The New Haven Advocate, a weekly newspaper once known for a mix of gutsy investigative journalism, edgy political commentary, magazine-style feature writing, and savvy arts coverage, died Wednesday following a long illness. It was 38 years old.
The cause of death was a changed media landscape combined with corporate cluelessness and cupidity.
The Advocate’s corporate owner (the parent of the Hartford Courant) announced that it has officially changed the name of the weekly paper to CTNow, combining it with a calendar section that appears in the daily Courant. The newly renamed paper (with a forlorn smaller-type vestigial reference to being “powered” by the old “New Haven Advocate” to appear by the logo) is scheduled for delivery Thursday morning.
Born in 1975 as the third of four siblings in a mini-chain of alternative newsweeklies that eventually stretched from western Massachusetts down I-91 and I-95 to Bridgeport, the Advocate was for many years a central voice in the city’s political and cultural life. A Hopkins and Yale graduate named Geoffrey Robinson founded the chain with a former fellow Hartford Courant copy editor. The papers tapped a baby boomer audience that had graduated from the underground newspapers of their college years and was settling into adult work and family lives, but still eager for media that reflected their values and tastes more than staid corporate-owned mainstream daily newspapers.
For much of its life the Advocate championed third parties, legal dope, gay and civil rights, underground local music, and public support for the arts. It broke stories on City Hall corruption, slumlords, real-estate scams, political campaigns, police brutality, emerging trends in music and theater and food. People sometimes lost their jobs or landed in federal court as a result of stories; other times the paper itself ended up with egg on its face for overreaching. Loved or despised, it was for decades an integral part of New Haven’s civic conversation.
It was the kind of place where reporters were encouraged to write stories like this one.
By the time of its death Wednesday, the Advocate no longer had local news reporters or New Haven news stories. It never mentioned the past two city elections. It had some original local arts coverage; it was otherwise filled with stories produced by a skeleton staff in Hartford. It had long stopped playing a role in the local news and civic-debate ecosystem.
To generations of Advocate veterans, the paper’s death was an overdue mercy killing.
The New Haven Advocate was considered one of the most respected of the “alt-weeklies” that grew like psilocybin mushrooms in cities throughout the country in the latter quarter of the 20th century. Like Geoff Robinson, the founders of the other alt-weeklies viewed mainstream dailies as staid, boring, removed from readers’ lives. The staffs they assembled questioned the premises of “objective journalism” as defined by corporate dailies in the mid-20th century; they saw it as a cover for publishing stories that shared a “safe” pro-capitalist, pro-American foreign policy, sexist and racist set of assumptions. Modeled after New York’s Village Voice, they gave their papers out free in honor boxes and filled their pages each week with a mix of politics, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, in no particular order. They relied exclusively on ad revenue from local merchants, personals (then a risqué innovation, later a front for pimps) and national tobacco companies. The papers eventually convinced the mainstream to inject more voice and color and depth into its reporting. They also developed, sometimes in spite of themselves, enviable balance sheets.
It was that economic success that eventually sent mainstream corporate papers knocking on the altweeklies’ door. The Advocate’s turn came on Tax Day, 1999, when Robinson—who had continued running the company with his wife, Christine Austin—sold the company to the parent company of the Hartford Courant, the very paper whose newsroom he had originally fled to create a livelier, more relevant alternative.
Like other alt-weeklies, the Advocate by the time of its death has gradually shrunk in page size, innovation, and relevance since succumbing to corporate ownership. The Tribune Co. (the Courant’s owner) gradually drained the paper’s newsroom of reporters and editors, as well as creativity and pluck, squeezing as much profit as it could without reinvesting in quality local reporting. The company’s mainstream corporate culture never blended with the altweekly DNA; instead it wiped it out. Then, as the internet changed the face of journalism, the Advocate—which had introduced online story-chats and interactive news-oriented games before the corporate takeover—sat out the revolution.
Meanwhile, mainstream culture had coopted the altweeklies’ symbolic trademarks. Corporate dailies had put rock critics on their staffs, as well as restaurant and theater critics who understood the fare they dissected. They incorporated color and feature layouts into some of their designs. “Ass” and “fuck” were no longer brave words to put into print (if, in retrospect, they ever were) amid the proliferation of snark in the blogosphere and gratuitous profanity in movies and on TV. Some mainstream writers could even write in the first person, though not as excessively as in the altweeklies of yore.
By the mid-aughts, covering a local zoning hearing or Board of Ed meeting had become the new radical act of journalism in the face of local disinvestment by mainstream and “alternative” media alike. The sex industry no longer needed altweeklies to sell its wares or hook people up. Many altweekly writers graduated to nationally prominent journalist perches.
Some of the former Advocate writers and interns, for instance, include Gail Collins, Mark Bittman (who freelanced long pieces on the evils of nuclear power for $50 a pop), Rosemary Bray, Jonathan Harr, Naomi Wolf, and Beverly Gage.
