All the news in fits of print

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Upon arriving at the New Haven Register’s 13-acre property and walking into their building by Long Wharf, we saw just what we had expected: rows and rows of reporters’ desks piled with papers and people busily chatting on phones and typing on their computers.

But in the very same building is a pressroom responsible for printing over 30 publications, including two other dailies in addition to the Register. After producing papers for over three decades, the pressroom is shutting down and the Register is laying off 105 workers, who will all be gone by March 5.

Although New Haven Register Publisher Tom Wiley declined to comment on the private company’s current finances, pressroom employees we interviewed said that the layoffs are a result of the Register scrambling to cut costs and to increase efficiency.

The Jackson family, which acquired the Register at the beginning of the 20th century, eventually sold the paper for financial reasons. Every owner after would be a corporate one. Reached at her home in Montecito, California, Patrica Hope Jackson, the widow of Lionel Jackson Sr., said selling the newspaper “was the most advantageous thing to do because, as you well know, nobody reads the paper anymore. All of the family wouldn’t agree. Fortunately my late husband had the authority. If he hadn’t, none of the Jacksons would have a penny today.”

The Register is currently the largest newspaper owned by the Journal Register Co., a conglomerate of daily and weekly papers that reaches over 21 million readers in ten states each month. According to Wiley, January’s Register has a readership of 384,300. One million unique users visited the site over the month.

In Feb. 2009, the Journal Register Co. filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. Its stocks had been trading at half a penny per share. Memorandums from the bankruptcy court refer to $695 million of debt. “[The Debtors] attribute the losses to an industry-wide decline in readership, circulation and revenue, caused by increased competition from other forms of media (such as the Internet), the global recession, and weak advertising demand,” court documents say. Within half a year, the Journal Register Co. emerged from bankruptcy by becoming a private company.

“Nobody’s making a big fuss. Where’s Mayor [John] DeStefano in all of this? Why aren’t we trying to keep the newspaper printed in New Haven?” asked Imogene Mongillo, who has worked in the Register’s pressroom for 27 years. “You’re the first person to come ask how any of us feel about this. Do you want to know how it feels? It sucks.”

The Register’s human resources manager, Robert Lee, declined to comment.

While Mark Brackenbury, the Register’s managing editor, was initially reluctant to have us show up unannounced to the printing area, we were eventually allowed to look around the pressroom. Mongillo was the first person we interviewed; the first four workers we tried to talk to spoke no English (though they did excitedly talk at us in Spanish and animatedly pose for pictures).

“Morale has still been good and there’s a great sense of community here. People are coming to work here until the very end,” Mongillo said. “I’m still kind of in disbelief, though. I just can’t imagine not being here. I’ve done this for so long.”

Robert Suraci, a pressroom supervisor, especially lamented the difficulty of affording health care. He can choose to keep his current health plan after March, but he’ll have to pay anywhere from $1,200 to $1,500; if not, he’ll have to shop around for other options. Like Mongillo, he had difficulty envisioning what he would do after March.

“I haven’t had a break since I was 15: I’ve worked since then. Yeah, I can use a rest, but it’s not reality,” he said. “The longer I wait, the harder it will be to find a decent job with health benefits. We’re getting shipped out in five weeks.”

Like Yalies applying to jobs and internships, Suraci now must learn to write a resume. He turns 61 in March, the same month his 41-year career at the Register will come to an end.

“How do you even write a resume?” he asked. (We wished we could tell him.) “Maybe Yale will hire me. Do I want to be a janitor? Not really, but if they’ll give that to me, I’ll probably do it.”

The newsroom and the pressroom, despite being in the same building, are two different worlds whose workers rarely interact with each other.

“From what we understand, the layoffs won’t affect the way we do our jobs at all,” said Brackenbury, the managing editor. “It matters because we value that 105 people are losing their jobs, but it won’t make a practical difference in what we do.”

