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Two weeks ago Reade Brower, who owns virtually every newspaper in circulation in Maine, announced that he was considering selling his empire.
Saying that he owns “everything” is not hyperbole. Brower owns five daily newspapers — the Portland Press Herald, the Sun Journal, the Times Record, the Morning Sentinel, and the Kennebec Journal — as well as 25 weekly papers. Just about the only mainstream newspaper in Maine that he doesn’t own is the Bangor Daily News.
It was unclear, though, exactly what Brower truly intends to do. “The truth is I am beginning the search for what’s next,” he said in a memo to staff on March 28, “whether that be a new steward or perhaps partners willing to join me in carrying the torch.” He went on to say that he has been looking at other ownership models from around the country, such as setting up a nonprofit, and that he was possibly considering one of those structures.
So he might be selling his papers, possibly to different owners for each of the different properties. Perhaps to one big buyer for all of them. Or maybe he is taking on partners and just wants to take a back-seat role. Or he could be scrapping the entire model and turning the media landscape into something entirely different. We just don’t know.
Whatever he does, though, it does provide us with an opportune moment to consider the recent trends in media, and what the future direction of news in Maine truly is.
First, the obvious: It is a bad time to be in the newspaper business. An odd thing for a newspaper columnist to admit, but the facts are undeniable.
Let’s start with circulation. In its heyday, the Press Herald had a dominant market position, and physical copies of the paper were delivered to a gigantic audience. In the third quarter of 1995, for example, the daily paper circulation reached a peak circulation of 80,146, while the Sunday edition was delivered to 145,937 households.
By 2007 that circulation number had dropped to 68,713 daily papers, and 105,872 on Sundays. Ten years later in 2017, daily and weekly circulation had dropped further to 38,560 and 54,506, respectively.
Today? According to the paper’s own advertising materials, daily circulation in 2021 was down to 19,482, while the Sunday Telegram is down to 32,140. It is likely worse now, two years later. The drop in physical subscriptions is so bad that three years ago, the Press Herald made a painful decision to stop the delivery of papers on Monday.
This problem is hardly limited to the Press Herald. Similar declines have been seen across all newspapers in Maine, including the rest of Brower’s properties and the Bangor Daily News. But it has also happened across the rest of the country at varying rates.
On the plus side, there has been a simultaneous increase, and a dramatic one, in online traffic to newspaper websites. People still want news, they are simply abandoning the “dead tree” method of obtaining it. However, the online news ecosystem is nowhere near as financially lucrative as the old print world was, which has caused significant revenue problems that have yet to be truly solved.
This begs a question: What is the future of news in Maine, and beyond?
There has been no shortage of people who have tried to answer that question, and solve the problem. Brower is just the latest to try his hand at fixing Maine’s “biggest” newspaper without success. Before him was Donald Sussman, Richard Connor, the Blethen family, and of course the Gannetts. There will be others.
But is this model, which was built and developed in an era long ago, still viable and vibrant? I’d like to think so, but my heart says that it is only a matter of time before what we think of as the newspaper goes away. In an era of high technology, does it make any sense that reporters and columnists are writing while being held prisoner to column space limitations? Has anyone stopped to consider whether even printing opinion pieces or editorials in a straight news enterprise helps its credibility? What, exactly, is it that people want to read, and where has the industry gone so wrong in maintaining trust in it?
They are important questions, if newspapers are to survive. To answer them, owners and journalists need to set aside “the way it has always been done” and adapt, or die.