MaineToday Media’s Paywall Arrives — Sorta
by Al Diamon
Charging for the e-edition: In early February, MaineToday Media began levying a fee for online access to the electronic, page-by-page editions of its newspapers – the Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Oddly enough, MaineToday isn’t requiring payment for reading most of the exact same material on its regular websites. What’s more, anyone who subscribes to the print editions of any of the papers gets all the e-editions at no additional charge.
So, this makes money exactly how?
Nobody at MTM responded to e-mails asking that question, but it’s not unreasonable to assume this paywall on the e-paper, like a similar one the Bangor Daily News set up last year, is a first step toward limiting access on the regular sites, as well. Many papers restrict online readers to 10 stories per month without charge, after which they have to pay up. This method works pretty well for the New York Times, which has a national brand, resulting in more than 800,000 paid e-subscribers. But that encouraging number masks a hard fact about building online readership.
In recent months, both the Times and Gannett’s community dailies have seen new subscribers and revenue growth for their e-editions level off abruptly, indicating there may be a limit to how many eyeballs can be attracted and how much cash can be generated online. After years of declining numbers in both categories, most newspapers might welcome flat figures, but the long-term implications of zero growth aren’t positive.
While roughly a quarter of all U.S. dailies now have paywalls in place — more than double the figure of two years ago — online revenues haven’t come close to covering losses in print income. In fact, some large city papers, such as the San Francisco Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News, have found no value in their paywalls and dumped them, leading the notoriously negative Newspaper Death Watch website to conclude: “Replicating the newspaper experience online is a non-starter.”
I’m not sure that’s true. E-editions are more likely a transitional stage between pulp-and-ink papers and whatever kinds of truly Web-based news outlets, with wide audiences and stable revenue sources, eventually emerge. It will take management with savvy business skills, high-level technical expertise and a solid grounding in quality journalism to survive this transition and prosper in the new era.
It remains to be seen if MaineToday has what it takes.
Too much Edge: The recent scandal involving the administration of New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie has a media connection to Maine. David Wildstein, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official at the heart of what appear to be politically motivated lane closings, is one of the founders of the now-defunct chain of Politicker websites, one of which was based in this state from late 2007 to December of 2008.
PolitickerME featured solid reporting on legislative races and other local matters that the mainstream media — then in a serious slump due to declining advertising revenue during the recession — often overlooked. The site was also home to “Wally Edge,” a pseudonymous commentator with a conservative bite and excellent sources. Wildstein traveled to Maine in ’07 to personally hire Edge, who — in spite of rumors he was either public-relations guru Dennis Bailey, A.J. Higgins of Maine Public Radio, or me — was not a journalist or a flack, but a political operative.
Too much Tipping: When Bangor Daily News political columnist David Farmer went to work for Democrat Mike Michaud’s gubernatorial campaign, it was an obvious conflict of interest, and Farmer gave up writing his weekly op-ed piece.
When Bangor Daily political columnist Matthew Gagnon’s employer, a Washington-based Republican advocacy group, began running advertising in support of GOP Gov. Paul LePage, the ethical issue was obvious, and Gagnon put his newspaper sideline on hiatus.
While I think Farmer and Gagnon waited a little too long to pull the plug on their opinionating, they both made the move before the campaign got into high gear.
Although Mike Tipping, who writes a blog for the Bangor paper and a column for the Portland Press Herald, has almost as much of a conflict as the other two, he keeps right on writing.
Tipping is communications director for the Maine People’s Alliance, an advocacy group that has endorsed Michaud. Not only is he still producing political commentary, he’s not hesitant to use his newspaper space to promote his employer’s agenda, as he did with his Feb. 15 column in the Portland paper attacking LePage — a piece that reads like an MPA press release.
Tipping, like Farmer and Gagnon, provides real insight into Maine politics. But also like them, his day job calls his credibility — and that of his journalistic sponsors — into question. It’s long past time he joined his more ethically sensitive colleagues in hibernation.
Not enough ombudsman: Maine’s public-access ombudsman won’t be getting the powers to subpoena documents and compel bureaucrats to testify — at least not this year. A bill to upgrade the office is going nowhere in the Legislature, in spite of recent high-profile cases of elected and appointed officials, including the governor, refusing to abide by the state’s Freedom of Access Act. Members of the Government Oversight Committee said they were reluctant to “over-legislate” based on a few examples of the current ombudsman, Brenda Kielty, doing essentially nothing about such questionable actions as the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention shredding documents being sought by a newspaper, or Gov. Paul LePage (Kielty’s former boss) refusing to release a report on the state’s welfare programs for four weeks. Committee members said they might study the situation and make some kind of recommendations at some unspecified future time. For now, the only way to deal with government secrecy is for media outlets to file expensive and time-consuming lawsuits.
Speaking of which: Maybe it’s time for some news organization with deep pockets (hello, MaineToday Media) to sue the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee over closed-door meetings it routinely holds under the guise of “party caucuses.” As the Lewiston Sun Journal pointed out in an excellent Feb. 5 editorial, important decisions about state spending are made at these caucuses without public input or oversight. And when a partisan dispute breaks out, as one did in early February, there’s no outside observer to record or explain what happened. While the Attorney General’s Office has indicated these meetings might be exempt from right-to-know laws, there’s never been a definitive ruling on the matter. Long past time there was.
Back from the dead: As Maine Goes, the conservative online forum that shut down in December after 15 years, returned in late January under new ownership. Lance Dutson, a GOP political consultant and Web marketer, bought AMG from founder Scott Fish and attempted to open it up to a more freewheeling form of discussion with less screening of comments. But after a brief period of essentially unregulated commenting, Dutson announced that volunteer “moderators” would monitor postings to keep things relatively civil. Nevertheless, in the first few weeks of that effort, the site continued to display its trademark homophobia and paranoia, but little of the insightful observations or breaking news that once made it a must-read for the politically inclined.
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, some Mainely Media weeklies and some Current Publishing papers. He also writes a column for Current’s My Generation magazine. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.