Stop the Presses! MaineToday’s Paywall Might Work!
by Al Diamon
Online edition is in line with reality: It costs a lot to print and distribute a daily newspaper. The dollar (plus tax) that readers pay for each copy of the Portland Press Herald purchased in southern Maine barely covers the expense of squirting ink on newsprint and trucking the pulp to homes, stores and coin boxes. Out in the boonies, where I live, MaineToday Media, the Press Herald’s owner, is losing money on every issue I buy.
But that could change. Because the Portland paper arrives late in the hinterlands, I’ve gotten in the habit of reading the e-edition. Even though MaineToday instituted a paywall on July 1, requiring non-subscribers to shell out for the online version, I get it free because I have MTM’s Maine Sunday Telegram and Morning Sentinel home-delivered.
That dollar a day I’m not spending won’t really hurt MaineToday in the long term, because as more people discover the convenience of reading the paper online, MTM will save money on shipping papers to the fringes of its circulation area. As the e-edition takes hold, the day may come when it might even make sense to sell off that white elephant of a printing plant MaineToday owns in South Portland and replace it with a smaller operation.
A press will still be needed because the dead-tree edition won’t vanish entirely. The Sunday Telegram is still a profitable print product, according to MTM publisher Lisa DeSisto. In an unusually blunt column in the June 29 Telegram, DeSisto explained the economics of newspaper publishing. “The Maine Sunday Telegram continues to carry the majority of our advertising with that healthy pile of retail inserts,” she wrote. “Our pricing has been structured to encourage readers to get the Sunday paper. That’s why, while it may seem counterintuitive, a digital-only subscription is more expensive than a digital and Sunday package.”
In this, MaineToday is typical. According to the latest (improbably positive) statistics from the Newspaper Association of America, most publishers make 50 to 60 percent of their income on Sunday papers.
Even with the expense of a physical Telegram, there are substantial savings to be realized by putting most of MTM’s publishing online. In spite of predictions by public relations guru Dennis Bailey and Bollard editor Chris Busby that the paywall will fail to revive the newspaper company, there’s substantial evidence that such e-editions can be profitable.
Before we get to that, though, let me hasten to add that Bailey does make an excellent point in his blog post explaining what MTM is doing wrong. The company’s current plan allows online readers 10 free articles per month. That’s 10 free on each device a person owns, so if you have a laptop, a tablet and a smartphone, you can access up to 30. Bailey thinks it would make more sense to charge a small per-article fee for all non-subscribers to read anything. Or, as some papers do, offer one-day subscriptions to try to suck revenue from the occasional reader.
Among the publishers who take that approach are the owners of the Vermont dailies, the Rutland Times Herald and the Times Argus in Montpelier. These papers are smaller than the Press Herald, but they’re about the size of its sister papers, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta and the Morning Sentinel in Waterville. According to a Poynter Institute study in 2013, the paywall they instituted in 2010 cost them about 9 percent of their online advertising, as page views declined from around four million per month to less than half that. But then a funny thing happened. E-readership started to rebound. According to Poynter, “After a year of the paywall, page views were back to 2.6 million per month, and after two years stable at 3.1 million. Closing in on 3 years, the page views were for the first time within 5% of the pre-paywall numbers, at 3.6 to 4.2 million per month.”
Meanwhile, print circulation declined, but at far slower rates — 2 to 4 percent per year — than the double-digit losses MaineToday has lately experienced.
One more positive note: The Vermont papers say they’ve actually earned significant revenue from online readers, an annual amount now in the six-figure range. With barely more than a thousand subscribers, I’m not sure how credible that claim is, but since it costs next to nothing to service e-readers, whatever the publisher takes in is mostly profit.
Among the nearly 25 percent of U.S. newspapers that have paywalls, there appear to be more successes than failures. The keys, according to the American Press Institute, seem to be careful testing, quick reaction to reader comments and complaints, strong marketing and high quality content. While the jury is still out on how well MaineToday is managing many of these aspects — it’s been slow to correct software glitches that often screw up online content — there’s no question its papers, particularly the Press Herald, have more original local content than any other Maine news outlet.
Of course, so long as that content is available for free via MTM’s website or from Associated Press rewrites on radio and TV, there won’t be much incentive to pay for it. But by eliminating free access and altering its AP deal, MaineToday could position itself for online success.
If it fails to do so, the blame won’t fall on the paywall, but on bad management.
Odds and sods: Betty Adams of the Kennebec Journal is one of the best reporters in Maine, providing court coverage that’s several notches above the competition. And when Adams gets a chance (too infrequently) to really dig, she excels. For a fine example, check out her July 21 piece on employee complaints about conditions at the Riverview Psychiatric Hospital in Augusta, a first-rate exposé that her supposedly web-savvy editors managed to leave off the paper’s home page that day. Hey, they had a dog show to cover.
I haven’t been a big fan of Colin Woodard’s work since he joined MaineToday as an investigative reporter, so I had low expectations for “Unsettled,” his unprecedented 29-part series on 50 years of problems afflicting Maine’s Passamaquoddy tribe. But I was pleasantly surprised by the quantity and quality of information Woodard unearthed. I covered part of the land-claims settlement story years ago, but still discovered a lot I didn’t know. Woodard’s work is not only important for the history, but also for the light it sheds on current relations between the state and the tribe.
Looking for a copy of The Bollard north of Waterville? Don’t bother. The agreement with the Bangor Daily News to distribute about 3,000 copies a month in the Bangor area and Down East has come to an end due to a lack of advertising sales in those areas.
The latest Nielsen ratings for Maine radio markets are out and, as usual, reveal little. Because Nielsen publicly releases only the numbers for stations that subscribe to its service, there’s little insight into who’s most popular. In Portland, WFNK-FM, owned by Binnie Media, finished first in the spring book, followed by WJBQ-FM, WBLM-FM (both owned by Townsquare Media), WTHT-FM (Binnie) and WHOM-FM (Townsquare). Saga Communications — owner of WGAN-AM, WPOR-FM and five others — is still refusing to pay Nielsen, so its figures and those of lots of smaller stations aren’t public. In Bangor, WKIT-FM was number one, followed by WZON-AM and WZLO-FM, all owned by Stephen King’s Zone Corporation. For the Augusta-Waterville market, Townsquare’s WMME-FM and WEBB-FM took the top two spots, followed by Mountain Wireless’ WFMX-FM and WCTB-FM.
Double-barreled: From a July 12 article in the Portland Press Herald by staff writer Randy Billings on how gun-control issues may impact the gubernatorial race: “Statewide, 69 percent of gun owners surveyed said they voted for LePage in 2010, while 51 percent said they voted for Cutler.”
We should only allow gun owners to vote once.
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 emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.