New Newspaper Circulation Numbers: Bad and Awful
by Al Diamon
Sun Journal falls off a cliff: Almost one third of the daily readers of the Lewiston Sun Journal disappeared in the past year, according to new numbers from the newspaper’s U.S. Postal Service Statement of Ownership and Circulation. That annual report, required for publications that receive favorable mailing rates, shows average Monday-through-Saturday paid circulation for the Lewiston paper dropped from 31,369, in 2013, to 21,298, in 2014 — off about 32 percent. On Sunday, the Sun Journal’s salesdeclined from 30,450 last year to 23,216 this year, a 24 percent drop.
Those losses are by far the worst ever for any major Maine paper. But the SJ’s statistics have rarely followed the prevailing trends. Between 2011 and 2012, it claimed to have actually gained circulation, while every other daily lost ground. It’s not clear if these oddball lurches are reflective of the unusual habits of central Maine news consumers, or if they can be attributed to past attempts by the Lewiston paper to pad its numbers by offering businesses deeply discounted rates.
In any case, the latest results seem to more accurately reflect the Sun Journal’s readership and are in line with the sorts of combined losses most Maine dailies have experienced over the past five years.
The Bangor Daily News had the next-ugliest report. Its average weekday figures were off 16 percent, shrinking circulation from 42,195 a year ago to 35,330 this year. That figure includes the BDN’s weekend edition, which comes out on Saturdays and usually sells significantly more papers than its Monday-through-Friday counterparts. That likely means the Bangor paper was hit by even bigger losses during the work week.
By comparison, the new numbers for MaineToday Media’s Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram don’t appear quite as grim. The Press Herald, which suffered an 11 percent decline between 2012 and 2013, managed to reduce the bleeding this year to just 6 percent. Its average daily circulation is now 38,567, compared to 40,850 last year. The Telegram took a 14 percent hit in its previous report. This time the damage was a mere 9 percent, dropping average weekly circulation to 57,683. The news was even better at MaineToday’s Morning Sentinel, in Waterville, where the 16 percent slide of 2013 was reduced to a 4 percent drop in 2014.
Nevertheless, the downward trajectory continued across the board, and neither paywalls on websites (MaineToday), nor posting everything online long before it hits print (Bangor), nor a mix of the two (Lewiston) has had a noticeable effect on that trend.
All Things Re-Considered: In late September, the Maine Public Broadcasting Network made a significant change to its flagship news program, Maine Things Considered.
It eliminated it. Sort of.
MPBN has reconfigured its afternoon news block, integrating state news into National Public Radio’s All Things Considered programming, much the way it has always mixed Maine stories with world and national news during NPR’s Morning Edition. Instead of a regular local-news block from 5:30 to 6 p.m. each weekday, staff-produced stories are aired any time during ATC, from 4 to 7 p.m.
According to knowledgeable sources at MPBN, the change was made because it had become increasingly difficult for the news staff — which has shrunk in recent years from more than a dozen to fewer than 10 — to produce a quality half-hour program five days a week. The new format will reduce the demands on each reporter to come up with a story every day, thereby allowing more enterprise and investigative work. It also means that on slow news days, listeners won’t be subjected to quite so much filler material. It remains to be seen (or heard) if that results in higher quality radio.
What’s certain is that MPBN hasn’t done a good job of preparing its audience for the new approach. I’ve received numerous e-mails from people confused by the shift, and even a month after the change, the network’s own website seemed unaware that Maine Things had gone away, continuing to list the show at its old time.
The Phoenix in limbo: At The Bollard’s deadline, there were significant questions about the fate of the Portland Phoenix, the 15-year-old weekly alternative paper.
According to an Oct. 21 e-mail Phoenix editor Nicholas Schroeder sent out to freelancers (of whom, I’m one), the issue of Oct. 22 “will be the last.” But Schroeder also wrote, “[T]here’s more to the story than I understand right now.”
Meanwhile, the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News were reporting that efforts by Phoenix Media/Communications Group, the paper’s owner, to sell it to an employee — general manager John Marshall, according to an informed source — had fallen through due to unspecified financial issues. Marshall told reporters the fate of the publication was undecided, but should be known within a month or two.
On Oct. 22, Schroeder sent another e-mail saying the paper would continue to publish for at least another week.
The Phoenix’s future got cloudy on Oct. 9, when its parent company announced it was shutting down its sister paper in Rhode Island, the Providence Phoenix, due to poor advertising sales and rising costs. Phoenix Media had previously closed its papers in Boston and Worcester; sold off its radio stations in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts; and disposed of parts of its Massachusetts printing operation.
Everett Finkelstein, chief operating officer of Phoenix Media, said administrative expenses were too high to justify keeping the Portland paper in operation as a stand-alone business. But other sources said it was still being shopped to potential buyers.
Meanwhile, Dig Publishing, which puts out the Dig Boston weekly, announced on Oct. 24 that if the Phoenix folded, it planned to start a Portland alternative newspaper to fill the void.
Ego triumphs over journalism: No news organization would report on sporting events without naming all participants. Likewise, in covering elections, every candidate gets mentioned, no matter how miserable their showing. But the same rules don’t seem to apply to journalism contests.
On Oct. 18, the Maine Sunday Telegram touted its victories and those of its sister paper, the Portland Press Herald, in the Maine Press Association’s annual awards program. There was not a word about any other publications receiving accolades, leaving the erroneous impression that MaineToday Media papers won everything worth winning.
Which is flat-out false.
The Bangor Daily News, which took home 36 trophies, devoted several paragraphs of its story on Oct. 20 to the other major winners, including the Telegram and Press Herald. The Lewiston Sun Journal, which won the Freedom of Information award for the fifteenth year in a row, went so far as to note in the first paragraph of its Oct. 19 piece that rival MaineToday had scored several of the top awards.
MTM’s failure to reciprocate isn’t just petty. It’s misleading to readers and borders on the unethical.
Which page of the Bangor Daily News do you believe? From the Sept. 27 Bangor Daily, page A1: “If the [University of Maine System] doesn’t make changes, it will be $69 million in debt by 2019, administrators have said.”
From the same issue, page D1: “If the [university] system takes no action, it will face an $87 million deficit by the 2018-19 academic year, according to a financial analysis the system released last fall.”
The margin of error seems to be $18 million.
Sometimes it takes balls to be a woman: The October issue of Maine Women magazine contains a feature article on Brittany Humphrey of New Gloucester, who had just been named “Miss Maine Sportsman” at the annual Maine Sportsman’s Show.
Miss Maine Sportsman?
You’d think a publication devoted to women might have had the gumption to question that bit of archaic sexism. But you’d be wrong.
Disclosure: I’m a regular contributor to several publications owned by Current Publishing, which publishes Maine Women.
In addition to serving as The Bollard’s media critic, Al Diamon writes a weekly political column that runs in the Portland Phoenix, 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.