Saving The Hometown Dailies

A plea by legislators for state assistance in saving the Herald of New Britain and The Bristol Press — the two dailies slated for closure by the parent Journal Register Company — is getting a mixed reaction among the commenters and bloggers who offered their opinions this week.

That’s because many people thrive on complaining about their daily newspapers, and continue to do so despite the painful reductions and eliminations of local coverage by all three dailies serving Bristol and New Britain — the Press, the Herald and The Courant.

When Henry Paulson of the Bush Administration is lurching from one financial services giant to another doling out bailouts for some but not others, it’s a reasonable question to ask why public investments and resources should be applied to flagging businesses at the local level.

The lawmakers, however, are doing nothing more than watching out for the economic well being of their communities. If the Herald or the Press were machine shops making widgets for United Technologies, no one would raise a fuss about saving jobs and commerce. Intervention by the state Department of Economic Development (DECD) would be uniformly welcome. They have been around here much longer than the absentee ownership of the Journal Register Company.

An exact assessment of the economic impact of The Herald and Press is probably not available beyond the payrolls and expenditures directly involved in putting out these papers.

But town and regional newspapers — print and online — are much more than the sum of their parts. They have much more utility than 24-hour cable and mass media that offer up more “infotainment” than broadcast journalism

Economically, small businesses build traffic and remind repeat customers of their goods and services in local mainstream media that has a targeted circulation area for maximum effect. The shutting down of the Herald and Press would likely reduce the local economy by millions of dollars and add to a ripple effect of business closures.

Beyond the dollars and cents,local newspapers — despite the hits their newsrooms have taken over the last decade — keep the flow of information going about city and town governments, giving residents the knowledge needed to make informed judgments about actions and decisions that have a direct impact on their lives.

There is something noble about the work of local journalists Steve Collins and Jackie Majerus over in Bristol. And in New Britain over the last year, Marc Levy and Rick Guinness of The Herald have been upholding the best traditions of the fourth estate by demanding public officials obey the FOI laws.

It’s being argued that bloggers and internet outlets will now fill the void. The ease of blogging and exchanges of opinions online are addressing some gaps in the greatly diminished coverage of the dailies. It’s also true that there is infinitely more news and opinion available globally for any interested reader. The news and views (“news you can use”)we require, however, are local. Too often emerging town blogs and forums are a poor substitute for dispassionate coverage that people need to make informed judgments. Anonymous comments on blogs and news threads sound like the opinions of village idiots or persons with personal axes to grind, and nobody you would want as your neighbor.

Where does this story go from here? The state lawmakers push with the DECD is worth trying as doubtful as investments, public or private, in newspapering may seem.

The discussion of alternatives should continue. Local commerce needs a local medium. Community journalism that can sort out opinions and personal agendas from the facts and interpret decisions and events for readers is needed — a vacuum that a thousand bloggers cannot fill.

Whatever emerges from talks to save the Herald and Bristol Press let us recall the old axiom: “There is nothing as powerful as the truth and nothing so hard to come by…” It will get harder without the Press and Herald and the now greatly-downsized Courant.