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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Atlanta and San Francisco are two of many American cities where the only major newspaper in town is losing money. Financial analysts say they expect some big dailies to fold, perhaps as early as this year. NPR's David Folkenflik tries to figure out what that might mean.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Take a place like Hartford, Connecticut - a poor city in a rich state, home to the state government and three of the largest companies in the country. A few hundred thousand people start each day with the Hartford Courant, as I did recently on a visit there. I ducked inside Papa's Diner downtown.

Unidentified Woman: I didn't see you coming in, but...

FOLKENFLIK: I'll take a cup of coffee too, a little milk.

Unidentified Woman: Cream?

FOLKENFLIK: A little milk, no sugar.

Unidentified Woman: Okay.

FOLKENFLIK: And I took a look at the paper.

Front page: Senator Double Billed for Travel; Magnet Schools in Hartford. Inside the paper it's got pieces about prison guards needing raises.

FOLKENFLIK: Inside the diner, I found Robert Brown.

Mr. ROBERT BROWN (Hartford Resident): Yeah, I read the whole - mostly the whole paper when I get a chance to. Basically I'm keeping up with what's happening in the town itself, you know, like layoffs, 'cause that's a big part of the news today.

FOLKENFLIK: It is for Brown. He was just laid off by the city sanitation department.

Mr. BROWN: You've got to get the street gossip and stuff like that, but that's not good news. You know what I mean? 'Cause I don't really believe in gossip. What I read, you know, is better than, you know, the word of the mouth.

FOLKENFLIK: A few blocks away, at a cigar bar in the city's financial center, I met an out of work IT professional named Bruce Salisbury. He was drawing deeply while surfing the web on his laptop.

Mr. BRUCE SALISBURY (Hartford Resident): Currently right now, I'm looking for a new position and the thought hasn't even occurred to me to pick up the Hartford Courant and look at the job section. Everything is online. If it's online, it's fast, it's immediate.

FOLKENFLIK: People are becoming more like Salisbury every day. That's threatening to papers like the Courant, which is the nation's oldest continuously published paper, older even than the Declaration of Independence. So let's let the Courant stand in for all papers facing tough times and take a moment to imagine Connecticut without it. For one thing, former Governor John Rowland wouldn't have faced corruption charges a few years back. Richard Blumenthal is the state's longtime attorney general. He says the Courant's tenacious coverage compelled authorities to investigate Rowland.

Mr. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (Connecticut Attorney General): The old-fashioned muckraking, finding out that there was corruption. The bad guys go to prison; the system's changed, reformed — you know, the sort of basic American tableau of what a good newspaper does at its best.

FOLKENFLIK: The mayor's just been indicted on bribery charges. The Courant was out ahead on that, too. The paper has exposed polluters and the deployment of mentally ill soldiers to Iraq. But it's not just about hard news.

Julie Stapf is marketing director for the Hartford Stage - a well-regarded regional theater - and she says the coverage and the advertising in the paper combine to drive ticket sales.

Ms. JULIE STAPF (Marketing Director, Hartford Stage): Even a bad review is important to us, frankly, because it still brings awareness to the community about what we're doing here at the theater.

FOLKENFLIK: To be clear, there's no reason to believe the Courant will close. Yet circulation and advertising revenues are down; its corporate owner, the Tribune Company, has filed for bankruptcy protection; and the Courant is a lot thinner than it used to be. Its newsroom staff is roughly half the size it was a decade ago.

The Courant's top editor, Clifford Teutsch, didn't respond to requests to talk for this story. But people around town, like Trinity College President James F. Jones Jr., are following the paper's fate closely.

Mr. JAMES F. JONES, JR. (Trinity College President): The New York Times is not going to write about the local basketball teams or the local color stories or, in our case, what is happening on the educational front in Hartford.

FOLKENFLIK: In the State House press room, unopened mail was piled high on the desk set aside for The New York Times. The Times stopped covering Hartford last year. Some in-state dailies no longer send reporters either. So the retreat by other news organizations makes even the diminished Courant more relevant than ever.

Tom Monahan is a reporter for the local NBC station.

Mr. TOM MONAHAN (Reporter, local NBC station): There's no news organization that doesn't check the paper in the morning to find out what they missed and then chances are, you know, smaller outfits, smaller radio stations, smaller newspapers, even us, we're not staffed the way a newspaper is.

FOLKENFLIK: Some promising blogs have emerged around the state, but on the best-known one covering politics, CTNewsJunkie.com, most postings are written by the same person.

Mark Pazniokas has been a reporter at the Courant for 24 years, and he offers this warning were his paper to disappear.

MR. MARK PAZNIOKAS (Reporter, Hartford Courant): You lose a sense of community. If everybody is looking at dozens or hundreds of different news sources, you don't have the common point of reference that - not to be corny - but are an important part of democracy and community.

FOLKENFLIK: Again, the Hartford Courant is not in any particular danger - no more danger that is, than any other paper around the country facing precarious finances and a killer economy.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow we'll explore the debate over whether news organizations should forget about profits all together.

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