What is the future of Maine's newspapers?


With excessive debt, declining revenue and shrinking circulation plaguing daily newspapers around the country, what exactly is the future of Maine’s newspapers?

That was the question posed to panelists on Monday, May 7 during a two-hour discussion sponsored by Vox Global, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Press Association at the Holiday Inn by the Bay.

Panelists included Tom Bell, Portland Press Herald reporter and president of the Portland Newspaper Guild; Terry Carlisle, general manager of the Ellsworth American; Tony Ronzio, new media director for the Sun Media Group; Todd Benoit, director of news at the Bangor Daily News; and Bill Kuykendall, senior lecturer in new media and cooperating professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine.

Mike Cuzzi, senior vice president and manager of VOX Global’s Portland office, moderated the discussion, which was attended by about 60 audience members. “Will newspapers go the way of the dinosaurs?” Cuzzi asked the panel.

One newspaper represented on the panel does not have to worry—at least for now—about excessive debt, declining revenue and shrinking circulation: the Portland Press Herald.

Hedge-fund billionaire S. Donald Sussman, a major benefactor of Democratic causes in Maine and husband to sitting U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, recently purchased a 75-percent stake in MaineToday Media, which publishes the Portland Press Herald, Waterville Sentinel and Kennebec Journal.

When Cuzzi asked the panel whether new models of ownership and investment in newspapers would affect the independence of their reporting, Bell reached for his phone. “Let me quickly call Donald and see what he wants to say,” Bell said to laughter, holding his phone to his ear. “No reception on his private jet,” Bell said to more laughter as he put his phone away.

Bell said that while Sussman is politically active, he did not buy MaineToday Media for political reasons. “This is about saving jobs,” Bell said. Of the 400 employees in the company, only eight or so are involved with politics, he said.

Sussman does not want to influence coverage, according to Bell. “He does not want anything to do with editorials,” Bell said. “Since he bought the paper, he has shown that he will have absolutely no influence in the newsroom.”

While other daily newspapers in other parts of the country are facing excessive debt and shrinking revenue, Bell said the outlook for Maine’s papers is more hopeful. Other newspaper groups are often multi-state organizations that are publically traded, must answer to stockholders and have high levels of debt.

But MaineToday Media has already hired four reporters and plans to hire four more, Bell said, doubling the size of the reporting staff. Other newspapers might have to decide whether to hire reporters as a way to improve their news product, which could increase circulation and attract advertisers. But Bell said the “reason we’re hiring new reporters is not to make money.”

Referring to Sussman, Bell said “our new owner believes that democracy is being born in a vibrant and healthy newsroom. It’s what makes our company worth saving.”

Despite the image of newspapers failing around the country, Bell said that he has never seen Maine’s newspaper environment as competitive as it is today. He said Portland Press Herald staff regularly reads the Bangor Daily News and Sun Journal, and “we are now at a point where we can try to poach their reporters.”

One member of the audience asked Bell if MaineToday Media would work to balance the liberal slant of the paper or if the eight new reporters would simply continue to hammer out more of the company’s liberal ideology.

“Our job is to get balanced news,” Bell said. “That is our bread and butter, and we’re not going to give it up.”

Despite Sussman’s claims that he will stay out of the newsroom, Bell said that the billionaire is very interested in the business side of the media group and has been bringing in consultants from around the country for advice. “We need a financial wizard on our side,” he said.

Terry Carlisle of the Ellsworth American said her company publishes two weeklies, prints several more and has an online news site. She said weeklies are faring very well, even though revenue is flat, because they are often locally owned and have lower levels of debt. “Flat is the new up,” she said to laughter.

Since her company has no debt, Carlisle said the papers would definitely be here in 10 or 15 years. “If you don’t have any debt, and you have a good businessperson who owns the paper, you can publish forever in print,” she said. “The owners will be local, and they will be nimble and quick. Whatever model will be here in 10 to 15 years, we’ll be doing it.”

Tony Ronzio of Sun Media Group said that newspapers either have a local owner or an absentee owner, who often resides in another state. Absentee owners often read newspapers as “spreadsheets rather than broadsheets.” In the end, having a local owner is a better situation, Ronzio said.

The panel grappled with numerous questions about using “new media” technology to deliver their news product, including websites, iPad and mobile phone apps, videos, live streaming of events, readers’ comments and social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. Most of the panel discussion centered on the technology that will be used to deliver the newspapers’ content, rather than improving the quality of the actual content.

Todd Benoit of the Bangor Daily News said the biggest change from moving from print to online news is the process. He said it is important to be first to report the news, but the quality of the news must remain high. “It’s not enough just to be first,” he said. “The skill is only putting up what you know.”

When Senator Olympia Snowe announced her retirement, Benoit said the Portland Press Herald beat the Bangor Daily News with the news stories. But he said that two of the BDN’s bloggers, Amy Fried, a professor of political science, and Matt Gagnon, a Republican strategist, were providing their expertise online about the story.

Ronzio said scoops are measured in seconds these days. And within the new news ecosystem, “everybody can have their say,” he said. The organizations that are honest brokers of information, that maintain their credibility and that earn a reputation for being trustworthy will succeed. “It makes our historical role in society even more important,” he said.

Having news posted online as soon as possible allows the readers to contribute to the process, Benoit said. In one story about a propane-tank explosion, some readers asked what kind of valves were on the tanks. Benoit said the reporter probably would not have known to ask whether the valves played a part in the explosion.

Panelists were asked how to “monetize” social media involvement, such as capitalizing on readers’ comments or links to Facebook. “Why are we there?” Benoit asked about social media. “Because that’s where the readers are. We will go where the readers are.”

He said Facebook offers a valuable audience of 30-something women with decent incomes. With that knowledge, he said the paper could offer a certain online audience to certain advertisers.

Ronzio said that the local newspaper has traditionally been the most effective way to reach the local audience, but that has been eroding since 2005. Online news sites have taken readers from local dailies, and sites like Craigslist have taken classified-ad revenue from newspapers.

“We’re competing with Google and Facebook and daily-deal sites for advertising,” he said. And the newspapers are not going to get ad revenue from Walmart or Target, he noted.

But as advertising revenue migrates online, Ronzio said there is still “no better bang for your buck” for local advertisers than the local newspaper that has served the community for 100 years.

Getting readers to pay for online content is another challenge. Benoit said that the BDN has not yet found a successful model to do that. He noted that the New York Times spent a year and $25 million to find their model. “I don’t think we’ve found ours yet,” he said.

Bell said that going to a paid online model is like a game of chicken: which of Maine’s three biggest dailies will go first?

Given that young people are “digital natives” who are more interested in social media, Cuzzi asked the panel where newspapers would find good reporters in the coming years.

Bill Kuykendall, professor of communication and journalism at UMaine, said that newspapers need to send more journalists into the classroom to teach students about the principles, ethics and techniques of news gathering and reporting. College students today are highly advanced with social media and digital platforms, but they need someone to teach them the fundamentals of journalism.

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.

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