An Irish Wake was held for the New Haven Advocate the Saturday evening before last at Rudy’s on Chapel Street, organized by a former production chief named Matthew Ford for colleagues from the paper’s turn-of-the-century heyday. Not a tear was shed. There were no regrets, just thankfulness for having had the chance to work in a great newsroom. And lots of fond reminiscences.
A “Deadline” Lesson
I found myself thinking back not to cover stories or high-profile controversies, but rather to a small news item I wrote for the Advocate back in 1981. It was my first assignment there—and a powerful lesson on the power of reporting outside the confines of mainstream corporate media.
A college junior at the time, I had been reporting on New Haven news in between classes for the daily New Haven Register, at the time one of two dailies owned by a local right-wing family and sharing a downtown newsroom on Orange Street. (The other paper was called the Journal-Courier. The family eventually sold the paper to a national chain, which closed the Journal-Courier and gradually depopulated the Register’s newsroom.) The publisher discovered that the city editor had been draining his freelance budget assigning me stories, and chewed him out; the editor told me to lay low for a while. So I headed over to the Advocate’s offices, then in a suite of ground-floor offices two doors from Ron’s House of Punk on Chapel Street near Park. I’d been hanging out there, anyway in my free time.
The Advocate’s city editor, Jonathan Harr, sent me to a press conference at the old New Haven Coliseum. The news: the mayor at the time, Biagio DiLieto, had engineered a vote by the Coliseum Authority to bail out the local hockey team, the Nighthawks, so they could stay in town, one of a series of bailouts over the years that failed to keep hockey, or a Coliseum, in New Haven.
I didn’t know a lot about the Coliseum or the Nighthawks. My hunch was that the Advocate’s editor might not be fond of bailing out sports teams. I knew the Advocate wasn’t fond of Mayor DiLieto; he would still have been Police Chief DiLieto, not Mayor DiLieto, if the Advocate’s editor, Andrew Houlding, hadn’t forced him to resign from the chief’s office by writing exposés about an illegal wiretapping operation DiLieto signed off on. (Houlding had written those stories for the Journal-Courier before joining the Advocate. DiLieto went on to run a successful revenge campaign for mayor by playing on the East Shore resentments against long-hairs, liberals, and African-Americans.)
It turned out I didn’t need to know a lot. At the press conference, I ran into one the Journal Courier’s City Hall reporters. He had the lowdown: The mayor had made a deal with a Newhallville alderman on the authority named Chuck Allen to win the bailout vote. Allen had previously announced he opposed the bailout. In return for switching his vote, Allen would receive a prize: the authority would give a $100,000 cleaning contract to a friend of Allen in Newhallville.
“I can’t write that story,” the daily reporter told me, because his editors had put the paper squarely in favor of bailing out the hockey team.
I felt bad about leaping on a story that should have been his.
“You sure you don’t mind?” I asked him.
He didn’t mind. So I reported that angle on the story.
Back at the Advocate, it was deadline hour. Sort of. It felt like a world of difference from deadline hour at the Register.
The Advocate had just one deadline a week, not several a day, like at the Register, which had multiple editions. And the set “hour” a story was due often turned out to be wishful thinking.
The Register’s reporters typed their stories on computer keyboards. At the Advocate, they were still typing them on manual typewriters.
Returning to the Advocate newsroom to hit my deadline, I was greeted by the smell marijuana coming from the arts editor’s office. The Register newsroom was smoke-filled too—just with tobacco smoke.
I told Harr about the tip from the Journal Courier reporter, and how it turned out to be true. “You got the real story,” Harr told me. So I wrote him a short account that after some requisite anti-civic-boosterism snark, mentioned the bit about the cleaning contract.
After the article appeared, another alderman, named Anthony Williams, showed up at the office to speak with me. He was African-American—and perpetually at war with other black aldermen, like Chuck Allen, over patronage deals. Tony told me a low-level bureaucrat had given him the heads-up about this deal because of a back story: the guy getting the cleaning contract had just broken off from the family business. The family business used to have the Coliseum contract. The guy was now allegedly stealing that contract from his sister and other siblings.
I went to see the bureaucrat (who has long since left government). He gave me copies of internal paperwork that showed the deal to be shady. He was scared for his job; we talked about how to protect his identity. I then met both the brother and one of the siblings who had sued him. The trail led to allegations of mismanagement of money by a Dixwell business group as well a larger dispute taking place (and still taking place) about whether government contracts “empower” the black community at large or just the recipients.
This Coliseum story was getting more interesting.
I heard from Chuck Allen. He asked me to meet him for tea at this new coffee shop downtown called Atticus, the first of its kind in town. He introduced me to Earl Grey tea. We spoke at length about the story, about politics in general. Then he asked me to make him a deal of our own: If I have a story that makes him look bad, give him a chance to respond, and he’ll always talk to me. Sounded like a fair deal. For the next two decades he became an invaluable source. I still wrote some lengthy exposés about him; he always gave his side. He also taught me a lot more about politics than I ever learned in college. He knew where bodies were buried (or money, actually), and who was making deals with whom behind the scenes. He stayed true to his word. He continued to give me great stories up until the days shortly before his death when, in a Harlem hospital bed, where, suffering from AIDS, he spoke at length about what it was like being a gay public figure and a member of the church in the black community.
