How a Connecticut journalist unmasked ‘Edward Clarkin’

Christine Stuart via Facebook
Christine Stuart (via Facebook)

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The recent sale of the Las Vegas Review-Journal is such a strange and complicated morass that it’s hard to know where to begin. There was the shroud of secrecy that was pierced when we learned that the buyer was casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. The threads connecting the transaction to Russel Pergament, a former top executive with The Real Paper, the Tabnewspapers, and the short-lived commuter tabloid BostonNOW. And, above all, the role of Michael Schroeder, a former BostonNOW executive who’s emerged as a principal player in all of this.

If you haven’t been following the epic tale, The New York Times has a decent overview, though it lacks the sense of drama and just plain weirdness that have already made it one for the ages.

Since I have to begin somewhere, I’ll begin with Christine Stuart. She’s the Connecticut journalist who appears to have solved at least part of the mystery involving an article that was published by the New Britain Herald criticizing a Nevada county judge who had tangled with Adelson.

Last week the media world was astir over one of the more bizarre aspects of the Adelson saga. The Review-Journal, which has been fearless in covering the sale and its aftermath, reported that in the weeks before staff members knew their paper was for sale, they were ordered to “Drop everything and spend two weeks monitoring all activity of three Clark County judges.”

Their work appeared to be for naught. Later, though, their notes were apparently used in a plagiarism-riddled story published more than 2,600 miles away in the New Britain Herald under the byline of someone named Edward Clarkin—a reporter who, according to the Hartford Courant, could not be located and might not exist.

Here’s where Stuart comes in. She and her husband, Doug Hardy, run an online news service called CT News Junkie that covers politics and public policy in Connecticut. Last Wednesday, while waiting in an airline terminal, she posted screenshots on Facebook and Twitter showing that New Britain Herald owner Michael Schroeder’s middle name is Edward and that his mother’s maiden name is Clarkin.

“I got a tip that Edward Clarkin first appeared in 2008 when Schroeder was the head of BostonNOW,” Stuart told me by email. “I found it in the Wayback Machine and tweeted that, which got me thinking about pen names. I searched the obits and it led to Schroeder’s Facebook page, which listed his mother’s maiden name: Clarkin. Mystery solved. All during a delay at Bradley on Dec. 23 when the airport ran out of fuel. I helped other reporters put together that story too by contributing info from the terminal. It was a busy day.”

Why Schroeder? As it turns out, he was originally the only person listed as an officer with News + Media Capital Group, the Delaware corporation set up by Adelson to purchase the Review-Journal from New Media, an arm of GateHouse Media. It was GateHouse, according to the Review-Journal, that gave the order to monitor the three Nevada judges. Based in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, GateHouse owns more than 100 community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, including such notable titles as The Providence Journal, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, and The Patriot Ledger of Quincy. (But not, I should note, the New Britain Herald.)

And GateHouse will continue to operate the Las Vegas paper. So of all the myriad questions that still need to be answered, more than a few of them should be directed to GateHouse chief executive Michael Reed, whose answers to reporters thus far have ranged from the noncommittal to the patronizing. For instance, when the Review-Journal contacted him about the matter of the judge-monitoring, he reportedly replied: “I don’t know why you’re trying to create a story where there isn’t one. I would be focusing on the positive, not the negative.”

Stranger and stranger: In March 2010 I attended the premiere of a documentary titled On Deadline: Is Time Running Out on the Press? Held at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, the film told the story of the New Britain Herald and the Bristol Press, which nearly went out of business after their corporate owner, Journal Register Company, declared bankruptcy. Their savior: Michael Schroeder.

Among those taking part in the post-screening panel discussion were Stuart and Schroeder. Unfortunately, I no longer have my notes from that evening. But I wrote about it in The Wired City, my 2013 book on hyperlocal and regional online journalism, as well as for my blog. (You can still watch the trailer, too.) I remember talking with Schroeder afterward, and he struck me as amiable and civic-minded, but by no means wildly optimistic about the future of the papers he had just rescued.