But there are other initiatives coming soon that the newsroom will feel too, as the layoffs are just one wave of change the Register is experiencing. The Register is also planning to sell their entire property and relocate to an “open newsroom” in downtown New Haven. Modeled on the Torrington Register Citizen’s current office, this newsroom will be open to the public, enabling people to see their reporters and editors at work.

According to Brackenbury, the Register’s newsroom will have a cafe, public work stations with computers, and a library with the Register’s archives. People will be able to come in, talk to reporters and editors, and observe their work.

“The change goes beyond just physical space, and is more about our philosophy,” Brackenbury added.

The Register is changing according to the philosophy of “digital first, print last.” CEO John Paton of Digital First Media, which manages the Journal Register Company, which owns the New Haven Register, has encouraged newspapers to stay on top of trends and keep up with the move to online news.

However, according to Tom Wiley, who is also the executive vice president of Digital First Media, most of the Register’s revenue still comes from its print circulation.

“’Digital first’ does not mean ‘no print,’ it means ‘print last,’ which reflects the way our audience consumes our news. [Print] is still a very important part of our business,” Wiley said in an email to the News.

One of the Register’s aims is also to increase community involvement. It now has two new community engagement editors who are responsible for increasing the interaction between the Register and its readership.

“We’ve opened ourselves up: we stream our four o’clock afternoon meeting online for the public to see. The idea is that we’re accessible,” said Ed Stannard, one of the community engagement editors. “If people want to get in touch with us, at least people can see how our process works. It pulls back the curtain.”

The Register also hosts a live online chat room at 10:30 a.m. every morning, where the public can participate in discussions among a variety of Connecticut newspaper editors. Additionally, the news budget is posted on their website, and readers can see which reporters are working on which news stories in case they have suggestions or questions.

But the Register doesn’t want community involvement to stop at tips and suggestions — it wants to publicize readers’ work as well. According to Stannard, the Register is willing to link to the blogs of writers who are passionate about something, anything at all.

“We’re consciously doing more linking to other sites and sources, because with the rise of the Internet, we’re not the only news source here,” Brackenbury added. “We’ll probably even link to this article you’re writing.”

Other projects of the Register include the Register Matchmaker, a blind date service in honor of Valentine’s Day. And for Black History Month, the Register has put up a timeline on the website to which anyone can contribute.

The webpage asks readers to “please help us build this out with people, places, or events that have inspired you. We welcome your additions and the opportunity for all of us to learn from you.”

“Maybe [someone] once met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or went to a speech of his, and they can put it up there,” Stannard said.

Ultimately, Stannard said that the goal of the open newsroom, the blogs, and the interactive online features is to get citizens more involved, and this involvement is part of the Register’s vision of a viable economic model. These initiatives are the most recent in a line of actions inspired by the constant drive to improve the business’ profit model.

“This company went into bankruptcy. Paton took it out of bankruptcy, reversed that, and made our company profitable,” Stannard said.

Brackenbury and Stannard disagree on whether print newspapers could eventually disappear. Brackenbury argued that print will survive, but only for a smaller audience and only if newspapers continue to innovate. Stannard, however, said he could imagine a world without print newspapers. Still, both of them cautioned against thinking of newspapers through the print-online binary.

“Take a look at history: people said TV was going to kill radio, radio was going to kill newspapers, talkies were going to kill movies,” Stannard said. “But those are still here. All we need is a viable economic model.”

*****

Digital First Media Co. is putting their stories online faster, they’re incorporating multimedia into each article, and they’re getting readers to interact with their content.

“They’re doing everything we did, a few years after we started,” said Paul Bass ’82 founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, an online weekday newspaper that covers the Elm City.

Bearded and wearing a yarmulke, Bass is editing a story about change — the new police chief is refashioning his department and trying to revitalize its connection to the community. Bass is at the middle desk in his cramped office, which they share with La Voz Hispana, New Haven’s Spanish language news source. In front of him, staff writer Thomas MacMillan has a police radio on his desk; behind him, managing editor Melissa Bailey ’04 watches a video online. A black mug on his Bass’s desk reads, “Teamwork: Together we achieve.”

