Michael Kirk has watched the Hartford Courant wither for years.
When Kirk worked in Washington, D.C., more than 20 years ago, he remembered several Courant reporters covering Connecticut’s lawmakers from the nation’s capital. Less than a decade later, management at Tribune, Courant’s parent company, closed that bureau.
“Just watching it go from what it was to what it is being taken over by vampire companies with no interest in journalism, it has been really difficult to see,” Kirk, 42, said in a recent interview. “It is absolutely a shadow of its former self.”
Kirk was one of 85 former or current newspaper subscribers I interviewed to learn more about what keeps people subscribing or what leads them to cut home delivery or digital access amid this tumultuous environment.
As hedge funds burrow deeper into chain ownership, I also sought to understand more about what this sample of average readers knew about nonprofit newsrooms and whether they had converted subscription money toward the nonprofit news ecosystem, which is flourishing.
Very few of those I talked with knew about nonprofit newsrooms, and only two gave money. Many said they thought philanthropic or foundation support was all newsrooms needed to stay afloat.
The Institute for Nonprofit News has created guides to help its more than 400 members learn how to better engage communities, in part, to try to improve financial support from citizens. In a report released this month, INN noted: “From 2018 to 2021, 7 in 10 outlets increased the share of their audience they reach directly.”
Lona Edwards Hankins, 58, is a New Orleans native who once subscribed to The Times-Picayune. The newspaper has since merged with The Advocate, which is under private and local ownership. Before that takeover in 2019, Hankins said the newspaper’s coverage of local news contracted and the quality of the stories declined. She canceled her subscription.
But still hungry for local news, Hankins discovered The Lens, an award-winning nonprofit newsroom covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast since November 2009. The Lens was co-founded by Karen Gadbois.
The Lens’ in-depth reporting on criminal justice, education and city government interested Hankins, who liked Gadbois’ dogged reporting on a range of issues, including lead paint, permits, housing and neighborhood issues. Seeing that reporting led Hankins to give to The Lens.
“She just kept gnawing at the stories and doing the FOIAs,” Hankins said. “She stays on the stories.”
In Connecticut, Kirk is aware of The Connecticut Mirror, also a nonprofit, all-online newsroom, but said it’s tough “to break the addiction to the morning newspaper.” He also said The Mirror focuses mostly on state issues, and he favors The Courant for its coverage — however minuscule — of towns and cities.
I first interviewed Kirk in July 2020, and over the last two years have reconnected with him to see how his financial support of the Courant has shifted since Alden’s takeover.
He now pays for print or digital subscriptions to the Courant, The Boston Globe, The New York Times and The Washington Post. But one thing the University of Connecticut senior advisor to the president has not done: Make a donation to one of Connecticut’s nonprofit newsrooms.
Despite the coverage cuts, the Courant still gets Kirk’s attention. And his dollars.
He said he keeps supporting the newspaper to honor its staff, noting how well Courant reporters do covering the state despite its ownership.
“I feel like I want to do my part to help it to live,” Kirk said. “It is such an institution.”
Kirk pointed to billionaire philanthropists as one solution to the problem.
“We need a Bezos in Hartford,” Kirk said, referring to Jeff Bezos, founder and former CEO of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post.
“The fantasy that I have is that a group of these wealthy people create a national nonprofit,” he said, “where they buy struggling small papers rather than extracting them for profit.”