And by the way: One of the stars of On Deadline was Steve Collins, a Bristol Press reporter who resigned last week, telling Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple in part:

I have watched in recent days as Mr. Schroeder has emerged as a spokesman for a billionaire with a penchant for politics who secretly purchased a Las Vegas newspaper and is already moving to gut it. I have learned with horror that my boss shoveled a story into my newspaper—a terrible, plagiarized piece of garbage about the court system—and then stuck his own fake byline on it. He handed it to a page designer who doesn’t know anything about journalism late one night and told him to shovel it into the pages of the paper. I admit I never saw the piece until recently, but when I did, I knew it had Mr. Schroeder’s fingerprints all over it.

Christine Stuart was literally the first person I interviewed for The Wired City. I met her in March 2009, when she was running a one-person operation at the Statehouse in Hartford. When I caught up with her again a few years later, her husband, Doug Hardy, had quit his job at the Journal Inquirer of Manchester, Connecticut, to manage CT News Junkie’s business side, and they had assembled a small staff.

Stuart is fiercely competitive. She bought CT News Junkie in 2006 because she wanted to cover the Statehouse and knew it would take too long to get there if she stayed at her newspaper job. When I pointed out that she might have had to wait five or 10 years, she replied, “Right. Or kill off another reporter.”

She laughed, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be standing in her way.

As for the fate of the Review-Journal, it is likely to be grim. The editor, Mike Hengel, has resigned. No doubt the staff will soon be ordered to stop poking into Sheldon Adelson’s affairs. But what does Adelson intend to do with his newspaper? Promote his casino interests? Advance his support for Israel’s Netanyahu government? Both?

Michael Schroeder, meanwhile, has added to his holdings by purchasing Rhode Island’s Block Island Times. “It’s close enough and a beautiful place and they do a really good job,” Schroeder told the GateHouse-owned Providence Journal. No doubt Schroeder—like his business associate Michael Reed—will be keeping his focus on the positive, not the negative.

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Las Vegas editor out as details emerge about judge story

Sheldon Adelson in 2010 (photo via Wikipedia)
Sheldon Adelson in 2010 (photo via Wikipedia)

The editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the paper that was recently purchased in secret by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, has resigned, The New York Times reports. Michael Hengel “described his decision to leave as ‘mutual’ and said he did not believe he was forced out,” according to a brief item in the Review-Journal.

In an editorial posted Tuesday night, the “new owners”—Adelson is not mentioned by name—pledge to invest in the paper and “to publish a newspaper that is fair, unbiased and accurate.” The paper’s archive of recent tough articles and editorials about the new ownership appears to be intact, including this blockbuster about a judge who had angered Adelson.

According to the story, Review-Journal reporters were ordered to scrutinize Nevada county judge Elizabeth Gonzalez during the weeks leading up to the sale of the paper, a period when Adelson’s interest was not known. Later, a lengthy story that was critical of the judge appeared in Connecticut’s New Britain Herald, a tiny daily owned by Michael Schroeder, a business associate of Adelson’s and a former top executive at BostonNOW, a now-defunct free tabloid.

If you just can’t get enough, Matthew Kauffman has a fascinating story in today’s Hartford Courant. Among other things, several people quoted in the New Britain Herald article say they were never contacted, and the reporter whose byline appears on the article may or may not actually exist.

Timothy Pratt has a good overview of the whole situation at the Columbia Journalism Review. He quotes me, and yes, we did talk.

Frankly, I think a lot of us have been expecting either mass firings or mass resignations. We’ll have to see what kind of newspaper owner Adelson proves to be—although, as I told Pratt, he is not off to a good start. The Review-Journal staff, on the other hand, has proven itself to be enterprising and courageous in the face of a serious threat to the paper’s independence and integrity.

Update: Josh Nathan-Kazis of the Forward reports that “Adelson’s family foundation is the largest single funder behind JNS.org, a Jewish news service that serves a growing number of American Jewish news organizations.”

JNS’s publisher is Russel Pergament, a former Real Paper advertising and circulation executive and the founder of BostonNOW.

Previous coverage:

The Boston connection to the Las Vegas newspaper deal

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Yes, I really own this rare memento.

Congratulations to the staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which fearlessly revealed Wednesday night that the money behind its new owner is casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is not normally the shy, retiring type, but in this case he tried to keep his ownership interest a secret. Predictably, his cover was blown within days.

