HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT — A tiny, talented, maybe-a-bit-too-earnest team of ex-Hartford Courant staffers is trying to plug the glaring gaps in Connecticut’s political coverage at CT Mirror, a sober-minded news startup that chases the sorts of in-depth, investigative political stories that the state’s depleted legacy news organizations no longer have the resources to pursue.
Working from the state capitol since January 2010, the nonprofit, non-partisan, independent news organization of five full-time editorial staffers chronicles the state’s budgetary woes, school system reforms, and insider intrigue. According to editor Michael Regan, the site commands “equal respect from candidates, from politicians, from bureaucrats, from everyone. They realize our segment of readership may be small but it’s the people they want to reach.”
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A former Courant assistant managing editor, Regan oversaw major stories during his thirty-year tenure, including the award-winning investigative work that led to the resignation of Gov. John G. Rowland in 2004. But he also saw the state press corps contracting at an alarming rate, at a time when the state has “the biggest problems it has ever had.”
A tipping point occurred in spring 2009 when the Courant laid off state politics reporter and former New York Times contributing writer Mark Pazniokas. Pazniokas covered Joe Lieberman’s 2006 Senate race and the 2004 Rowland impeachment inquiry. CT Mirror board member Shelley Geballe “for years had been kicking around the idea of doing some sort of public policy journal–some way to expand public awareness of the issue and public policy,” Regan recalls. “Really, it was Mark’s layoff from the Courant that finally got her thinking, ‘We’ve got to do something about this. It’s a bad situation that’s getting worse.'”
Geballe, Pazniokas, and some “like-minded folks” got together and made a plan over dinner, and brought in Regan to run the news operation. A “pretty good” reception from some boards and foundations led to funding from various sources.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm from the start, a lot of people who understood what we were trying to do and why it mattered.”
Robert Frahm, a thirty-six-year veteran education reporter and Courant retiree, as well as Jacqueline Rabe, who had previously worked as a reporter and editor in Maryland for the Washington Post Company, were on-board from the start. From there, the team cherry-picked Courant talent, adding health beat reporter Arielle Levin Becker, and looked outside of the Courant alumni pool to bring in veteran political writers Keith M. Phaneuf and Deirdre Shesgreen. “We were really lucky when we started,” Regan says.
The site launched in January 2010, and was taking the long view right out of the gate.
“We’ve had our share of exclusives,” Regan says. “But that’s kind of ephemeral–especially in the online world, where eight minutes after you break a story everyone else has it as their own. I like to focus more on stories where we were ahead of everyone on the issues–like our first week, when we ran a story on Dan Malloy that presaged much of what he’s done since becoming governor a year later–including his approach to the budget. The same week, we ran a story asking what the state had gotten for the $1billion it spent on magnet schools; fifteen months later, the state has pretty much abandoned funding for magnets.”
Today, the Mirror boasts the largest news bureau at the Connecticut state capitol, where they work on-site. The capitol has been a politics reporter’s playground lately, says Regan. “ was a terrific year to be launching this kind of enterprise. Chris Dodd dropping out of the Senate race left it wide open, and it became the most expensive Senate race in the country.” The Mirror also employs Connecticut’s only full-time Washington, D.C. beat reporter, Regan says.
Mirror posts go live throughout the day, but the operation doesn’t follow hard daily deadlines like a legacy newspaper might. “We post when [the story] comes in and we know it’s right,” Regan says. Traffic usually builds from Monday through Thursday and can total up to 15,000 unique viewers per story, with referred traffic from sites like Politico or newsletters like The Fix. Syndication with Mirror partners also dramatically expands their slice of the mindshare in the 3.5 million-strong region.
There are plenty of stories for the site to cover. Connecticut recently had a wide-open gubernatorial race with primaries on both sides of that contest; a true “political scrum,” Regan says. The Mirror wants to broaden its focus, though. “I think our personality right now is more earnest than it should be,” he says. Rapaciously scouring the capital for scoops, “you find yourself being a little drier than you want to be…. I think a real challenge for us is to mix it up a bit.”
The Mirror intends to leaven its political digging with energy/environment/transportation reporting via contract reporters, and a forum on growing the state’s green economy. Workforce development, too, “is a particularly key issue in Connecticut, because a lot of our best-educated young people leave for other parts of the country,” says Regan. The Mirror wants to pursue more content-sharing arrangements, as well. It has ten such daily partners, plus some weeklies and web outlets around the state who can take content and use it at will. “We get an awful lot of traffic that way,” he says.
The Mirror has enough funding to carry it into 2012, and “we’re building beyond that,” he says. Foundation support can be ephemeral, and the Mirror model continues to develop a mix of institutional funding, sponsors, and donors.
Just don’t count on them to chase cheap, plentiful page views repeating celebrity pap anytime soon.
“Hate to be a wet blanket, but as a non-profit, we can’t sell out for big commercial money,” says Regan. “And I don’t think the Knight Foundation is interested in funding the latest Paris Hilton gossip.”
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Name: The Connecticut Mirror