Sunday, February 19, 2012


Ignoring the cities

By Reginald Johnson
February 19, 2012

Newspapers like the Connecticut Post and New Haven Register for years have been backing away from covering issues in the cities where they’re based, focusing instead on topics of interest to residents in wealthier suburban enclaves.

The trend has been driven in large part by a business mindset at papers, where newspaper owners have tried to please advertisers, who are trying to attract an “upscale audience” and who really don’t care too much about the less affluent folk residing in urban areas.

The result has been that publications like the Post (based in Bridgeport), the Register and even The Hartford Courant --- once a very strong daily --- have fewer and fewer stories of interest to the urban reader. And even those pieces dealing with a subject of interest that’s important to city residents are often written so that suburban voices are featured, not city people.

This journalistic disrespect for city residents was on display again last week when a major legal settlement between large banks and state and federal officials concerning fraudulent foreclosure practices was announced. The settlement will see $25 billion provided nationwide to many states, including Connecticut, to settle the claims that the banks had illegally handled thousands of foreclosures, through the practice of robo-signing documents.

Connecticut will get $190 million out of the pot, with the money earmarked for helping homeowners win loan modifications and get refinancing to avoid foreclosure.

There’s been some criticism that the agreement will not do that much good for homeowners and the government did too little to punish banks for their wrongful behavior.

Nonetheless the story is of keen interest to hundreds if not thousands of people in Connecticut’s cities, who are struggling to pay their mortgage and in some cases are actually going through foreclosure. In Bridgeport alone, there’s more than 500 people in the foreclosure process. In New Haven and Harftford, there’s hundreds more such cases.

But here’s how the state’s three biggest dailies treated the story. The Post ran stories over two days, prominently featured, with good information. Only one problem, they didn’t interview anyone in Bridgeport. The reporters talked with a nice gentleman from Stratford on his problems trying to negotiate a better loan deal with a bank. His story sounded legitimate. But that was it for homeowner quotes.

Ironically, the Post did quote the city’s senior manager of Office of Grants and Community Development, who said money from the settlement might help homeowners in Bridgeport, which she described as “one of the ‘crisis cities’ in the state with regard to foreclosure.”

So why didn’t the Post get a comment from a foreclosure victim in the ‘crisis city?’

The Hartford Courant ran a decent front-page piece on the settlement and it’s implications, but, like the Post, couldn’t bring itself to get comments from a city resident struggling with bank payments. It really wouldn’t have been hard. Just pick up the phone and call a neighborhood group or even a housing advocate and you could get plenty of names.

Instead the reporter/paper chose to quote a man from Bloomfield, a suburb of Hartford, who’s been fighting with Bank of America to make the terms of his loan more favorable.

If the Post and Courant added voices from their cities to their coverage, they would have made the stories more meaningful for city residents. But these papers don’t seem to care what urban residents feel.

The New Haven Register blew off the bank settlement story altogether, not even bothering to run a wire piece. This is really a disgrace given the potential ramifications of the settlement on residents in New Haven.

It should be noted that two of three papers mentioned ---- the Register and Courant ---- have cut their staff in recent years, citing financial problems.

Despite the cuts, papers like the Register are still able to send people out to cover shootings, court cases or accidents. If you can do that, you can certainly do a local story about a major foreclosure prevention program that could impact hundreds of local residents.

It’s really a question of priorties. It seems that the three papers mentioned so far --- as well as, I’m afraid, many other papers around the country --- prefer to devote their resources to covering crime and disaster, suburban subjects, and superficial celebrity and sports stories, instead of the deeper social, economic and governmental issues affecting people living in cities.

By the way, I should mention I worked for a number of years at the Post and for a short time at the Register as well.

I can say that there are many fine people at both these papers, and left alone, they can do a good job both editing and reporting.

But the priorities set by owners and publishers in recent years --- the direction they’ve set for these publications --- is the real problem.

Ignoring the needs of the center cities is not only a disservice to the people who live there but antithetical to good journalism.