Tony Williams kept visiting, too, offering a different take on the games politicians play, and specifically the costs that small-fry political deals can have for the broader community. Williams went on to have that same fight in the nation’s capital, where he took on the identity-politics-protected maneuverings of a mayor named Marion Barry. (He ended up with Barry’s job.)
Just Another Word
From that one small assignment, I saw how the freedom to tell a fuller story, unencumbered by the financial or philosophical dictates of corporate newsrooms, can lead to other good stories, to a deeper understanding of how a city works. I saw how, small story by small story, reporters can get to know a city and its ongoing issues more deeply, accrue an ever-expanding roster of teachers from all walks of life and points of view. This was fun; I could see myself continuing to report news stories in New Haven the rest of my life. Thirty-two years later, I still can.
The Advocate had its own sacred cows and contradictions, of course, such as its promotion of sex slavery and objectified women in back-of-the-book ad columns while espousing feminism in the news columns. (“Don’t you feel like you’re wrapping the Talmud around a copy of Hustler?” a friend at a Jewish weekly newspaper once asked me in reference to writing front-of-the-book investigative stories.) The paper’s quality could swing wildly from year to year; it had its moments of in-house drama and staff upheaval. Like most altweeklies, it suffered at times from excesses of youthful arrogance and snap judgments, not to mention an overuse of the first person singular and, in the early days, a few too many decisions made while in altered states of consciousness.
But overall I found almost limitless freedom in reporting there on and off in the 1980s, then full time on staff from 1989 through 2004, as the paper went further above-ground and grew in quality, influence, revenues, and readership. (Actually, the paper allowed me to work part-time with full medical benefits for the 10 years after the birth of our first daughter, freeing me to spend invaluable time that I’ll never forget with my children, a freedom for which I’m eternally grateful.) I had editors a reporter dreams of—Andrew Houlding, Joshua Mamis, Carole Bass, Michael Bingham. They challenged me to dig deeper, to reexamine my assumptions, to rewrite stories more clearly and compellingly, to experiment with new story structures, to spend extra time to write 5,000 words when a story warranted it, to tighten columns to 700 words when that made more sense. They taught me how to make a point in a story, how to figure out why I was writing it in the first place. They nurtured newsrooms where what mattered above all was the work. Publishers Geoff Robinson and Gail Thompson stood behind us faithfully when influential people in town howled about unflattering stories. After the Tribune corporate takeover, Thompson took heat from the company’s Chicago headquarters over a column attacking the CEO’s stock options; she responded by calling me into her office and encouraging me to follow up with more critical columns if the subject merited it. I would find myself arguing with Mamis for weeks on end about Fidel Castro or about the viability of making change from within or outside the Democratic Party or the wisdom of a pending strike—but never about what time to show up for work or what to wear.
I was continually inspired by the creative, talented, idealistic staffers I worked alongside (as is the case at my current job, too), in the editorial, production, and advertising departments. You couldn’t help absorbing the energy and originality of great writers like Christopher Arnott, Michelle Chihara, Camille Jackson, and Hank Hoffman; and great photographers like Virginia Blaisdell and Kathleen Cei. (The ad reps always took abuse for our stories while bringing in the money to pay everyone’s salaries.) One highlight was working three cubicles over from the infamous “Miss B,” Colleen Van Tassell, writer of the Scuttlebutt gossip column (as well as the “Of Courts” and other regular features). I remember one day when someone agreed to dictate to me over phone the detailed contents of a confidential internal report on a police sexcapade at the West Hill substation. The story was juicy, but also over-the-top raw and salacious. Fortunately, I could just pitch the transcript over to Miss B, who transformed the tale into virtual poetry.
The designers and reporters at the Advocate didn’t drive themselves for status, for money, for pats on the head or future job offers from politicians or bankers or bureaucrats. They did it in search of transcendence—or at least a witty lede, or the chance to make a difference. And, god forbid, to have fun while working as a reporter.
All those free tickets to hear great music, and then write about it, didn’t hurt either.
Burial Arrangements & Memorial Donations
The Advocate’s burial this week was a private affair attended by faceless corporate decision-makers on Broad Street in Hartford.
The New Haven Advocate and the alt-weekly industry overall are survived by a new generation of not-for-profit online daily news sites in Austin, New Orleans, San Diego, Montpelier, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Branford, Ansonia, and New Haven. To make a tax-deductible financial contribution to independent, non-corporate New Haven reporting in the Advocate’s memory, make checks payable to “Online Journalism Project” and mail it to New Haven Independent, 51 Elm St., 3rd floor, New Haven CT 06510; or click here for information on how to contribute online.