31 December 2008

Push To Save Herald, Press Sparks Debate In National Media


The push by local legislators, as mentioned in November 28's post, to involve the Department of Economic Development (DECD) in efforts to save The Herald of New Britain and the Bristol Press is drawing national media attention.

A Reuters story posted at The Huffington Post focuses on questions of a free press and the potential conflicts that would arise if newspapers got government "bailouts" or other forms of assistance.

The coverage is being driven by a mistaken notion advanced in some reports (including those by Courant columnists Stan Simpson and Kevin Rennie) that the proposal would give the newspapers a handout or "bailout" in the face of falling revenues and readership.

That wasn't the case at all when State Rep. Tim O'Brien (D-24) first asked economic development officials to lend a hand in finding a buyer or potential investors to replace the absentee and failed ownership of The Journal Register Company. The state DECD Commissioner, Joan McDonald, said as much in noting that the push by local elected officials has drawn up to five potential buyers who would take advantage of incentives that her department could provide.

In the Reuters analysis, writer Robert MacMillan notes that legislators, who this week were joined by the Mayors of New Britain and Bristol, sought state intervention to find a way to save these hometown dailies, both of which have a long tradition as the local commercial dailies in once thriving factory towns.

MacMillan, quoting journalism professors and experts, frames the issue in terms of the conflicts that would ensue with state assistance for a newspaper:

To some experts, that sounds like a bailout, a word that resurfaced this year after the U.S. government agreed to give hundreds of billions of dollars to the automobile and financial sectors.

Relying on government help raises ethical questions for the press, whose traditional role has been to operate free from government influence as it tries to hold politicians accountable to the people who elected them. Even some publishers desperate for help are wary of this route.

Providing government support can muddy that mission, said Paul Janensch, a journalism professor at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, and a former reporter and editor.


The Reuters story correctly points out that the separation of the press and government is just as important in a democracy as the separation of church and state.

That separation, however, would not be jeopardized at all if a buyer is found for the Herald or Press, or both, and the newspapers survive via the public sector incentives that DECD would provide.

Whether DECD incentives were part of the sale or not, the assumption that newsrooms would be compromised in New Britain and Bristol is based on unfounded speculation by those journalists and academics who are calling these efforts by DECD a "bailout."

With the Herald due to close January 12th, it is the longest of long shots to assume a deal will come together in time to save it. Some other form or forms of journalism need to emerge to keep the fourth estate alive locally. The best scenario is that a community newspaper (using both print and the internet) be locally owned and self-sustaining, not another absentee owner seeking to plunder these local papers as the Journal Register company has done.

2 comments:

Robert MacMillan said...

Or, perhaps you could argue that as an editor of one of those papers, you will remember how some state reps and others stepped up to help facilitate a sale and thus, survival. And when a reporter at that paper uncovers some negative news about one of those politicians, perhaps for the briefest moment there might be a twinge of self-censorship. This is just a hypothetical scenario, and one that I addressed at the bottom of the story. Unfortunately, I had to cut back the story or else I could have devoted far more to that theme.
One other note, and something that I don't know for a fact, but have wondered: Does giving someone a tax break shift the tax burden on to others? Or does it mean there's less revenue flowing to the government? If the answer is the former, it almost feels like a bailout. Just a little one, mind. ;) Again, I don't know. These are things I thought about and talked to people about while reporting.
Thanks for writing about my story and Happy New Year!

Tim O'Brien said...

Robert MacMillan and those commenting on his blog are ignoring the practical realities for the New Britain community.

These are our local newspapers of record, where our community and family histories are kept. They are where local businesses advertise to local customers. For a mid-sized city like New Britain, already buffetted by decades of de-industrialization at the hands bad national policies, we are very concerned that the loss of our local newspaper would be a blow to our very cohesion as a community.

I care too much about my city to sit by and do nothing when something can be done.

There are some factual corrections that should be made. First of all, the partisan accusations are incorrect. The legislators involved are all Democrats, true. All of the state legislators representing New Britain are Democrats. But our Governor, whose economic development department is involved, is a Republican and New Britain's mayor, who is very directly involving himself in find a buyer for the papers, is also a Republican. This is not a partisan issue. Second, it is factually false to suggest that this is a government buyout of the newspapers. No one has discussed that or even thought about it.

Finally, another incorrect notion that much of this critique hinges on is that newspapers and journalists, generally, do not receive assistance from the government. From what I understand, most local newspapers have long been directly subsidized by the very governments they report on in the form of legal notice advertisements in the newspapers. This is a large enough consideration that newspapers have openly criticized attempts by elected officials to cut back on these government advertisements. Likewise, elected officials have specificly exempted newspapers from sales taxes. And reporters have long benefitted from the actions of good-government-minded elected officials who advocate for Freedom of Information laws. Plus journalists have to cultivate valuable contacts with elected officials in order to get raw information that is the lifeline of news.

It would be a gross overstatement to suggest that our advocacy, as elected officials, for our community having its own newspaper comes close to the impact in the independence of the press than any of those things.

The whole reason we, as elected officials, got involved is that the corporate owner of our hometown newspaper was about the close it without any real effort to find someone who might think, from a businessperson's point of view, that they could run it successfully and buy it.

In fact, the publicity which our actions generated is the biggest thing that has moved the situation from the certain demise to our local newspaper to 5-6 potential buyers stepping forward. The standard economic development assistance that the state has made available to businesses in our state, that may or may not even be taken up by a potential buyer, has not even been close to the most significant factor, here. And this makes the inflated criticism of this potential assistance all the more, well, inflated.

Finally, let me just say this. I worked hard to win approval of Connecticut's sweeping campaign finance reform that hinges on public financing of election campaigns.

That law, which I worked to approve, allowed my own opponent in this past year's election to have just as much money as I had to spend. It made life harder for me as a elected official. But it made the election process more open and thus better for the voters.

The election process is not about me or any other office holders. It is supposed to be for the people. I value democracy.

Likewise, if there were to be no local newspaper in New Britain, elected officials in the city would be the only ones in a position to inform the public of what is happening in government. There would be no independent free press questioning all elected officials.

It does not make life easier for me, as an elected official, to have the free press looking over my shoulder. But, just as with having publicly financed elections, it is better for the people to have an independent free press.

I value democracy, so I fight for election reform and defend the free press.

Here in New Britain, the local public understands the loss that the closing of the Herald would represent for our community, and I have received support for our actions. The national press, being the national press, seem to gloss over the local impact in favor of impacts that seem academic to these very practical, local realities.

But, then again, it is in certain ways ironicly appropriate that members of the press would be questioning of elected officials - even when it is the press, itself, that benefits from the good government advocacy of elected officials.

I wonder if this went through the minds of the elected officials a couple of centuries ago when they used government power to protect freedom of the press by going so far as to enshrine it in our national Constitution.

And I'll bet some journalist wrote an article criticizing that, too.