As a subscriber to the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram all of my adult life and, more to the point, as an “old media” print journalist, I want Portland’s daily newspaper to survive and thrive.
I’m not sure, though, what I think of new owner Richard Connor’s plan to distribute the Press Herald free at more than 100 rack boxes as part of a branding campaign. Just how long am I prepared to pay for something that’s being given away for free? Not long. A month maybe.
Of course, that’s one of the pressing problems facing daily newspapers these days – how to get readers to pay for a product that is available for free. Why would anyone pay for a newspaper that is available free of charge online?
Newspapers, fighting for their lives against Internet news sources, have rushed to establish online presences, but the net effect has probably been to further erode the market for print. The papers that are still doing well nationally tend to be those that either do not have an online edition or only make their content available online to subscribers.
Folks who are interested in the future of newspapers are watching the fate of the Portland Press Herald closely. So far, the early moves aren’t too encouraging. Making its newspaper giveaway front-page news last week was a little self-serving. And the new “Snapshot” feature, devoting a page to photographs of newspaper staff members posing with advertisers or with their dogs, was more than a little embarrassing.
Connor, a Bangor native who owns a newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., essentially purchased the Blethen Maine Newspapers’ real estate and got the newspapers thrown in for free. Once the sale of the old Guy Gannett buildings to controversial developer John Cacoulidis is complete, Connor and his backers will have invested nothing in the newspapers themselves. The combination of union contract concessions and the ham-fisted firing of the non-union editorial staff means Connor now has a free hand in reshaping the Portland papers into anything he wants them to be.
A great editor is what the Portland Press Herald has really needed for many years now. In fact, good editors are what we all need. The online news sources, citizen journalists, bloggers and tweeters that threaten the continued existence of newspapers only compile, digest, spin and regurgitate. They don’t report. Most of the “news” is still reported by old media organizations with boots on the ground. The e-media just piles on after the fact.
There is no editing, no fact-checking and no accountability with online journalism. Accuracy is everywhere sacrificed to immediacy. And no one yet has come up with a sustainable economic model for the new digital journalism. How do you make a free Web site pay and how do you pay the content providers (reporters) a living wage? The delivery system for news in the future may well be electronic, freeing the North Maine Woods from being pulped for newsprint, but the real challenge is making online news operations professional and accountable.
Maine, having the oldest population in the nation, has the demographics to support a print newspaper. We graybeards still want a paper in our hands in the morning as opposed to on our computer screens. But what the owners put in that paper will determine whether it survives.
What Portland and Maine readers want and need is enterprise reporting, investigative journalism, not just reactionary reporting of on-going events or community forums. What we do not need the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram to become are daily versions of free circulation weekly newspapers and monthly city magazines. We need a statewide news organization that can look at the big picture, not just provide snapshots.