Local papers confront modern obstacles

Despite circulation and advertising problems plaguing newspapers nationwide, three small, local news ventures — the New Haven Independent, La Voz Hispana and the New Haven Advocate — are, for the most part, surviving the recession. How is each one staying afloat? Contributing reporter Natalia Thompson investigates.

THE INDEPENDENT

Sitting in front of a humming Macintosh desktop on a Tuesday in early October, Paul Bass ’82, founder and editor of the online-only New Haven Independent, juggled phone calls from reporters and Excel spreadsheets open before him.

The Independent has been collaborating with La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, the Spanish-language weekly with which the Independent shares office space, on a Web-based journalism initiative to bring local, issue-oriented news to New Haven, Bass said. And so far, he said, the project has been succeeding, expanding the organizations’ readership at a time when older, more traditional news sources, such as the New Haven Register, are struggling. (The 197-year-old Register’s parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February.)

Over the past four years, the Independent — a not-for-profit, online-exclusive news outlet updated throughout the day — has grown quickly, founder Bass said. Despite the recession, he explained, the Independent’s annual revenue has swelled to $450,000 from $80,000 since it was founded in 2005. The Independent is funded primarily by charitable grants, which have increased because foundations are taking a stronger interest in promoting new journalism ventures, Bass said.

Bass, a political science lecturer at Yale, said the challenges facing print journalism today stem from the control newspaper conglomerates wield over many daily papers.

“Monopoly chain-owned print newspapers can’t rape local communities the way they have been for the past 50 years,” he said. “The old model doesn’t work anymore. Non-profit papers are the only ones that are breaking new stories every day and gaining readers.”

The Independent has been a welcome addition to the Elm City community, four local leaders said. Rachel Heerema, the director of the Citywide Youth Coalition, said the Independent’s “grassroots coverage” generates community dialogue “that’s hard to create in traditional newspapers.” At the same time, Heerema said she worries about “the big picture getting lost” in the Independent’s coverage because it lacks stories at the statewide level that larger media outlets typically cover.

Still, Bass called the time he has worked at the Independent “the most exciting moment” in his life. News reports of journalism’s demise, he said, are skewed because most of those stories are written by employees of failing newspapers.

“The only people who think journalism is dying are newspaper reporters embedded in the funeral parlor,” Bass said.

LA VOZ

While demographic changes are posing challenges for some of the country’s print newspapers, such changes have fed the growth of many Spanish-language papers, said Iván Román, the director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

“It would be a lie to say that the recession hasn’t impacted [La Voz],” said Abelardo King, who founded the newspaper, which is Connecticut’s largest Spanish-language weekly paper, in 1993. “But in our case, it hasn’t impacted the paper as much because the Hispanic population keeps growing.”

Norma Rodríguez-Reyes, who co-owns La Voz with King, took over the paper in 1998 when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. After the 2000 census, which for the first time showed Latinos as the largest Connecticut minority group, Rodríguez-Reyes said, La Voz saw increased interest from advertisers.

“They realized they were on a sleeping giant,” she said.

Since 2000, La Voz Hispana’s statewide circulation has doubled, from 15,000 to 30,000, and the free weekly paper has grown in size from 16–20 pages to 40–44 pages. Rodríguez-Reyes estimated that around 15,000 Latinos in the greater New Haven area read the paper each week.

Community leaders say La Voz provides an important forum for the New Haven Latino community. Sandra Treviño, the director of the Junta for Progressive Action, praised the paper’s coverage of local issues affecting Latino residents.

“La Voz has several functions,” Treviño said. “It allows individuals to learn about events, resources and organizations. And I think it does a great job of telling people’s stories.”

THE ADVOCATE

For the New Haven Advocate, the recession has presented challenges as well as opportunities. Still, the paper has managed to remain true to its original formula, which combines hard news and investigative reporting with arts and entertainment coverage.

Each week, 40,000 copies of the paper are distributed for free throughout the greater New Haven area, said Joshua Mamis, the Advocate’s publisher.

“Our circulation is steady,” said John Stoehr, the paper’s current managing editor. Still, that figure is 10,000 fewer than the 50,000 copies the paper distributed each week between 2004 and 2006, said Mark Oppenheimer ’96 GRD ’03, who was the paper’s managing editor during that time. Oppenheimer, now the coordinator of the Yale Journalism Initiative, added that the paper’s physical size has also been shrinking in recent years.

“We’ve been printing fewer pages,” Mamis confirmed. He attributed the decrease to the paper’s loss of a number of classified ads over the past three years.

Yet the recession has presented the Advocate with some unexpected opportunities. A decline in the cost of newsprint has allowed the Advocate to print more stories for the same cost, Stoehr said. And though the Advocate has lost a number of its national advertisers, Mamis said, many of its local advertisers have remained loyal.

“Our challenge is to stay fresh, to stay relevant,” Stoehr said — a challenge Mamis said has become increasingly difficult due to the proliferation of online news sources.

To meet that challenge, the Advocate has worked since the mid-’90s to develop a Web site that engages readers. But due to budget cuts made gradually over the past decade, now the Advocate only has one staff member dedicated to its Web site — four fewer than the five online staffers it had a decade ago.

Staying relevant in a world of fast-paced digital media is not the only challenge facing the country’s alternative weekly newspapers, said Richard Karpel, director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. As cities become younger and more diverse, the Advocate and other publications have been forced to look beyond their traditional reader bases.

“They have to make sure their reader isn’t just the white hipster,” Karpel said. “The jury’s still out on whether alt-weeklies will adapt to these new demographics.””

Comments

  • Tanner

    I disagree with Mr. Bass blaming the “monopoly” of chain papers. With readership declining since the 1960’s many papers closed or mergers and media conglomerates kept many more running. Ad revenue is the lubricant that keeps newspapers, television and radio. With the inter-net with its no cost, multiple links has decreased revenue streams and no one has, yet, come up with a new paridigm to regain those lost dollars. Mr. Bass has an excellent paper with a format that may be the an early template of what a local newspapers will become. Of course its workforce and salary structure will never look like the hey-day of the old daily papers.

  • J. Best

    As I mentioned on another site that linked to this story, Annmarie Adams began the first venture of nonprofit newspaper in CT after she resigned from The Courant. The paper, The Hartford Guardian, began as a quarterly and then switched to online only medium. The paper focuses on the city of Hartford and somethings the greater Hartford area.

    People can justify anything they want to. But they can’t change a fact. I think we still should stick to facts–no matter how journalism has evolved. I love Paul Bass’s venture as well. In fact, I wanted to work with him.

    But I was an intern at The Guardian in 2004/2005 so clearly my views are biased. But hey. At least I know my facts.

    JB–a novice journo.
    P.S. (yeah i know about that suit but i was also privy to how it turned out after a while. i was an intern with her during those times.)