Dan Haar: Lawmakers move to examine Courant's ownership after cuts, newsroom closing

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The Hartford Courant building on Broad Street in Hartford, Conn., Monday, March 13, 2000. The Courant is a subsidiary of the Times Mirror Corporation, which has been bought by the Tribune company based in Chicago. (AP Photo/The Hartford Courant, Alan Chaniewski)

The Hartford Courant building on Broad Street in Hartford, Conn., Monday, March 13, 2000. The Courant is a subsidiary of the Times Mirror Corporation, which has been bought by the Tribune company based in Chicago. (AP Photo/The Hartford Courant, Alan Chaniewski)

ALAN CHANIEWSKI / AP

Two months after The Hartford Courant closed its newsroom in the capital city, a legislative committee brought forward a bill Tuesday that would examine the newspaper’s ownership — with the possibility of barring a hedge fund from acquiring Tribune Publishing, the Courant’s corporate parent.

As it happened, Tribune and the hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, announced a deal hours later for Alden, already Tribune’s largest shareholder, to take over 100 percent of the Chicago-based newspaper company.

That put a sharp point on the bill — which is, to say the least, a highly unusual legal tack. Unlike the overwhelming majority of companies in Connecticut, The Hartford Courant Co. operates under a special act of the legislature, dating at least to 1887, and has been amended several times.

That fact, insists Sen. Matthew Lesser, D-Middletown, gives the General Assembly authority to apply sharp scrutiny to the ownership of the Courant, the oldest continuously published newspaper in the nation, founded in 1764.

State Sen. Matthew Lesser wants the General Assembly to examine ownership at the Hartford Courant, a company chartered by the state legislature.

State Sen. Matthew Lesser wants the General Assembly to examine ownership at the Hartford Courant, a company chartered by the state legislature.

File photo /

Lesser is co-chairman of the legislature’s insurance and real estate committee, which raised the bill. The measure is so far just a concept and doesn’t have specific language. Its goal is to blunt the effects of newsroom cutbacks by Tribune.

New York-based Alden controls more than 50 U.S. newspapers through its ownership interest in Digital First Media, and has slashed spending dramatically, paring jobs by 90 percent in some places.

“We should step in before Alden, which has a really bad track record of operating newspapers, drives them out of business,” Lesser said. “What I want whoever owns the Courant to do is to care about The Hartford Courant…They were chartered by the legislature for a purpose.”

Amid steady cutbacks in staffing, civic and political leaders in central Connecticut, starting with Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, have wondered aloud what, if anything, they can do to help the Courant. The best answer is a sale to local owners, perhaps a nonprofit, as was announced Tuesday for the Baltimore Sun, another Tribune-owned newspaper. Or at least, a sale to a newspaper chain that’s investing.

Pressure from the legislature could help make that happen. “We’re glad it’s something they’re looking at,” said Rebecca Lurye, a Courant reporter and chair of the 42-member union, the Hartford Courant Guild. “We’re losing people by the day and if the legislature sees a way that they can at the very least raise awareness of this issue...then we would love to see that.”

The closing of the newsroom at 285 Broad St., home of The Courant since it was converted from an auto sales location in the ’40s, was not directly related to staff cuts but was viewed by many reporters at the Courant as part of the same trend.

Members of the committee wondered about the measure as Lesser and co-chair Kerry Wood, D-Rocky Hill, brought it out. But none opposed it as they voted to advance it to a likely public hearing.

“Can we influence the closing of that press office?” asked Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland.

“That’s what the bill is meant to explore. I think we have a lot to learn,” Wood replied.

“I absolutely love history so I definitely am in favor” of considering a bill, Nuccio said.

It’s far from clear how the bill might work. Opponents could say it represents improper and perhaps unlawful meddling.

Lesser said laws around state-chartered companies leave the state room to maneuver; the 1887 legislation establishes the capital stock ownership and the makeup of the board of directors.

He doesn’t believe the state can order the Courant to reopen a newsroom. But he said that issue stands as a symbol, a gesture Tribune could make to show its commitment. It’s complicated by the fact that most news outlets, including Hearst Connecticut Media newspapers — not to mention offices in countless industries — have worked remotely since last March due to the pandemic.

“This is a decision about real estate needs amid a difficult and challenging time on both the public health and economic fronts,” Andrew Julien, the Courant’s publisher and editor-in-chief, wrote to staffers in an email on Dec. 4, announcing the closing.

Just the raising of the bill represents an extraordinary, but not unprecedented, attempt by lawmakers to hold sway over ownership of corporations whose operations are not regulated by the state.

In 1998, Branford-based Echlin Corp., a maker of brakes and other vehicle parts wth 900 local employees, sought help from the General Assembly to ward off a hostile takeover bid by a smaller rival, SPX Corp. The legislature’s judiciary committee advanced a bill that would bar the unwelcome takeover of any business incorporated in Connecticut — sending shock waves through Wall Street that a state would even consider such a move.

The bill failed on the House floor after SPX cut a deal with the United Auto Workers union. Echlin then sold itself to a friendly “white knight” company to avoid a takeover by SPX but within five years the jobs were gone from Connecticut anyway.

I covered the Echlin drama for the Courant exactly halfway through a 36-year stint there as a reporter, photographer, business editor and columnist. I have about 10 books worth of stories from that newsroom, none of which I’ll tell here except to say that if you were there on Sept. 11, 2001, or Dec. 14, 2012, your view of journalists might change for the better.

So I’m not neutral in this. I spoke with Lesser last year about a possible role for the General Assembly, and he launched research on the charter after that. Like him, I’d like to see the Courant flourish and maintain its tradition as one of the truly great regional newspapers in America.

Legally and politically, this bill has to be a distant longshot.

Pandemic aside, this era has seen a reinvention of news reporting, along with the rise of online-only publications that report on public issues, such as The CT News Junkie and The Connecticut Mirror, which counts both the Courant and the Hearst papers as partners.

And it’s not clear what the role of newsrooms will be.

“It won’t change the essence of what we do: Delivering the high-impact journalism readers have come to expect from the Courant,” Julien wrote on Dec. 4, of the building exit, “and crafting creative solutions that meet the needs of our advertising partners.”

dhaar@hearstmediact.com