Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

January 21, 2019 FOCUS: Advertising, Media & Marketing

Amid more buyouts and ownership uncertainty, Hartford Courant publisher says newspaper adapting to digital age

HBJ Photo | Natalie Missakian Andrew Julien became the Hartford Courant's publisher and editor-in-chief in 2016 after Tribune Publishing abruptly replaced all publishers at its newspapers that year.
HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper The Hartford Courant building at 285 Broad St.

As newspapers across the country have folded or scaled back their publication of print editions in the wake of changing reader habits and declining revenue in the digital age, the 254-year-old Hartford Courant has continued to deliver statewide and local news to the doorsteps of Connecticut readers every morning.

But the new year brings new challenges for the nation's oldest continuously published newspaper, which is entering 2019 with a slimmed-down newsroom and uncertainty surrounding the ownership of its parent company, Tribune Publishing.

In November, at least nine veteran newsroom staffers took a voluntary buyout offered to Tribune employees in a cost-cutting move, the latest in a series of cuts to the paper's news staff over the last 10 years.

Meanwhile Tribune Publishing, which owns the Courant and eight other newspapers, is still looking for a buyer after a deal with newspaper publisher McClatchy collapsed last month.

The latest difficulties are playing out against the larger backdrop of a struggling industry, as more readers and advertisers turn away from print media in favor of digital platforms.

A recent Pew Research Center analysis shows weekday print circulation at U.S. newspapers declined 11 percent in 2017, marking the 29th consecutive year of declines. At the Courant, average weekday print circulation has fallen 32 percent over the last three years, from 89,152 in the third quarter of 2015 to 60,265 in 2018, according to Alliance for Audited Media figures.

Despite these headwinds, Hartford Courant Editor-in-Chief and Publisher Andrew Julien is bullish about the paper's future, and rejects any suggestion that the state's largest newspaper is in trouble.

“I do get upset when people ask me questions like 'Is the Hartford Courant going to survive?' ” he said in a recent interview. “Are we going to survive? The Courant has been around for 254 years. We are going to thrive.”

He said the decline in print subscriptions doesn't mean readers aren't out there, but it's no longer as simple as delivering a paper to their doorsteps.

“You have to find people on Facebook, you have to find them on Twitter, you have to make sure that if they're searching for something online and it's a story that they care about, that you're there when they want you to be there,” he said.

To replace lost print subscribers, he said the Courant's strategy has been to build its audience by engaging readers on digital platforms and in the community, and finding more creative ways to tell stories and present information.

Digital opportunity

As part of its election coverage last fall, for example, the paper offered an interactive online quiz that matched respondents with a gubernatorial candidate based on their answers and hosted “pop-up newsrooms” in the community to foster conversations about the issues.

“The internet and the digital space is a challenge but I see it as a tremendous opportunity,” he said. “We can engage a whole new generation and pools of readers.”

The Courant has also diversified its advertising toolbox, offering more branded content and video ads, he said, and has pursued new revenue streams such as hosting events and entering into commercial printing contracts with other newspapers.

“There's tremendous value in the print advertising market, but it's not the only thing we're selling on the advertising end,” he said.

While digital advertising revenue at newspapers is growing, the growth has been too slow to offset the decline of print, experts say. Total U.S. newspaper advertising revenue peaked at $49.4 billion in 2005 and fell to $16.5 billion by 2017, according to Pew Research.

Advertising revenue from Tribune Publishing's newspapers business segment fell 24 percent between 2015 and 2017, figures show. Tribune sold the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune in 2018 and bought the New York Daily News in 2017.

Richard Hanley, a journalism professor at Quinnipiac University, said Connecticut's economy and the decline of brick-and-mortar retail, including stalwart print advertisers like Sears, have increased the financial pressure on local newspapers. Papers the Courant's size have it especially tough because they lack the scale that digital advertisers seek, he said.

“Papers of that size are really caught in a trap, … too small for a regional or national following like the (New York) Times or the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal, yet too big to fund through a dwindling pool of local advertising,” he explained.

Hanley said the Courant, like many newspapers, has made up for falling revenues largely by cutting its workforce “but there comes a point when cutting the workforce no longer works. Then what are you producing?” he asked.

Julien said Tribune doesn't release employment numbers at individual papers, but over the last decade the Courant has closed its regional news bureaus and laid off dozens of journalists.

HBJ reported in 2014 that Courant newsroom staffing levels peaked in 1994 at 400 employees and dropped to 135 employees in 2009. Tribune Publishing offered the latest buyouts in November after the company reported a $4.2 million third-quarter loss.

The Courant has not publicly disclosed how many of its employees took the offer, but according to information posted on Connecticut media industry blog The Laurel, the list included Editorial Page Editor Carolyn Lumsden, Op-ed and Sunday Opinion Editor Peter Pach, as well as a listings editor, four reporters and two photographers.

The downsizing comes as cross-state rival Hearst newspapers has been aggressively expanding its footprint in Connecticut and beefing up its reporting on politics, state government and high school sports.

In the last year, Hearst has also hired away some big-name Courant talent, including economic and political columnist Dan Haar, sports columnist Jeff Jacobs, and earlier this month, WNPR radio personality Colin McEnroe.

Hearst owns the Connecticut Post and purchased its competitor, The New Haven Register, in 2017 along with two other Connecticut dailies, eight weeklies and Connecticut Magazine, giving it an aggregate readership of 850,000 households, which is the largest in the state, according to Matt DeRienzo, vice president of news and digital content for Hearst Connecticut Media Group.

“We're acting our size, which is a pretty significant statewide news organization,” DeRienzo said of the recent hires. “For folks like Colin McEnroe, Jeff Jacobs, Dan Haar, I would imagine we are an attractive outlet for them because of the reach that we have.”

DeRienzo declined to comment about whether New York-based Hearst was interested in buying the Courant.

Industry observers are closely watching how Tribune's search for a buyer plays out, and what it may mean for the Courant's future.

Tribune, whose CEO Justin Dearborn stepped down Jan. 17, is still talking to potential buyers after rejecting the bid from McClatchy last month, according to news reports. Other recent bidders include AIM Media Management, a Dallas-based newspaper publisher, and New York investment firm Donerail Group. Tribune has also recently approached Gannett Co., owner of USA Today, about reviving merger talks that fell through years earlier, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Everyone is rooting for the Courant to find a buyer who will invest in the newsgathering operation,” said Quinnipiac's Hanley. “It's essential to the functioning of our democracy to have a paper of that caliber in the Capital City of the state.”

Duby McDowell, a former TV journalist and president of McDowell Jewett Communications, which runs The Laurel blog, said the best-case scenario would be “a local owner with deep pockets who has great respect for journalistic independence.”

She cited recent newspaper acquisitions by “benevolent billionaires” such as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' purchase of the Washington Post.

McDowell, who began working in the Hartford media market as a reporter in the 1980s, said it's been discouraging to witness the diminishing staff at the newspaper over the years.

“Maybe a white knight will come in and save the Hartford Courant,” she said.

Julien declined to comment on the prospect of local ownership, and insisted the recent departures and uncertainty wouldn't impact the high-quality, investigative and accountability journalism that are the foundation of the Courant brand.

“Excellence has always been the hallmark of the Courant and it is still a hallmark of the Courant,” he said.

Sign up for Enews


Order a PDF