03-31-09 | Printable Version

A Second Chance: Michael Schroeder steps in as two Connecticut dailies face closing

The Bristol Press and The Herald of New Britain were just two weeks away from being closed by Journal Register Company when Michael Schroeder surfaced as a buyer for the dailies, their companion websites and three nearby weeklies.

Schroeder became publisher upon completion of the sale, relocating from Long Island to Central Connecticut. This hands on, local involvement is key to Schroeder’s community-focused approach. The Monday after the sale closed Schroeder personally delivered copies of each paper to their longest subscribers.

No stranger to the news business, Schroeder was most recently the publisher of BostonNOW, a free commuter daily that ceased publishing in April 2008. Prior to that, he spent 15 years at Long Island’s Newsday, where he was a copy editor before moving into the executive ranks.

 

Dirks, Van Essen & Murray had a chance to speak with Schroeder about his first months of ownership.

What makes you bullish on the community newspaper business? Community newspapers are in the unique position of providing unique content to a niche that still is interested. And they aren’t burdened with the overhead and debt of major metros. We are going back to the original model of the paper being part of the fabric of the community – with local management, participation in community affairs, and pro-rejuvenation editorial policy.

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered that you did not anticipate going in? We didn’t expect Journal Register, the former owner, to go into Chapter 11 as quickly as they did. Since we still had many ties to the company on a transitional basis, this threw us a few more curves than we expected.

What has been the most pleasant surprise? The warm, almost completely positive welcome we received in communities that are traditional New England towns where the residents go back generations. I’ve been treated as one of them from day one. And the thanks have been effusive, from government officials to the man (and woman) on the street.

In what areas are you making the most gains? Does local, on-site ownership make a difference in these areas? Circulation is up over four percent in the last two months, which I believe is due to a more locally focused editorial product and much improved customer service. Advertising is slightly up, but between the economy and the time of year, this hasn’t surprised me. Local ownership has been critical in getting the word out, and “extending the honeymoon.” I feel myself a failure if I don’t come away from any public appearance without a new subscription in my hand!

How has the community responded to local ownership? Subscriptions are up, and the comments I hear about the paper are uniformly positive – the exact opposite of what was being said only three months ago.

What changes are you making to the product or the business model? We have already increased the number of local news and sports stories in the papers, and made an additional commitment to compiling and printing easy-to-read listings of community events throughout the paper. Everything we do is focused on strengthening relationships with readers and advertisers through superior customer service and getting results for our clients – everything else is a cost that has to be minimized.

How do you think you will seek to grow the business once the local and national economies begin to recover? We are building the foundation now by reducing rates dramatically in the most hurting categories – real estate, auto and employment. We want our customers to know that we are behind them in bad times, and hope they remember us in the good times. We also are rebuilding our business to make our products essential again, whether in print or online. Readers need to feel that they are getting value either by purchasing a paper or buying a subscription to our website.

Knowing what you know now, would you still buy these newspapers? Every day is a different answer (he laughs). No one has ever had more fun and more stress at the same time. The satisfaction of keeping two 130-year-old papers publishing and 80 people employed, along with the very vocal support of the community, can’t be described. These days it’s impossible to predict the future, but the opportunity is something I will never regret – very few people get to live their dream to the tenth power!