shift of population from the cities to the suburbs. So, as circulation and traffic patterns changed, afternoon newspaper had to push their deadlines back, meaning less and less fresh news got into the papers.
As a result of all these changes, the circulation of afternoon papers started to decline, and in the 1980s the afternoons started switching to morning publication. As publisher of The News-Times I was the first in the state to make that change. Gannett sold The Hartford Times and it went out of business.
The shift to morning and the death of The Hartford Times meant there were five papers with a combined circulation of approximately 200,000 that ceased to exist. The newly combined papers at best picked up about half of that circulation, with a corresponding loss of total readership. As I think about it now, this was really the start of the decline in newspapers in Connecticut.
The familiar picture in those earlier days of the father as the sole breadwinner who came home from work, got out his pipe and read the evening newspaper was vanishing. More women and mothers were entering the workforce meaning more families were moving from one to two incomes. I remember as publisher in Danbury, I required the circulation department to call people who dropped their subscriptions and ask them why. “No time to read” was the most common answer, and at first I thought this was a ploy to satisfy me. But I looked into it and it was true. With both husband and wife working they just didn’t have the time to read the paper any more.
Our coverage methods in turn changed, with more attention to suburban news. In my early days in Danbury, we had only two full-time staff members covering areas outside the city, one in Bethel and one in Brewster. The rest of the towns were covered by part-time correspondents. We reversed all that and hired full-time reporters for the towns surrounding Danbury, and our revenue growth enabled us to maintain the paper’s profit margin. When Jim Ottaway Sr. hired me in Danbury he said: “Forrest, when we acquire a newspaper our first obligation is to make it a better newspaper.” I think we did that.
We and other papers in the state did so by strengthening news coverage not only in the core cities, but in the state’s fast growing suburban towns. As a result, the watchdog function of newspapers was in full bloom. What do I mean by that? It is not just what is called “investigative journalism;” that kind of in-depth coverage is only part of it. We were covering on a daily basis the goings on in the mayor’s office, the selectmen’s office, the finance board, the school board, local budgets and the police department. We were making sure someone was watching them. We were keeping government accountable and honest.
I always told the staff that our philosophy was to give the readers what they can’t get elsewhere. That included local government news, community activities, and high school sports.
Another important development in the 1980s was a growing reliance by the group-owned papers on readership surveys. Conducted by outside consultants, these surveys all came back showing that the watchdog articles were not being widely read. They said readers wanted human interest stories, celebrity news, and so-called “good news” stories. In my opinion, readership surveys weakened the role of strong editors.
The content of newspapers got softer and softer, moving away from stories readers should have been getting to keep them informed of what their government was doing.
Television news contributed to this trend. It is great at covering disasters, but who cares about a chimney fire in Shelton? An important development in the legislature maybe gets 30 seconds, if that.
From a strictly financial standpoint, watchdog news is a luxury.
During my newspaper career, we could afford it. That no longer seems to be the case as newspapers are suffering financially and therefore are cutting back on staff. When you cut staff, the main casualty is the newsroom. That greatly lessens community news coverage and creates a gap in the watchdog function that accompanies such coverage.
The question today is how or will that gap be filled?
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*Biographical notes: Forrest C. Palmer traces his family roots in Connecticut back to the mid-17th century in Stonington. He was born in 1924 in Waterbury and grew up in Plymouth. Before completing high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in World War II and served in a combat engineering unit that landed in Normandy and ended up in Berlin. After his military service, he earned an undergraduate degree at Hobart College under the G.I. Bill and later an MA from the University of Chicago. He began his newspaper career in 1951 at the Waterbury Republican and American, where he served as a reporter, editor and editorial director, before joining the Danbury News-Times in 1968 as its editor. He was later promoted to publisher, retiring in 1990. “I started as an obit reporter and ended up as publisher,” he said. Among the achievements in which he takes the most pride are improving the quality and quantity of local news coverage at the papers he served, the hiring of minorities in the newsroom, and promoting women into management positions. He also worked tirelessly to improve public access to government through the Freedom of Information laws and the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government, and successfully pushed for the University of Connecticut to establish a Department of Journalism.