“[New Haven’s] neighborhoods. Its government. Its people — from the knuckleheads to the dreamers and schemers, and everyone in between.” With more than 30 years of experience covering New Haven, Bass’s project is innovating the way local news is reported.

When it comes to local journalism, “you can’t be a disinterested party,” Bass says. “News affects you, too.” Each month, 120,000 unique visitors check the Independent’s website for the latest news in New Haven, a city of 130,000 residents.

Bass sees his readers as collaborators in the journalistic process. Covering a U.S. senatorial debate, a woman emailed him a number of typos contained in an article Bass had hastily published from a coffee shop. Or, when a 13-year-old Krystal Hammett was murdered on Dickerman Street just off Whalley Avenue, a reader sent him video footage of an anti-violence rally. Bass put it near the top of the story.

Readers also engage with the reporting by participating in dialogue on the lively comment boards. Heavy moderation allows a productive dialogue, but it also puts the paper at risk of lawsuits if inappropriate or inaccurate remarks aren’t caught. In Bass’s mind, the conversation gained is worth the risk.

The Independent is funded by the Online Journalism Project, a nonprofit dedicated to creating hyper-local online news sources. The organization, run by Bass, declares that it is “picking up the pieces of a mission abandoned by media corporations that bought up local newspapers and radio stations, merged newsrooms, created monopolies, eviscerated editorial budgets, and abandoned the in-depth, knowledgeable, passionate, grassroots news reporting vital to the health of a democracy.”

Bass believes in the importance of his newspaper’s stories. Citing recent examples, he says they “led the charge” on school reform when no one else was talking about the issue and first pointed to racial harassment in East Haven that later led to an FBI investigation.

According to the Online Journalism Project’s tax returns, the organization is making money too. When it first reported in 2006, the group made $105,731 and spent $62,586. A year later, Bass was compensated with a salary of $36,000. By 2010, the group made $662,532 and held assets valued at $822,852. Expenses totaled only $459,762, 6.4 percent of which was spent on fundraising. Bass paid himself a salary of $60,000.

98.3 percent of the Online Journalism Project’s revenue came from donations, including sponsors Gateway Community College, Yale-New Haven Hospital and Service Employees International Union. The Independent’s reliance on sponsorship creates the potential for conflicts of interest in the stories they choose to report. “They’re more advocates,” Stannard, of the Register, added. “They don’t try to be as objective as we are when it comes to things like community involvement.”

The Register isn’t immune to these conflicts, either.

The Independent is registered as a public charity under the category of community improvement; the Register is a private company that receives support from businesses through advertisements.

Since the launch of the New Haven Independent, the Online Journalism Project helped start three other newspapers across the state: the Branford Eagle, the Valley Independent Sentinel, and the Connecticut Health Investigative Team. Bass said there are no plans for further expansion.

“We need to figure out how to be stable long-term,” he said.

Eugene Driscoll, Editor of the Valley Independent Sentinel, was hired by Bass to run another online hyper-local news site. The news site is named after the Evening Sentinel, a print newspaper bought by another paper and subsequently shut down.

“Journalists… look down upon local reporting. It’s considered slumming — something they have to trudge through while they dream of landing that Pulitzer at the New York Times.” said Driscoll. “If 19,000 other news outlets aren’t chasing the same story, it must not be news. I disagree.”

Driscoll, who has previously worked for five different newspaper conglomerates, said a corporate culture prevented any innovation in trying to adapt to changes the Internet was bringing. While it gave him a 401k, new iMacs and chairs with “proper lumbar support,” Driscoll says they also “[ran] the newspaper industry into the ground and then spit on its grave.” The purpose of reporting changed from following a story to pleasing your supervisor.

Driscoll said Digital First Media, owner of the New Haven Register, is finally bringing a long-needed change to print journalism.

“I want Digital First to be wildly successful because I do not want any more reporters to lose their jobs,” Driscoll said. “I want Digital First to succeed because journalism needs to survive.”

