Two years ago New Britain was on the brink of losing its only daily newspaper, The New Britain Herald. The last days of print journalism in town appeared certain as the Courant steadily withdrew resources and the Herald's parent, the Journal Register Company, was getting ready to lock the doors at One Herald Square for good.
But the Herald and its sister paper, The Bristol Press, soldier on with Publisher Michael Schroeder having retained and recruited experienced editors and reporters. Schroeder is also contending with keeping the hometown dailies going commercially despite a bad economy and the tendency of many post-Baby Boomers to get their information from everything but newsprint. Not so easy but the investment continues.
Out of nowhere the revival of The Herald has been followed over the last nine months by not one but two free community weeklies that can be found side by side each week in shops, bars and other establishments around town.
Make no mistake. These free papers don't represent a threat to the mainstream and commercial Herald that sells for 75 cents on the newstands and has an online edition. The freebies pursue advertising but appear to be no more than labors of love for now.
The Hardware City Journal (HCJ), launched last fall, has re-surfaced after a brief hiatus following the abrupt departure of the paper's editor, Robin Vinci. Vinci, an even-handed journalist who covered Berlin for the Herald, bolted to start a new paper, The New Britain City Journal (NBCJ), that replicates much of what Vinci was doing at HCJ. A May 12th Herald story took note of Vinci's exit from HCJ and plans for the City Journal.
With both now hitting the streets, the June 18th issues of each free paper contain healthy doses of human interest and coverage of the budget woes and cuts on education from City Hall. Neither paper betrays any editorial bent in favor or liberals or conservatives or Republicans and Democrats. Not yet anyway.
The one difference appears to be that NBCJ reveals more about who is behind the enterprise. The Publisher is R2 Online Consignment with Vinci listed as the editor. The HCJ, while it has bylines with recognizable names (Editor: John O'Dell), says nothing about ownership or publisher and provides just a P.O. box, phone number and e-mail in the editorial page box. The hand of Vinci in NBCJ shows a tighter and more professional approach than the HCJ, which inflates itself to 20 pages by including almost a page of City Hall department number boilerplate on the inside and a full back page of Mayor Stewart's budget veto message (insults and all) and his accompanying press release about why it's necessary to spend more in the municipal budget but spend less for education than the Common Council plan.
There's no clear word on what caused a splintering of the people who are gamely trying to make free community newspapers work in New Britain. Nick Paonessa, a past Republican candidate for several offices and as strongly opinionated a conservative as you can meet in New Britain, was involved in the HCJ with Vinci. He's still about town delivering and talking up the HCJ, but still prefers to maintain the lowest of profiles, letting a staple of byliners take all the credit or responsibility for the Hardware City Journal.
Given the near death of the city's daily in January 2009, it sounds improbable that New Britain residents are on the reading end of three different sources of community news in 2010. But that's what they'll get as they pick up that quart of milk or lottery ticket at the corner store or go to the neighborhood tavern every week.
Let's enjoy the competition while it lasts.