Column By John Murray
Waterbury, as in most cities, has several bases of power; there is the police department, the court system, bankers, realtors, business, and in the image above, two iconic power symbols in Waterbury – the steeple of City Hall, right, and the brick tower of the Republican-American newspaper. City Hall is the home of the Mayor, and where the Board of Aldermen meet every other week. It is the nerve center of the city. The Republican-American is home to several hundred employees who perform a wide range of activities including writing, photography, sales, marketing, production, printing and distribution. It is the small cadre of journalists and editors, however, who get the most attention, and have their names displayed prominently on the pages of the daily newspaper.
A chief function of the newspaper is to keep elected officials in City Hall accountable, and to inform the reading public about critical issues and events affecting their lives. In the past 100 years the Republican-American has an uneven record in being an impartial watchdog of City Hall. The newspaper garnered national acclaim in 1940 when it won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for exposing a massive corruption scheme that was masterminded by Mayor T. Frank Hayes, but in the past few decades the luster of the Pulitzer has dimmed.
The stated mission of the newspaper from 1900 was to promote the Republican Party. The paper’s chief competition, The Waterbury Democrat, was just as slanted as its mission was to promote the Democrat Party. In the 1940s the Republican purchased and killed the Democrat, and for 50 years Waterbury was fed a daily dose of Republican propaganda with little balance or objectivity.
The newspaper was a monopoly.
The Republican-American has coddled corrupt Republican mayors, Joseph Santopietro and Philip Giordano, and harpooned Democrats ranging from seven-term mayor, Mike Bergin, to Bill Curry, Chris Dodd, Dan Malloy, Chris Murphy and Joe Lieberman. The Democrats, particularly elected officials on the national stage, have been described as “Communists”, “Stalinists” and “tyrants”.
The emergence of The Waterbury Observer in 1993 had little impact on the political shenanigans inside the Republican-American, but for the first time in 50 years there was a counter balance available to the citizens of Waterbury, The Observer published articles about the bias of the daily newspaper, and in 1995 produced an in-depth article on the publisher of the Republican-American entitled, “Citizen Pape”. (Read that story at http://waterburyobserver.org/node/265)
In the past 20 years the Republican-American has lost its stranglehold on information. Public access television has provided a vehicle for politicians and community leaders to directly connect to Waterbury, but perhaps the biggest game changer has been the eruption of social media. Waterburians and politicians are forming groups on Facebook to bypass the traditional media and control their own content.
Times have changed, but the two iconic symbols in the above photograph are still the two power heavyweights in Waterbury – for now. City Hall will remain the nerve center of the city as long as democracy reigns. The Republican-American, however, and daily newspapers across the world, are reeling from a consumer shift from print to digital. Few people in the non-stop information age are getting their national and international news from daily newspapers anymore. Tsunamis are reported on cell phones and computers as they happen. Same with revolutions, elections and earthquakes.
The future of newspapers in America rests in providing hyper-local content that readers can’t find anywhere else in the world. Ironically, for a newspaper that has spent much of its existence trying to manipulate and control its readers, the future of the Republican-American is now squarely in the hands of the public. The daily newspaper has to jack up its coverage of local issues and events, or like so many newspapers across the country, fade into the recesses of our collective memory.