So my conspiracy theory that the sale involved some sort of a shell game being played by New Media and its sister company, GateHouse Media (which will continue to manage the Review-Journal), proved not to be the case. But there is an interesting Boston alt-weekly angle to all this that’s worth keeping an eye on.

As had been reported earlier in the week by the Review-Journal and others, a newspaper executive named Michael Schroeder is listed as a manager of News + Media Capital Group, the newly formed company that bought the Review-Journal and several smaller papers for $140 million. And Schroeder, whose holdings include Connecticut’s New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, is the former publisher of BostonNOW, a free tabloid that competed briefly with Metro Boston.

The founder of BostonNOW was a well-known local entrepreneur, Russel Pergament, who began his career as an ad salesman extraordinaire for The Real Paper, which competed with The Boston Phoenix during the 1970s. Pergament later founded the Tab chain of high-quality community weeklies in Boston’s western suburbs.

During the ’90s Pergament sold out to Fidelity, which was then amassing a Greater Boston chain of weeklies known as Community Newspaper Company, or CNC. Fidelity eventually sold CNC to Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell, who turned around several years later and offloaded them to GateHouse Media, based in Fairport, New York, a suburb of Rochester. Pergament’s creation still survives, sort of, in the form of GateHouse-owned papers like the Newton Tab. Perversely, the Tab papers are not longer tabs.

After folding BostonNOW, Pergament moved to New York, where he started a similar free tabloid called AMNewYork—which, like BostonNOW, competed with the local version of Metro.

Will Pergament, through his connection with Schroeder, have any involvement in News + Media? Here’s what the Review-Journal reported on Tuesday, before the Adelson connection was definitively confirmed:

Pergament, BostonNOW’s publisher and CEO, is CEO of NAN Holdings, a Massachusetts venture capital fund that helped finance the startup of Jewish News Service.

JNS has an exclusive agreement to distribute content from Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper owned by Adelson. Both JNS and Israel Hayom have been widely criticized for a perceived tilt in favor of far-right Israeli politicians.

Pergament has not responded to requests for comment.

Given that most observers believe Adelson wants to own the Review-Journal so that he can use it as a platform for his views on Israel—including strong support for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—it’s not hard to imagine a role for Pergament somewhere. Indeed, he and Adelson are already business partners.

I’m going to email this to Pergament at the last known address I have for him and update it with his comments if he responds.

Correction: The original version of this post misstated the location of GateHouse Media’s headquarters.

Notes on the bizarre ownership situation in Las Vegas

Michael Schroeder, who has some involvement in the mysterious sale of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was the subject of a puffy documentary five years ago after he saved Connecticut’s New Britain Herald and Bristol Press from extinction. The trailer for the film, On Deadline: Is Time Running Out on the Press?, is still up at YouTube (above).

The New Britain and Bristol papers were being sold off at the time by the bankrupt Journal Register chain, whose Connecticut flagship was the New Haven Register. Journal Register later acquired a charismatic chief executive, John Paton, who renamed the expanded company Digital First Media. The chain went into bankruptcy again, emerged again, and is now in the process of being downsized and sold off.

Schroeder, I wrote in 2010, was 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. Schroeder attended the premiere of On Deadline, held at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, and in a brief conversation I found him to be affable and seemingly committed to the future of his papers. (Indeed, he still owns them.)

Now, according to New York Times media reporter Ravi Somaiya, Schroeder has emerged as a manager of News + Media Capital Group, which was incorporated in Delaware on September 21 and which purchased the Las Vegas paper last week. Somaiya writes:

Reached at his office Monday, he [Schroeder] was willing to talk about the state of the newspaper industry, but declined to comment on the identity of the buyer or buyers, or discuss anything else about the situation at The Review-Journal.

Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post has been all over the story, reporting, among other things, that Review-Journal staff members have been tweeting out their frustration at the ethics of a newspaper company’s not revealing who its investors are. Nigel Duara of the Los Angeles Times has a good piece (link now fixed) on the situation as well. Even Jeb Bush has gotten in on the action:

Here’s what we know. New Media, a sister company of GateHouse Media, purchased the Review-Journal last March and sold it last week along with several smaller papers to News + Media for $140 million, which seems to be universally regarded as well in excess of what the properties are actually worth. GateHouse will continue to operate the paper. A toothsome story about the sale in the Review-Journal was defanged, HuffPost‘s Calderone revealed.

