A Newspaper War – Without Newspapers
The Bangor Daily News and MaineToday Media slug it out online
by Al Diamon
For the first time, Maine’s two largest news organizations are taking on each other. The Bangor Daily News is challenging MaineToday Media — publisher of the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel — for online supremacy in the lucrative southern Maine market. Both companies are pouring resources into the fight, but both are pursuing radically different strategies in their attempts to gain Web dominance.
For decades, the two newspaper companies have limited their competition, content to control their own sections of the state. The Bangor Daily, which owned the northern half of Maine, sometimes made halfhearted attempts to penetrate Morning Sentinel territory in the Waterville area. The BDN and the Press Herald fought it out in the Midcoast for many years, until cost-cutting moves in 2008 forced the Portland paper to concede that territory, as well as York County.
But in general, the two ignored each other. An advertising executive at the BDN explained to me in 1985 that increased competition would only lead to both sides being forced to cut advertising rates. An editor at the Press Herald once bragged to me that he never even bothered to read the Bangor Daily. “It’s not news until it’s in our paper,” he said.
Then, the Internet happened.
Both papers were slow to react and have paid for that tardiness by watching their circulations decline steadily for a decade. But in recent years, both have moved aggressively to boost online readership, even at the expense of print sales. And online readers know no geographic boundaries.
Neither company will admit it’s specifically targeting the other’s customers. They say recent and pending changes to their websites are about accommodating the new reality.
“We’re recognizing that the digital audience has certain expectations,” said Anthony Ronzio, director of news and new media at the Bangor Daily. “We’re altering our product to meet them.”
Officials at MaineToday, including executive editor Cliff Schechtman and interactive executive editor Angie Muhs, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment, but sources at the company say there’s been an internal acknowledgment that the Bangor moves pose a threat. “We’re going to be aggressive in meeting that challenge,” said a source.
That aggressiveness may be difficult for the average Internet surfer to notice. Sometime later this year, MTM is planning to start charging for its online content.
Paywalls have been successful at some newspapers, particularly big national brands, such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, according to a study conducted in Britain. They’ve worked for smaller papers, too, if they have lots of local content, adopt a paywall early and have a solid reputation in the community. It also helps if competition is limited, meaning the site has plenty of material that can’t be found elsewhere.
The Press Herald comes to the paywall concept very late, and the Bangor Daily intrusion makes that condition about no competition somewhat problematic. But the Portland paper certainly has local content (and plans to add to it as it continues to hire reporters). In an average week, it produces more enterprise stories than any other news organization in Maine. Its major articles are thoroughly reported (usually) and well edited (sometimes). If someone wants real information about what’s going on in Maine, he or she has no choices except to buy the print version or visit the website. While the Associated Press distributes condensed rewrites of Press Herald stories to radio and TV stations, that relationship may not be an enduring one (Bangor has already dumped AP for the cheaper Reuters wire service). Even if Portland sticks with the AP, readers who want all the details will still have to shell out for the original version.
In short, the MaineToday papers represent the traditional journalistic product, offered to the public in the traditional pay-up-if-you-want-to-read-it manner.
The Bangor Daily is doing something quite different.
In the past year, it’s made a point of including a lot of southern Maine news on its website, occasionally scooping the MTM papers. But with just two reporters in the most populous part of the state — compared to more than two dozen at the Press Herald alone — the Bangor paper often finds itself playing catch up.
“From an arms race perspective, we can’t compete,” a Bangor staff source said.
To compensate for the lack of feet on the street, the BDN has formed alliances with numerous other news organizations (including The Bollard) to provide content for its website and print publication. In addition to its own stories, it regularly carries articles from the Forecaster weekly newspapers, the Journal Tribune in Biddeford and even New Hampshire dailies that cover York County. It supplements this material on its website with stories from college papers and a bevy of bloggers, whose postings often show up online in the same space as legitimate news stories (in contrast, MaineToday keeps its bloggers carefully segregated from news content).
All this input from all these sources can give the BDN website the appearance of a news aggregator, a characterization Ronzio calls “simplistic.” He says that because the story-sharing arrangements work both ways, the Bangor paper supplies its partners with as much, if not more, content than it receives, something aggregators normally don’t do.
But the wide variations in style and quality, from straight-up news items to weird rants, make for a carnival atmosphere. Perhaps a better description of the BDN site would be to compare it to the Huffington Post, where news, gossip and utter foolishness all vie for the reader’s attention as if each were equally valid.
There’s no question this approach draws an audience, but it also leads to something called “Huffington Post syndrome,” a term coined by Philip Balboni, one of the architects of regional TV news network NECN and the founder of the online news service GlobalPost.
In an April speech to the New England First Amendment Coalition, Balboni defined this syndrome as “a relentless, all-consuming focus on building audience through technology and social media and, to a large degree, through the creation of content that has little or no true significance.” He went on to say that focusing on big readership numbers “can overwhelm our deeper mission to report fairly and comprehensively, to investigate public and private corruption, and to cover serious, often complex issues affecting the community.”
To date, it would be unfair to suggest the Bangor Daily isn’t fighting that good fight. Its recent coverage of the threat of fires on wind turbines indicates just the opposite, as does its regular Saturday in-depth analysis of key issues in state government.
And Ronzio insists there are no plans to cut back on the rather staid print product to bolster the more rollicking online version. But the BDN wouldn’t be the first news outfit where the sideshow has overwhelmed the main event. How it maintains standards in the coming months will be worth watching.
Paid versus free. Tightly controlled, self-produced content versus almost anything from almost anywhere. MaineToday Media versus the Bangor Daily News.
The big bucks from southern Maine advertisers lie in the balance.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.