Connecticut newspapers in Mark Twain’s court

Paige Compositor. For more photos (including Mark Twain in Legos!), click on image.

Last week I had a chance to attend the premiere of “On Deadline: Is Time Running Out for the Press?”, a documentary about the near-death and uncertain rescue of the Bristol Press and the New Britain Herald, both in Connecticut.

The papers were owned by the Journal Register Co., which, as it was entering bankruptcy in late 2008, threatened to shut them down if a buyer couldn’t be found. (The company, whose largest Connecticut paper is the New Haven Register, exited bankruptcy in August 2009.) The papers were saved by Michael Schroeder, a veteran newspaper executive who, among other things, was a top executive at BostonNOW, a free tabloid that until its demise competed with Metro Boston.

The future of the Press and the Herald is by no means certain; Schroeder made that clear in both the film and in a subsequent panel discussion. But at least the papers have a path forward. The film itself, by John and Rosemary Keogh O’Neill, was enjoyable and worth seeing if you ever get a chance, though I found the drama over the papers’ fate more compelling than the overly nostalgic views of the newspaper business that were expressed by the principals. (Here is the trailer.)

In a delicious irony, the film made its debut at the Mark Twain House, in Hartford, a shrine to a great writer who, among other things, nearly went bankrupt because of his own involvement with the newspaper business. In the 1880s Samuel Clemens sank a fortune into the Paige Compositor, which he believed would make him a very wealthy man, given that it was 60 percent faster than the Linotype machine. The Paige, though, was prone to breakdowns, and it never caught on.

Technology has always been an issue in the newspaper business. It was the rise of cheap, high-speed presses in the 1830s that created the daily newspaper business as we know it. And, of course, it’s technology that is now rapidly ushering us into the post-newspaper age.