Bass said the Register is going through a “painful” transition from being one of the country’s “worthless, worthless media companies to being at the forefront of trying to reinvent for-profit daily journalism in a meaningful way.”

Bass still stressed differences in coverage between the Register and the Independent, but he said he enjoys the revival of the city’s journalism. When he started working as a journalist in New Haven over three decades ago, there were two daily newspapers, an alternative weekly, and six radio news stations. By 2005, there was one daily newspaper with only one-third of its former staff, a gutted weekly, and no radio newsrooms.

The Register sees itself as occupying a somewhat different niche than the Independent, and said that the two have a more collaborative relationship.

“Our missions are different: they cover New Haven, while we’re covering Greater New Haven and the surrounding community,” Brackenbury said. “But we’ve been trying to do more partnering with them.”

*****

For the laid-off workers like Suraci, the Register’s profit model and the changes it has inspired are not always in line with the needs of some community members. At the end of the day, the Register is still a business.

“The Register has been bought three to four times, and the last people who bought us are investors,” Suraci said. “For them, it’s just a question of profit.”

Jim Sleeper ’69, a lecturer in Yale’s Political Science department, explained the effects of the unique pressure that the profit motive puts on newspapers owned by larger companies.

“Print newspapers like the Register that are owned by chains tend to put journalism’s community-service role below the pressure to maximize returns to the chains’ anonymous shareholders nationwide.”

Sleeper said that this encourages a false trade off between news that sells and news that benefits the community.

Andrew Houlding worked as an investigative reporter for the New Haven Courier-Journal in 1969. (The paper was later merged with the Register.) “We were all starving reporters. It was an exciting time in the 60s and 70s in New Haven,” Houlding said.

In 1975, he broke a story about a widespread illegal wiretapping operation conducted by the New Haven Police Department. Police tapped gamblers, drug dealers, members of the Black Panthers, an apartment where Panthers’ children were cared for, white supremacists and even the mayor himself. The story prompted resignations, extended trials and changed perceptions of New Haven’s legal institutions.

The story took over a year to source as Houlding persuaded police officers involved in the conspiracy to come forward. “The amount of time that I made to do those stories was astronomical compared to the amount of time people have these days to do most stuff,” Houlding said.

Houlding said that the publisher made extra copies of the newspaper during the week the five-part series ran. It turns out there just might be a market for community journalism.

The Register claims that it is actually becoming more involved with the community through its initiatives. Additionally, the Register sees in-depth reporting as actually a part of its shifting philosophy.

“We’ve created the new investigative editor position. We’re just digging deeper into stories, doing in-depth investigative projects,” Brackenbury said. “We want to take a more in-depth approach to issues and really look inside of them.”

In 1978, Houlding left journalism. During his time at the New Haven Advocate, he hired a reporter still a student at Yale: the young Paul Bass.

Today, Houlding works as a lawyer in Hartford. He reads the New York Times and the Hartford Courant every day, skims the Register and reads the Independent. “I hope [the Register] gets better,” he said. “It couldn’t get much worse than it was.”

Given its changing leadership and new philosophy, the Register now has the opportunity to help recreate an environment conducive to newspapers’ success, much like the one Houlding and others experienced decades ago. Though the long-term effects and eventual legacy of the Register’s innovations may not be clear for years to come, it now has the chance to clearly define its own niche and unique role as the remaining print daily in New Haven aside from the News.

While the Register seems to be adopting some of the Independent’s goals of representing and interacting with the community, its status as a private business inevitably influences exactly how it will do that. The Independent seems to have carved out its own niche as the non-profit community advocate, and now the Register must decide what its own role will be. As the two major news sources for New Haven, the Independent and the Register embody the two journalism models going forward.

“It is a golden age in New Haven for journalism. Old media is finding new ways to do the job,” Bass said. “It’s a great time to be a reporter.”

Bass hesitated. “At least until the money runs out.”

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