Thursday, April 03, 2008

Others concerned about the state of news in Maine

[In light of my recent post on newspapers in Maine, I’m posting an excellent Op-ed that I found at The Bollard, by Steve Cartwright, a longtime Maine freelance writer, who brings a firsthand perspective to what he’s talking about.

Say what you want about Maine’s media consolidation—none of it bodes well for the future of news in our state. Thankfully, there are a handful of journalistic resources left, like The Bollard—JB]

Reprinted from The Bollard

March 26, 2008

Newspapers struggling to stay afloat
By Steve Cartwright

The family-owned Times Record newspaper in Brunswick has been sold into chain ownership. Ten people on its small staff lost their jobs, and the newspaper didn't even have the guts to report it.

This month, the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel were put up for sale. They are under Seattle Times ownership for now. They have shrunk in both size and staff, and, some critics argue, in the quality of content, as well.

In newsrooms and pressrooms across Maine, reporters and other staff are nervous, wondering whether future owners will further downsize the paper, or if the papers will even survive.

The still-independent Bangor Daily News has tightened its belt with layoffs, as has the Lewiston Sun Journal. An out-of-state chain that has lopped off staffers owns the Rockland Courier-Gazette, near my home, plus the Capital Weekly and two Belfast weeklies.

What we're seeing, it seems, is the erosion of real journalism in Maine. Some people never thought too highly of this business, and sometimes with good reason, so maybe they aren't sad to see things change. But I've worked for at least a dozen Maine newspapers over the years, and I believe we are losing something important. We are losing something that helps create the sense of place, our communal and regional identity.

Without newspapers, without someone telling us what is happening, all kinds of mischief can occur. It can be pretty serious, such as corporate and government corruption. Of course, unless newspapers really dig for stories, we won't be able to root out shady goings-on. And today, many newspapers seem tame and timid, far from an old newspaperman's challenge to "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable."

At a pragmatic level, I think we are losing a usually – although clearly not always reliable – source of information, of facts and opinions that help us decide how to vote, what to support and oppose, and even how to live our lives. The survivors in this epidemic of ailing newspapers may be local and chain-owned publications distributed for free. These can be scrappy, lively rags with eye-opening information and opinion, or they can contain fluffy, canned copy that makes your eyes glaze over.

The reality is, fewer people – you and me – are reading newspapers.

Then there is "online." The Internet offers great potential and many pitfalls. For one thing, who edits the news you read? What references do you have as to the truth and accuracy of what you learn from the 'net?

In an era of heavily biased television news programs, there is little reason to believe that the Internet, perhaps more intractable than TV, will provide balanced coverage of people and issues, local or global. For us, folks trying to figure out what's going on, the best idea is probably to read widely from different sources. But do we know how to do that, and do we have time for it? I'm skeptical.

I'm pessimistic about any kind of sunny future for typical newspapers in Maine and elsewhere. In Portland, Augusta, Bath, Rockland, Waterville, Bangor, and Belfast, good newspapers have lost their edge. It's a downward spiral. There is less to read in the paper, so we read less.

The Morning Sentinel was for years the paper of record in central Maine, but some years ago it essentially ceased to exist, except in name, as it was folded into Maine's oldest continuously published daily, the Kennebec Journal. The Journal, diminished in staff and size, has sold a chunk of real estate to make way for yet another Augusta shopping mall. It seems a desperate move.

Courier Publications, owners of the thrice-weekly Courier-Gazette, publishes The Camden Herald, a venerable weekly that's now only a shadow of its former self, just like the Morning Sentinel. Courier also publishes two newspapers in Belfast, The Republican Journal and The Waldo Independent, though promotional ads give the impression the papers compete.

Then there is the independent Village Soup (an odd name for a newcomer of a newspaper), plus its Web site. It serves Midcoast Maine and is doing a credible job, but whether it's profitable is unclear.

The scrappy Free Press in Rockland continues to be an independent weekly, and like other papers, it's also gone online. It carries features on people and places, rather than typical local news about drug busts, car crashes, school sports, and those mind-numbing reports on city council and planning board sessions.

Things are changing fast in the newspaper business, and not necessarily for the better. The problems aren't simple, but they are basically driven by the decrease in readership. That means declining ad revenue, since advertisers want to reach a lot of people. How often do you read a newspaper? If you are an Internet user, you have a source of information at your fingertips. But how good is it? And how can you tell? The online versions of Maine newspapers can be useful, but newspapers aren't sure how to make money online with free access.

These are scary times for newspapers and their staffs, and those of us who rely on newspapers for valuable information should be worried, too. If we lose our newspapers, we lose a place to voice our fears, our faith, and our fundamental concerns for our families, our communities and beyond.

If people stop reading newspapers, will they care about what happens around them? Without a reliable source of news, they won't even know what's going on.

If that happens, we put democracy at risk.

[Steve Cartwright is a freelance journalist living in Waldoboro. Over the years, he has written for nearly all of the newspapers named above.]


Marc said...

The media conglomerates have made very poor choices when it comes to responding to change and what the consumer is demanding. I've sold real estate in Maine since 1994 and have been involved closely in our State Association. We had many heartfelt debates and we as a group were frighten by the changes we saw coming to the way we did business. Ultimately we decided to give the information the Maine consumer wanted and post it on the internet. I truly believe that if we had not done that we would be looking at a deferent business model for real estate sales in Maine. The newspapers have resisted this move. The Morning Sentinel posts its news but in such a way you only get a very limited version of what it prints. Most notable is the fact that there are no ads posted by those very loyal newspaper advertisers! And try to find listing from the classifieds online, it's a nightmare, I've tried several times to find the ad for a home to rent that I ran and finally give up. Now, if I read the paper online and I could read the news and see my ads at the same time I would be much more inclined to advertise. I see the Lewiston Sun shows the full page of the paper online. We can read the paper scroll and see the ads, announcements about new business and special offerings. Nothing has changed when it comes to running a business. When you are offering something the consumer wants your business survives. When you stop doing that you are just another story (somewhere) for the history books.

Jim said...

Very perceptive comment, obviously grounded in experience.

One of my pet peeves about shifting content online is that the mere embracing of the medium won't stem the bloodletting taking place at various newspapers.

Much like Maine's laptop initiative and other technology-based curriculum changes in education, merely utilizing new tools, without overhauling and adapting the content and methodology, won't bring about the kind of change needed to survive in the 21st century. It's akin to slapping paint over a rusted body of an automobile. At some point, oxidation wins out and new rust pokes through and unless structural upgrades are done, the car falls apart.

I find, Blethen's foray into online news (and the site where the KJ and Sentinel can be accessed via the web) to have a horrible interface and show little concern for ease of use for the consumer.

I'm curious to see where all of this media consolidation leaves our state in say, five years.