by Al Diamon
Circling the drain: During the six months ending March 31, 2014, the weekday Kennebec Journal in Augusta did better than any other newspaper in Maine at hanging on to its readers. The KJ only lost 11 percent of them.
Every other paper that submitted circulation figures to the Alliance for Audited Media did worse — in some cases, a lot worse. For the first time ever, the declines were all in the double digits.
While the KJ saw its average daily circulation drop by nearly 1,100 to 8,648, its numbers on Sunday were even gloomier. That edition shed 12.5 percent of its paid customers, selling an average of 8,858 papers a week.
MaineToday Media, the KJ’s owner, fared no better with its other publications. The Portland Press Herald saw over 5,000 readers disappear, a decline of 12 percent. A year ago, the paper lost 9.5 percent — until then, its worst showing ever. The Press Herald now circulates an average of 37,776 issues a day. The Maine Sunday Telegram took a 13 percent hit in 2013. This time, it was 14 percent, or over 9,300 copies. It now sells just 56,722 each week. The Morning Sentinel in Waterville watched weekday figures spiral down 12 percent (compared to just over 9 percent last year), while its Sunday paper shed 13 percent (it lost 9 percent a year ago). The Sentinel now unloads an average of 11,106 papers Monday through Saturday, and 11,031 on Sundays.
The redesign and price increase at the Bangor Daily News did nothing to stabilize readership. Quite the contrary. The BDN, which had a relatively modest 8 percent loss in 2013, saw its Monday-through-Friday numbers shrink a stunning 15 percent this time. The Saturday edition was off 12.5 percent. The Bangor paper now sells 35,348 copies during the week and 42,065 on weekends.
A little long-term perspective: Over the last five years, the Press Herald has declined 36 percent, the Telegram 37 percent, and the BDN is off 33 percent on weekdays and 31 percent on weekends. In 2009, the KJ and Sentinel weren’t submitting figures to the AAM (then called the Audit Bureau of Circulations), so comparable figures aren’t available. The state’s other dailies — the Lewiston Sun Journal, Times Record in Brunswick and Journal Tribune in Biddeford — stopped using AAM several years ago, either to save money or because the information was so dismal.
The newspaper industry argues that overall readership is actually increasing when visitors to its websites are counted. There’s something to that. The Press Herald was the only Maine paper to submit a figure for the number of unique users of its site over the past six months: 1,688,597, which is 61,485 more than last year, or an increase of about 4 percent.
At the Bangor Daily, there’s a new emphasis on online readers. The paper has hired a California-based social-media consultant and is carefully monitoring which items generate the most clicks. Some staffers have told me that management is more concerned with how much traffic a post attracts than its news value.
Bad as they are, the Maine circulation figures may actually be masking even worse numbers. According to the Newspaper Association of America, print-advertising revenue is down 50 percent in the past five years and is now at about the same level as it was in 1950. When one includes online-ad income, the picture is only marginally less ugly. No Maine paper releases revenue figures, but it’s unlikely any of them are immune to this trend.
And it’s a trend that’s predicted to continue. The consulting and public-relations firm BIA/Kelsey recently released its forecast for advertising spending through 2018. It indicates print newspapers in this country will capture just 8.5 percent of ad dollars, while online versions of those papers will pull in a meager 2.5 percent. That means that five years from now, newspapers will take in $17.5 billion, or about $3.5 billion less than they did in 2013.
Small wonder that within a week, three people in the industry told me they were looking for new jobs outside journalism.
If you can’t say something nice: Cate Street Capital, the company that owns two paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket (neither of which is currently operating), has filed a libel suit against the Reel Time Report, a Los Angeles-based monthly newsletter that covers the forest-products industry. According to a May 15 story in the Bangor Daily News, Reel Time ran an article in its May issue that claimed Cate Street “messed everything up right from the beginning” because it “generally behaved like a company that had no clue what it was doing.” Writer Verle Sutton goes on to rip Maine politicians for giving Cate Street huge tax breaks in spite of its “unsurpassed incompetence.”
Sutton, who has an extensive background in the paper industry, does make some minor mistakes in his piece (he places the mills in the wrong towns), but most of the stuff Cate Street is complaining about is opinion, rather than fact. And it’s tough for a plaintiff to win a libel case based on nothing more than a disagreement over opinion.
It’s possible this lawsuit is designed less to right some alleged wrong and more to intimidate the Maine and national media into limiting the amount of negative reporting they do on the beleaguered company’s financial problems.
Not milking the connection: The MaineToday Media newspapers haven’t been transparent in their coverage of the problems plaguing Maine’s Own Organic Milk (MOO Milk), which has been teetering on the edge of disaster and may get a bail-out from the Maine Farm Bureau.
According to Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s financial disclosure form, she and her husband, MaineToday majority owner S. Donald Sussman, have a major investment in the company (scroll down to page 5). That should have been mentioned in every story. That it wasn’t indicates that either the editors and reporters don’t know what else their boss owns, or they don’t care.
Odds and sods: Political commentatorsEthan Strimling (liberal Democrat) and Phil Harriman (moderate Republican) have moved their Click-and-Clack routine to the Maine Sunday Telegram. Editorial page editor Greg Kesich announced on May 21 that the paper had successfully poached the duo from the Bangor Daily News, where they wrote a weekly column of back-and-forth banter called “Agree to Disagree,” as well as occasional blog posts. They’re also regulars on WCSH and WLBZ television newscasts.
The Portland Daily Sun is a lot less daily. The free paper is now being published just two days a week, down from four, as part of a move to reduce expenses.
The owner of the Village Soup newspapers is starting a television station to cover news in Maine’s midcoast region. Reade Brower, who also owns the weekly Free Press in Rockland, is partnering with Alan Hinsey, producer of Mainebiz magazine’s weekly TV news program, in a venture called VStv. Brower is planning a fall launch and has already secured a spot in Time Warner Cable’s lineup.
After a failed attempt in February to sell its Main Street building to a developer, the Bangor Daily News has finally unloaded the property to Cross Insurance, which will make the space its new Bangor headquarters. According to knowledgeable sources at the BDN, Cross is eager to move in, and the newspaper is frantically seeking appropriate digs.
Usage issue: This sub-headline appeared in the May 1 issue of the Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier above a story about graffiti problems: “Under-used city clean up program is hardly used.”
So, it’s working, right?
WKGB-TV: A sharp-eyed observer spotted a protester standing outside the headquarters of WCSH-TV in Portland’s Congress Square holding a sign that said, “Putin has agents here.”
I’ve always thought Joe Cupo gave the weather forecast a pro-Russian slant.
In addition to serving as The Bollard’s media critic, Al Diamon writes a weekly political column that runs in the Portland Phoenix, the Downeast Coastal Press, the Daily Bulldog and the Current Publishing papers. He also writes a column for Current’s My Generation magazine. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.