Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Watchdog leaves Hartford Courant, growling

One of the first reporters I worked with has just landed in The New York Times, but it's not good news. The headline is Hartford Courant Lays Off Consumer Columnist, and the story starts like this:
"The Hartford Courant and its former consumer columnist, George Gombossy, agree on one thing: that Mr. Gombossy was laid off this month. But was it because he would not stop unfavorable articles about advertisers, or because his job was simply eliminated?"
George became the Courant's Willimantic bureau chief 40 years ago this summer, the same week that I became "the other guy in the Willimantic bureau." I went on to be a bureau chief, too, and made it to education editor before leaving the paper to go into education full-time, one way or another. George did a lot more at the Courant -- went on to be its business editor for a dozen years, among other things.

He has held out through two corporate takeovers (Times Mirror, then Tribune Corp.) numerous buyouts, layoffs and shrinkage at "the nation's oldest newspaper in continuous publication." The most recent cutbacks included bringing the paper and a Tribune TV station under the same management.

These days, most readers know George as the Courant's consumer watchdog. It looks like he's done good work following-up reader complaints, keeping a good relationship with the state's attorney general, exposing faulty products and questionable business practices, and saving people some money.

Now he's started his own blog as and is talking about making it a nonprofit operation, and about suing the paper, the more civilized equivalent of "going to the mattresses," in the Corleone family. He's quoted by the Associated Press as saying new managers are "destroying the Courant instead of saving it" and that he hopes to stop them.

In a more mundane sense, George says mattresses played a part in his leaving the Courant. Here's the AP version: Hartford Courant columnist alleges his departure tied to critical column about advertiser.

The advertiser in question was a big mattress store, the kind that places big ads in newspapers and television, and sometimes draws consumer complaints about bedbug infestations.

The Courant's memos about George's departure are on his blog, headlined "Courant Spin on Watchdog departure."

Along with his remaining Watchdog columns on, you'll find "The Watchdog's Consumer Resource List," which I'd recommend to journalism students interested in following in watchdog pawprints, looking for local equivalents to the Connecticut offices on his list.

Finally, if you're itching to find out more about bedbugs and mattresses, the "Is this really a new mattress?" question has been the subject of consumer complaints and news investigations for more than a dozen years. A Times story a few years ago pointed out that even new mattresses from reputable stores can pick up bedbugs if they spend a day in a delivery truck carrying away other customers' old mattresses... Those are not the kind you'd want to "go to."

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