Some of you might remember my long post about the #menews forum a couple weeks back. Well, they're still at it - and so am I. In my inbox this morning comes moderator Mike Cuzzi, with an opinion piece jointly penned by him, Maine State Chamber of Commerce head Dana Connors, and Tony Ronzio, the Sun Journal's new media director - one of the more clued-in folks on the panel. (BTW, Tony, I've had a website since 1992. Can we stop calling it "new media" soon?)
They asked if I'd consider printing it, so I took a look. And I've agreed to publish it here - with my responses in line. And no, this doesn't stop me from shaking my head at Maine's daily newspaper situation.
Anyway, here's the op-ed, with my responses. I'm in bold.
The Future of Maine's Newspapers
Despite National Trends,
Newspapers Remain Strong
narrative about newspapers is expressed in two words: they're dying.
Let's be clearer: the national
narrative about daily newspapers is
that they're dying. Weekly newspapers, including alternatives, have hit a rough
economic spot just like everyone else, but are doing just fine.
past few years, newspaper circulations have declined, staffs have been cut
back, budgets have tightened with the shrinking economy and the explosive
growth of digital and social media, and some publications even closed their
Yep, such as the Portland
Press Herald, the Portland Press Herald, and,
well, the Portland Press Herald's York County
bureau. And Village Soup Media, of course. Or were you going to tell me Maine's an exception to this stuff?
national narrative is largely driven by the experiences of big, publicly traded
newspaper chains, like Gannett or McClatchy, or the big institutions, like the
New York Times or Washington Post. Neither represents the real story of
newspapering in Maine.
Except, of course, for the obvious
and well-known facts that Maine
daily newspapers have lost circulation big-time, shrunk their staffs
significantly, tightened budgets, and closed their doors.
daily and weekly publications are owned by Maine individuals and families who live and
work in this state. While committed to turning a profit, these local
owners read their newspapers like broadsheets -- as opposed to spreadsheets.
And as we know, people who live
locally are by definition better than people who live far away. This is why, as
we all know, Maine has the best telecommunications companies, the most
innovative universities, the world's best teachers, the most talented artists, and more Nobel Prize winners than anywhere else on the...
(Fine, we have some of these - but Maine-centric exceptionalism is hollow
rhetoric that substitutes boosterism for substance.)
This also attempts to get away with
lumping the struggling all-things-to-all-people daily newspapers in with the
successful niche-publication weeklies. Don't let this sort of silliness cloud
your vision. Daily papers print the Internet - after it's been posted online. Weeklies print the news first, with insight
there is cautious optimism in Maine
that its newspapers are rising again, albeit slowly, after some difficult
Who is optimistic about that? Is it
anyone outside the newspapers in question?
papers are making money, hiring newsroom and other staff, either holding or
growing circulation, and reaching more people than ever before with their print
and online offerings.
If the dailies are making money, it
must just not be enough for their local owners, who continue to seek greater
profits by cutting back on content while raising cover prices. They're not "holding"
circulation, though by some measures they are slowing the losses. But it's
important to note that how circulation is measured has changed, allowing
greater flexibility in determining what counts - specifically so that the
newspaper industry can make its numbers look better, in an attempt to regain
control of the narrative of the obvious.
And if they're claiming to reach
"more people than ever before," make sure you get them to show you how they
know that they're not reaching the same exact people in print, online, and mobile
devices - and just counting them multiple times. What's that? Oh right - they
can't show you that. Because they don't know that. Also, make sure they show
you how many of those online readers are people who would gladly pay to read
what's there. Oh yeah, they can't show you that, either, because most of them
reach hasn't necessarily translated into greater profitability, but even
newspapers' balance sheets as a whole are trending in the right direction.
Just cut the word "necessarily" from
the sentence. And if the balance sheets are looking up, it's not because
there's more revenue. It's because costs are lower. That means fewer workers,
at lower salaries, less employee benefits, and smaller circulation (accompanied
by smaller print runs).
Third, Maine's newspapers are
now more competitive than ever before, battling for the best reporters and
investing in new, more robust technologies to deliver content to ever more sophisticated
The dailies are indeed more competitive
with each other. Perhaps that's because they're engaged in a race for survival.
Can this state really support three major dailies and three smaller ones? They
are as uncompetitive as ever with weeklies, who trounce them time and again,
week in and week out, in print and online.
What are these "new, more robust
technologies" they're talking about? Better blog engines? Slightly faster
websites that might load faster in a state whose overall broadband speed is
existential crisis of Maine
and national newspapers is reshaping their mission and invigorating them to
rapidly adapt to new challenges. This strong competition and renewed sense of
purpose promises to keep Maine's
Innovation, competition, and
reinvigoration do not directly and automatically equal success. Some
innovations fail. Some businesses lose competitions, and renewed energy can be
wasted by mismanagement, or by outside economic factors.
So what does
the future hold for Maine's
newspapers? The precise answer is unknown. What is known, however, is the
future exists -- despite gloomy predictions to the contrary.
Ah, that's some refreshing honesty.
Despite the original interpretation of Mayan predictions that the world would
end in 2012, the new interpretation is that the Mayans expected the world to
continue for many more years. "The future exists" is the banner of promise that
is held high by people whose entire jobs have for decades, even down to today,
been obsessed with telling you what happened yesterday. Their newspapers
certainly don't reflect the idea that the future exists - and only rarely even
address the present. They just talk about what happened in the past.
So daily newspapers are discovering
that "the future exists." This is important, but continues to underline the
idea that daily newspapers and their leaders are profoundly detached from the
rest of the world, in which we're constantly worrying about the future and
talking about what's next, and only rarely deeply interested in what happened
in the past. (And yes, I'm a trained historian, and I recognize the distinction
between my interests and those of regular people. Daily newspaper workers have
continued to think they are regular
people - and they're not.)
