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Column By John Murray

Social media has replaced traditional media as the most effective way to quickly connect the residents of a community to news and information that most impacts their lives.

While that might seem a strange statement from the publisher of a print newspaper in Waterbury, Connecticut, I’ve come to the realization that our industry must adapt or die. And in the past 15 years The Waterbury Observer has morphed and changed until now we have quarterly print editions, a vigorous following on Facebook, a new platform on Meta Bulletin, a website, and a monthly news show on WATR radio.

The Waterbury Observer began publishing in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1993.

I feel like a juggler at the circus, but it’s all still journalism. There are times I’m confused where to publish a story, and when, but being first to a story has always been less important to me than trying to get it right. There are some stories that need to incubate to gain a sharper perspective, and they need time to fly closer to the truth. These are the stories I’ve always been most interested in.

The heart of journalism is accurate information, but with the extreme partisan banter on cable news and in many print newspapers, the public trust has eroded in journalism much like a sandcastle crumbles at the edge of the surf.

Young people don’t read print newspapers, but every day in the obituary section a community is saying goodbye to reliable voters, civic volunteers, service club members, and life-long consumers of print newspapers.

The youth, which I define as 18 years old to 40 years old, are not reading print newspapers. Some do, but most get their information on their smart phones, and they want it delivered quickly. When a structure fire erupts in the East End of Waterbury there are images posted online quicker than the fire trucks arrive. And within hours the images are shared thousands of times through Facebook and Instagram networks. By the time the daily newspaper reports about the fire 24 hours later, it seems flat and stale.

Print newspapers will survive for a few more decades, but like Blockbuster or 8-tracks, they will eventually be a quaint and antiquated way of delivering information to the public.

Whether it’s distributed in print or online, The Waterbury Observer delivers important local information to the residents of greater Waterbury.

With the cost of newsprint skyrocketing, and ad sales dwindling, the migration of journalism to the internet has quickened. I can post a story to Meta Bulletin, and have it e-mailed to our subscribers in less time than I used to drive our files to Trumbull Printing.

The Observer now saves thousands of dollars in print costs every month, and I’ve recaptured 16 days of my life every year that I would have spent driving around greater Waterbury delivering the newspaper to several hundred distribution points. Print and distribution costs have been slashed, but so has the revenue stream from print advertising that sustained The Waterbury Observer for the past 29 years.

Some online newspapers around the country are non-profit and are supported by grants from local community foundations (the New Haven Independent is one), and some are supported by their readers who are asked to pay for subscriptions or make donations.

For the next 18 months The Waterbury Observer on the Meta Bulletin platform is being supported by Facebook’s commitment to local journalism. We are grateful for the opportunity to develop a new business model, especially during an ongoing pandemic, but I’m still a foggy about the best path forward. Many of the writers on Meta Bulletin have set themselves up as a paid subscription newsletter. If you don’t pay, you don’t get to read the writer’s work.

That seems straight forward; if you value something, you pay for it.

The Waterbury Observer, however, has had a different model for the past three decades. We’ve never asked our readers for anything other than to pick the newspaper up and read it. We’ve distributed several million free copies of the newspaper to the community and the costs of production and salaries was covered by advertising.

That business model is no longer sustainable, and the Observer is actively exploring new avenues to continue reporting about the issues and events of local importance to Waterbury.

We are going to eventually ask our readers to invest in our efforts to report about cold case murders, juvenile justice reform and economic development. The ask is not today, or next week, or even next month; but it’s coming.

Change is the only constant in all our lives, and as the world of journalism continues to morph and change, I’m excited to steer the Observer towards a new horizon. The stories and photographs will continue to illuminate Waterbury, especially probing into the vulnerable and forgotten corners of the city.

It’s been a hell of a ride these past three decades, and I hope in changing our relationship we’ll continue to work together to improve the quality of life in Waterbury for all residents.

Like so many print newspapers today it’s adapt or die, and The Waterbury Observer is going to adapt, if our readers continue to value the work we do.

(Subscribe to The Brass File to get it e-mailed free to your in-box by clicking on the link at the bottom of this page. Thank you.)