The guessing is that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is the likely buyer. But I’m going to throw out another possibility. New Media/GateHouse—which last week quietly acquired the parent company of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (the press release I’ve linked to also announces the Las Vegas sale)—may be trying out yet another ownership scheme, taking on new investors as it continues buying up media properties across the country.

Lest we forget, New Media/GateHouse, headquartered in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, now owns and operates the overwhelming majority of daily and weekly community papers in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, including the Providence Journal, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, and many, many others. Company officials have always preferred to operate in the dark.

Worth keeping an eye on.

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.

Forgotten but not gone

Paul Levy wonders when the Icelandic clean-up brigade will arrive to remove all those BostonNOW boxes that are already littering the urban landscape.

The demise of BostonNOW

I’ll be on WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) later today talking about the demise of BostonNOW, the free commuter rag that’s been competing with Metro Boston for the past year.

To be the second paper in the rather narrow market for people who want something free to look at during a 15-minute T ride was always going to be tough. Publisher Russel Pergament is blaming his Icelandic financiers, but if BostonNOW were making money, then no one would be pulling the plug.

When BostonNOW started out, it was supposed to be a state-of-the-art meld of print and Web, with readers setting up blogs that would be excerpted in the paper. That did happen, but it never really garnered much attention after the initial flurry of interest. Webcast news meetings stopped months ago, according to this.

Whoops — looks like the BostonNOW Web site just went down. Even before I could post.

Update: Whoops again. It’s back up. No telling for how long, though.

Jumping off the Metro

The Phoenix’s Adam Reilly finds that Metro Boston‘s reported circulation has plunged from 187,000 to 136,000 since last fall. That’s some plunge. But what does it mean?

The owners of Metro (including the New York Times Co., with a 49 percent share) can control the circulation to a large extent, given that it’s a free paper. Did the owners decide to cut back? Or did the auditors discover that 50,000 copies were ending up in the trash every day? Adam promises to get to the bottom of it.

Here’s another possibility — the BostonNOW [link now fixed] effect. Don’t laugh. My students tell me it’s got a much better crossword puzzle.

Trashing the competition

A few delivery drivers for the Boston Herald have found a surefire way to make their product stand out from the free competition, Metro Boston and BostonNOW: grab stacks of Metros and BostonNOWs and, you know, throw them out. Herald spokeswoman Gwen Gage tells Boston magazine that such tactics would never, ever be condoned at One Herald Square. (Via Romenesko.)

Wilpers checks in

Former BostonNOW editor John Wilpers has responded to my request for comment on his semi-departure earlier this week. Here’s what he’s got to say.

Thank you for your e-mail and offer to post my answer:

Regarding BostonNOW, I will be consulting with them and the group’s management on their Internet initiatives and expansion.

I also will be launching an effort to export the concept I pioneered at BostonNOW — introducing greater relevance and community to a newspaper’s print and online editions through blogger recruitment, participation and publication.

The BostonNOW experience convinced me that mainstream newspapers can rejuvenate themselves and find tomorrow’s readers today by inviting the community into the paper.

The hundreds of tech-savvy BostonNOW bloggers, most of whom had no use for an old-fashioned newspaper, are excited about being published in a product seen by tens of thousands of readers every day. Those bloggers are seeing their profiles rise dramatically in the market, and as a result, the potential for previously unimagined levels of traffic on their websites rises as well. That kind of mutually beneficial relationship is appealing to both parties — the newspapers and the bloggers.

I intend to take that message on the road to help other newspapers learn how to develop those relationships and build the new audiences that will rejuvenate their franchises….

(And, yes, the plan includes pay for bloggers. I have even met with the National Writers Union to talk about contract templates and to get advice on compensation plans. They’re very excited about the potential for their members and non-members alike.)

BostonNOW’s melding of print and the Web is far more interesting as an idea than as a news product. Frankly, the paper is pretty bad, although there’s no reason to think it won’t get better. This Boston Magazine piece on BostonNOW by Jason Feifer — “The Rag That Would Save Newspapers” — captures the good, the bad and the ugly.

As for Wilpers, whom I’ve known since the early 1980s, when we competed against each other, the guy is a survivor. He’ll be fine.

Update: This isn’t nice, but it’s funny.