The Hartford Courant still produces excellent journalism, but how will it fare under newly spun off Tribune Publishing?
  • Jennifer McLaughlin
  • The Hartford Courant still produces excellent journalism, but how will it fare under newly spun off Tribune Publishing?

The Tribune Company, fresh out of bankruptcy, has just spun off its eight daily newspapers into a corporation all their own: Tribune Publishing.

This is a major event in the lifetime of the Chicago Tribune, and the Tribune has played it that way—with this story, for instance, and this one. For milestones of equal significance, it’s necessary to go back to the Tribune Company merger with Times Warner Mirror in 2000 and the Sam Zell takeover in 2007, both of them disasters.

But they say the third time’s a charm, and sometimes it actually is.

A journalist at one of the eight papers, the Hartford Courant, chose to look on the bright side. His Facebook post optimistically exclaimed: ” As of 4 p.m. today, we are free of the deluded morons who have for 14 years given us a royal screwing. Hopefully this new company, which will be focused on our newspapers and digital initiatives, will be successful.”

I was curious about the Courant because unlike the Tribune and LA Times, it isn’t a Tribune paper that a deep-pocketed mogul—such as Eli Broad, Rupert Murdoch, or the Koch brothers—has been rumored to want to buy. If Tribune Publishing sinks, the Courant sinks.

Also, I know two of its most faithful readers—in-laws who tell me things like, “Continuing to subscribe has been one of the unnegotiables in our marriage,” yet add, “Most people we know do not subscribe. We are a dying breed.” Wire copy has replaced staff reporters, world and national news “is often minimal and sometimes appallingly brief,” and only the sports section has kept its standards up. “For such an historic publication it is sad to see the loss in quality.”

A noble title, the Courant has been publishing since 1764, and it was independent until LA-based Times Mirror bought it in 1979. The purchase led to a 1987 book by a Courant reporter, Andrew Kreig, with a title that requires no interpretation: Spiked: How Chain Management Corrupted America’s Oldest Newspaper. Yet the Courant won Pulitzers in 1992 and 1999.

Chicago and Zell still lay ahead, as did the swift and widespread collapse of the newspaper industry. The staff of the Courant newsroom plummeted from about 400 to around 150, and in 2009 it was made to share its newsroom with the local Tribune Company TV station. (The room was recarpeted in the areas that would show up on camera.)

An old friend who’s a mover and shaker in Hartford e-mailed me with a memory: “A couple of years ago I was in the Courant building to be taped for a video . . . and the entire executive floor was populated by one secretary! All the fancy offices and conference rooms were vacant.”

From this low estate, the Courant now ponders its future. It’s not a broken newspaper (it’s been a Pulitzer finalist four times in this century, including last year), but it’s depleted and humbled. Because Tribune Media has hung on to its TV stations and its real estate, the Courant has been moved out of its old newsroom into rented space on another floor of the building it used to own. (In Chicago, the Tribune now rents its space in the Tower.)

But onward and upward. A website dedicated to former Courant staffers, some who quit and many of whom were laid off, commented this week, “The new ship of state, leaving the ugly legacy of Sam Zell behind, sets sail for who knows what with The Hartford Courant aboard.”

Aboard, but not at the controls. Paul Stern, a former Courant editor who runs the website I just mentioned, told me, “I doubt the Courant has much pull with its sister papers when it comes to shaping the future; but one never knows where the influence and personalities of the execs will be felt.”

It must be like sailing into tomorrow in a drone, knowing the cockpit’s empty but somebody in Chicago is sitting at a console playing with a joystick.