January 22, 2018

Powell reflects on five decades of CT journalism

Chris Powell Managing Editor, Journal Inquirer

Q&A talks with Chris Powell, managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Q. You recently announced your retirement as managing editor of the Journal Inquirer after 50 years at the newspaper. How has the industry changed since you started at the JI in 1967?

A. The newspaper industry has collapsed with Connecticut's demographics and civic virtue. Newspaper circulation is half what it was 50 years ago despite an increase in the state's population, even though only newspapers — not television, not radio, and not the internet — provide substantial local news.

Most people in Connecticut used to want local news. Newspaper circulation per capita here was the highest in the country. Today most people don't care about local news. Most are no longer much engaged with their geographic communities. Voter registration and participation have fallen sharply. Knowledge of civics is way down. High school graduates and even college graduates can't identify the three branches of government. To function as a citizen you need to read a local newspaper. You don't need a local newspaper for keeping up with the Kardashians. This is all probably just part of the old cycle, the corruption of prosperity, but it still hurts terribly.

Q. You've been one of the few conservative (some might even say libertarian at times) commentators in Connecticut for decades. Have your political views changed at all since you were named JI's managing editor in 1974? What influenced your political philosophy?

A. This is a misperception. I have been caricatured as conservative mainly for complaining that state and local government now are operated almost entirely for the benefit of their own employees because the government employee unions control the majority political party and the minority party has been too scared to object, and for complaining that government services even for the most innocent needy are being cannibalized to keep the unions happy.

In Connecticut politics you are judged positively only if you are subservient to the government employee unions.

It doesn't matter if you oppose all the stupid imperial wars and the bailouts of the investment banks, nor if you want Glass-Steagall restored, support same-sex marriage and drug decriminalization, defend the civil rights of Muslims, endorse affordable housing in exclusive suburbs, oppose plutocrats who buy nominations for high office and get threatened with libel litigation by them, support freedom of information, and strive to hold government to account. No, in Connecticut you can't be considered a liberal if you're not a tool of the government employee unions.

Q. You've been a very critical voice of state government over the years. What steps must lawmakers take to create financial and economic stability in the state?

A. First we would have to unfix the so-called "fixed costs" and subject them to the ordinary democratic process. Most of these costs involve the compensation of state and municipal employees and these costs constitute more than half the state budget if you recognize that most state financial aid to municipalities is spent on municipal employees. State law — collective bargaining for government employees and binding arbitration of their contracts — guarantees the contentment of government employees but not the contentment of the innocent needy or taxpayers. In Connecticut government and politics, the people on the payroll come first.

Q. Of all the stories you've covered or opined on, is there one that stood out or was most memorable?

A. The Journal Inquirer's coverage of the scandals in the administration of Gov. John G. Rowland was crucial to his removal from office. The JI pursued these scandals doggedly long before the Hartford Courant did. Rowland even went on the radio to claim that the Courant's avoidance of what the JI was reporting was proof that there was nothing wrong.

Rowland's chief of staff telephoned me — he said it was on the governor's specific instruction — to threaten the paper that there would be serious consequences if the JI continued its coverage. That was pretty memorable — and stupid and sad. I knew that since they were resorting to such clumsy threats, they were terrified and soon would be finished. Of course when they were finished, the Courant took credit for the outcome.

Q. So, what do you plan to do in retirement?

A. I plan to keep writing columns and to do more work for a nonprofit organization of which I'm an officer. I can produce more columns when I'm away from the office than when I'm there. It's not that I think the columns make any difference. I gave up on that long ago when I saw how literacy and civic engagement were collapsing. There's not enough literacy left in the state and not enough people who care about the public interest. At least the people who care about the public interest are outnumbered by the people on the government payroll. So for some time now I have written mainly for spite. I haven't wanted certain people to think that nobody was on to them.

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