How my daily news job ended

Patrick Thibodeau
Dec 22, 2019 · 4 min read
New Britain Herald building, circa 2013.

I was naive. We were all naive. We were reporters and editors who covered politics, cops, courts. The raw and brutal stuff of a city. Our newsroom was proud, fierce, didn’t hold back and broke stories. Pulling all-nighters to get the story right wasn’t unusual.

The New Britain Herald in Connecticut hired me. It was the early 1980s, and its circulation was about 40,000. An afternoon daily. I began as a suburban reporter and then the city hall beat. A year out of college. We covered about eight towns and the city. There were 15 or 16 reporters and a good compliment of editors. It was family owned. There was a Christmas bonus, a pension. Some of the editors had been there for decades.

Our managing editor was a WWII vet, tough and sharp. As the deadline approached, he’d start banging his pipe on his ashtray. Loud. Sometimes he walked around the newsroom and with an angry voice: “Wrap it up, wrap it now.”

He has passed. Most of the senior editors have long passed. I hate to look up names of co-workers now because I’m afraid of discovering an obit.

Never worked with a finer group of people. After a hard week, we’d often meet up a local bar and got hammered. And smoked. Screw you. We were the last of the old school and didn’t know it. We had no idea what was coming.

The only source of industry news was Editor & Publisher. Print edition. Most didn’t bother with it. But our circulation was slipping. Something was changing but what, exactly?

​Our city, New Britain​,​ had been losing its industrial base since the 1950s. ​The city’s hardware manufacturing was shifting overseas. Downtown retail stores were closing. People now shopped at the mall, just outside the city. The mall stores didn’t advertise in the regional newspapers. The newspaper was losing national advertisers and ​reliable ​local advertisers were going out of business.​ ​

By 1994 you could tell the Herald’s management was worried about the local economy and loss of subscribers. The ecommerce revolution, which would bring a new set of problems for newspapers, was still a few years off.

This was also the year, coincidentally, Jeff Bezos started Amazon in his garage. Craigslist, which would later get blamed for undermining the newspaper classified ad business, didn’t arrive until 1995.

In the newsroom, ​there were rumors that the owners were trying to sell the newspaper, which turned out to be true.

In 1995, the Journal Register Company bought it. On the day of the sale, several of its executives turned up in newsroom lobby on the second floor. They stayed a few minutes. Said some unmemorable stuff, and left.

A reporter at our statewide daily, the Hartford Courant, called me and asked what was up. Here was my anonymous quote: “We don’t know what will happen,” one said afterward. “Nobody really bought the upbeat tone about things. Today we had all these suits running around inside talking to people. No one really understands the nature of the beast yet.”

The JRC was a nightmare. It bought regional newspapers in clusters and cut newsrooms. Whatever it was doing was going to fail. A new word entered our vocabulary: “Corporate journalism.”

People looked for new jobs. Many did very well. Some went to graduate school, others at larger daily newspapers. PR and teaching. Others concentrated on raising families. We all moved on.

My story at the Herald ended this way. Computers were a hobby, including the local BBS community. Hobbyists set up PCs as servers, with software for downloading and discussion rooms. First time posting in a chat room felt like crossing over to something very important.

In time, Delphi, a Boston area based firm, made dial-up Internet available, 20 hours for $20. In 1992 and it was a revelation. It was text based, but it was the Goddamn Internet.

The JRC was starting a Sunday newspaper, a joint effort of several newspapers. They weren’t hiring more staff. They were asking everyone to do more. I asked if they would like a page devoted to computers and the Internet. They liked the idea, provided I kept up my other responsibilities.

I did four editions of this Sunday computer page. It included stories about local businesses setting up Web pages. A tech pub editor who interviewed me called them “user stories.” Never heard that term before, but nodded along. I called them clips. Tech journalism was on the cusp of taking off and it needed daily news people.

But to this day, still miss what we all had in that old newsroom. Thinking about it, writing this, hurts.