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Reporter for Connecticut’s Bristol Press resigns, and why that matters

Steve Collins today resigned his position covering the city of Bristol, Conn., for the Bristol Press, a publication that, along with sister paper New Britain Herald, covers community news in central Connecticut. Collins specialized in classic civic legwork material, such as the eviction of tenants from a condemned property, a hospital’s quest for a parcel in downtown Bristol, the position of Bristol Mayor Mayor Ken Cockayne on budget issues and a great deal more.

There’s no transition plan in Collins’s back pocket. “I have no idea how my wife and I will get by,” writes Collins in a Facebook post. “We have two kids in college, two collies, a mortgage and dreams of travel and adventure that now look more distant than ever.”

Surely reporters at regional newspapers quit all the time, without drawing the attention of this blog. What’s so special about Collins?

That’s a twisty one: Collins works under editor and publisher Michael E. Schroeder, a figure who burst into the news in recent weeks. It was Schroeder who emerged as a frontman for the shadowy, moneyed interests who shelled out a generous $140 million to purchase the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Nevada’s largest newspaper. Upon the announcement of the sale, Schroeder stonewalled newspaper staffers about the identities of the investors behind the purchase. “Don’t worry about who they are,” Schroeder told editor-in-chief Michael Hengel, who has since announced his resignation.

On Dec. 16, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the son-in-law of GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson had arranged the purchase of the newspaper. The considerable wealth of Adelson himself, a billionaire casino owner, funded the acquisition, which was made through News + Media Capital Group LLC.

In a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, Collins said that Schroeder’s ties to Adelson and the shrouded purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal didn’t bother him as much as another situation cited in his Facebook post. Allow him to lay it out:

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. Yet when enterprising reporters asked my boss about it, he claimed to know nothing or told them he had no comment. Yesterday, they blew the lid off this idiocy completely, proving that Mr. Schroeder lied, that he submitted a plagiarized story, bypassed what editing exists and basically used the pages of my newspaper, secretly, to further the political agenda of his master out in Las Vegas. In sum, the owner of my paper is guilty of journalistic misconduct of epic proportions.

Attempts by the Erik Wemple Blog to reach Schroeder were unsuccessful.

If that sounds too odd for the real world, just read the piece. It’s an impenetrable, nonsensical jumble of words. Through interpretation and multiple readings, this blog is guessing that it seeks to advance the interests of moguls, by advocating for something known as “business courts” managed by judges familiar with the technicalities of commercial disputes. Peel back a couple of layers, however, and it turns into a hit piece against Nevada District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, who is presiding over a case involving Adelson’s Sands Casino. “Sir, you don’t get to argue with me,” Gonzalez admonished Adelson himself last spring in testimony for the case.

That is correct: A long feature published in a central Connecticut publication takes concerted aim at a Nevada state judge. Just how the story came to be lodged in Schroeder’s publication is a story that the Las Vegas Review-Journal itself told in a detailed account that is so serpentine as to defy abridgment. Have a look at it for yourself. “Judge in Adelson lawsuit subject to unusual scrutiny amid Review-Journal sale,” reads the headline, which yields to all manner of detail about how three Las Vegas Review-Journal reporters ended up assigned by corporate management to watchdogging three Clark County judges, Gonzalez among them. The instructions came about a month before the newspaper’s sale was announced. The money graph:

None of the 15,000 words the reporters wrote about their time sitting in courtrooms was ever published by the Review-Journal, but days later a long article blasting Gonzalez’s rulings in the Sands case appeared in a small Connecticut newspaper with a connection to Adelson that became known only last week.

One “Edward Clarkin” is listed as the author of the story on business courts in the Bristol Press/New Britain Herald. When asked by the Journal-Review how to reach Clarkin, Schroeder responded, “I have no idea.”

Summing up the situation in his Facebook post, Collins writes, “There is no excusing this behavior. A newspaper editor cannot be allowed to stamp on the most basic rules of journalism and pay no price. He should be shunned by my colleagues, cut off by professional organizations and told to pound sand by anyone working for him who has integrity. So I quit.” Collins follows his wife in resigning from the paper; she bailed several years back over another ethical flare-up, he writes. Schroeder purchased the Bristol Press and the New Britain Herald in a deal announced in early 2009, after the Journal Register Co. announced it would close the properties unless a buyer emerged.

“I don’t really care that he’s working with Adelson,” Collins, 54, tells this blog. “What I care about is that there’s been a secretive and a sort of sleazy way of handling things, and the list of journalistic no-nos just keeps growing and reached the point where I was just fed up.” Bristol Press’s website shows a news staff of about 10, including Collins, who says that he shared a draft of his Facebook post with Schroeder before he posted it. Schroeder hadn’t taken issue with it, though it’s not clear whether he read it. “His response was that we should talk on Monday,” said Collins, who has been covering Bristol since 1994.

Perhaps they can discuss this little flourish in Collins’s Facebook letter: “I can’t teach young people how to be ethical, upstanding reporters while working for a man like Michael Schroeder. I can’t take his money. I can’t do his bidding. I have to stand up for what is right even if the cost is so daunting that at this moment it scares the hell out of me.” On that last point, Collins tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “Journalists are always kind of foolish about anything involving money.”