Portland, we hosted a panel discussion about the
future of Maine's
newspapers. The participants came to some common conclusions, although with
divergent opinions about how to get there.
What? I was there, and didn't hear
any common conclusions - besides "We don't know what's happened, but the future
editions are not going away anytime soon. Plenty of fans still exist for
printed newspapers, particularly in Maine,
which supports dozens of excellent weekly papers that cover every inch of the
And the fact that weekly newspapers
are successful has what bearing, exactly, on daily newspapers, which are an
entirely different animal?
forward, though, print will become just one vehicle for readers, as opposed to
the dominant one. Digital journalism and advertising will eventually supplant
printed papers for primacy, but never replace them entirely.
This is already true - and not just
something we'll see "going forward." Print is just one vehicle - for a
decreasing number of readers. Perhaps printed papers won't ever entirely
disappear. Some people still put music out on cassette and vinyl, after all.
happen not as readers' news consumption changes, but as advertisers optimize
how they pursue and attract customers online. For decades, newspapers have
aided businesses in the quest for customers; as the digital age dawns,
newspapers still remain ideally suited to provide this service for years to
Here's another bright spot of
honesty: This transition won't happen because of what daily newspapers think
their readers want. (Reason: They have no idea what their readers want.) Rather,
it'll happen because of what advertisers demand, and what makes the numbers
work. Sounds a lot like what's already at work killing daily papers.
And what it really says is that Maine's daily newspapers
will not be leaders in innovation, but rather will follow the innovations of
others, who will determine the future of advertising. Being a follower -
especially when calling it innovation - is always a good way to save your
failing business, right?
newspaper advertising departments are transforming themselves into
full-service digital providers to businesses, offering value-added services
such as website design in response to businesses' growing digital needs.
Ah yes, website design - so glad
that's a new offering of Maine's
newspapers. Have they heard of Blogger, Tumblr, Google Sites, or any of the
zillions of free and low-cost, easy-to-use services already out there? Oh wait
- newspapers still aren't used to the
idea that they're competing with the entire Internet.
words, local advertisers will have as much to do with the evolution of Maine's newspapers as
any other force, actively driving news organizations to become more rooted in
the digital economy.
Any chance those local advertisers
could drive daily news organizations to become more rooted in their actual
physical communities? Yeah, didn't think that was on your radar.
willingness of consumers to pay for information received online is also increasing.
While not a full answer to revenue challenges, digital subscriptions add
another revenue stream when done right and are proving successful at large and
small papers across the country.
The pay model requires two things:
scarcity and quality. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times can limit free
access and require payment because they do stuff nobody else does. Maine's
papers not only share each other's stories, but are heavily dependent on wire
copy. Associated Press copy you read in your daily newspaper is by definition
at least 12 hours old - that's how long it takes to receive, edit, lay out,
print, and distribute information that's been online for free for most of a
If Maine's daily papers even want to think
about charging for access, they have to start providing information that's
unique to themselves, hasn't been published in weekly newspapers already, and
is of unquestioned quality. Right now, there are fewer than five journalists in
the state working for daily papers whose work is worth paying for. The rest of
them may have talent and smarts, but are being ground into meaningless, useless
dust by outdated management and editorial ideas - such as those that think
making websites is a business opportunity for the future.
prove that readers value what newspapers have historically provided to their
communities: unbiased, objective reporting and engaging, insightful information
about the places where we all work, live and play.
You forgot the word "timely." You
also forgot the word "exclusive." And when we see all that as a regular feature
of all three of Maine's daily papers - and not as a special exciting extra,
we'll think about being willing to pay. But if the NYT can't command more than
$15 a month from subscribers - half the monthly print rate - how is a lower
quality publication with smaller readership that has plenty of other options for
getting information for free going to get any amount worth counting? If the PPH
allowed digital subscriptions at half its present rate, that would be $6.50 a
month. And remember, PPH quality, volume, and exclusivity are all far lower
than the NYT, so we'd really be looking at something far lower as a
It's not yet
clear what Maine's
digital subscription models might look like, but it's fair to say greater
experimentation is coming.
And experiments always find success,
so positive results are assured, right? Right?
newspapers agree that providing excellent, engaging content is paramount.
Content is king and is driving competition and innovation across the industry,
top to bottom.
Yep - and this is the first time that
"content" and its quality have appeared in this missive. So we see where it
rates as far as a priority for the daily newspaper leaders of Maine.
It is a
golden age for journalism and those that practice it. With more people
consuming more content in more ways than ever before, journalism's mission
has never been more obvious or more important.
More boosterism, with no relevance or
insight into how this will help Maine's
daily newspapers in any way. Plus, any newspaper editor would have made sure "those that practice it" was properly edited to "those who practice it."
And as long
as that mission is valued, a business model will emerge to support it.
Again, placing the foundation of this
argument firmly in the clouds.
It won't be
what newspapers looked like in the past, but it will be innovative and
responsive to the rapidly evolving expectations of Maine's media consumers.
And closing with a
heartfelt, meaningless, boosterish platitude. Maine's daily papers haven't changed a bit.
And I wouldn't hold your breath about that.
Dana Connors is the
President of the Maine
State Chamber of Commerce.
Michael Cuzzi is a
Senior Vice President with VOX Global, a strategic communications and public
affairs firm located in Portland.
Anthony Ronzio is the
Director of New Media for the Sun Media Group & Past President of the Maine Press
Jeff Inglis is the managing editor of the Portland Phoenix, Maine's largest single weekly newspaper, and its only alternative weekly newspaper.