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The impending downfall of Maine newspapers

(Above photo: one of the funniest news blunders of all time)

I grew up with my face buried in a newspaper. I would visit my grandparent’s house and read the paper with my grandfather (yes, the comics mostly, but that still counts right?) For some bizarre reason, I have a fascination with the newspaper industry, and in particular, the disruption happening right now.

Being a Maine resident for most of my life, I’m watching the Maine newspaper scene with interest. I’ve convinced myself that there’s going to be some MAJOR shakeups happening soon, and I figured I’d explain why.

I should preface this by saying that I am not a fan of any Maine newspaper at the moment..so by all means take what I’m going to say with a grain of salt. To be honest, the reason why I’m writing this is to put my theories to the fire..it’s almost like fantasy football, but for business.

Maine newspapers haven’t been hit hard yet

This sounds insane, but Maine hasn’t received the brunt of the newspaper decline yet. My reasoning is simple:

Maine has the oldest population in the country, and it’s the older demographic that still generally still purchases the newspaper on a consistent basis. This has given Maine newspapers a little bit more time to prepare for the impact. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like they’ve taken advantage of that (the Press Herald is starting to wake up.)

Side note: my 70+ year-old grandfather just cancelled his BDN subscription after 30 years..his reasoning? “The paper is too thin, and all they do is talk about how bad Governor LePage is.”

Too much headcount

Put simply, Maine newspapers are too bloated. There’s too much headcount. A quick survey of LinkedIn shows the the Press Herald has 150 employees and the Bangor Daily News has 155. That’s simply unsustainable, especially when you’re losing 10-15% of readership in a single year. I would assume the BDN drop has to do with their genius idea to request information about gun owners.

Business Model Experimentation

The Press Herald recently implemented metered usage, offering 10 articles/month to people who don’t know how to use an incognito window and bypass it. They also have been pushing long-form content, which is a step in the right direction.

On the other hand, the Bangor Daily News doesn’t have metered usage, and instead has annoying Google surveys and its army of unpaid bloggers. I tried this out for a while, and the traffic was good due to the domain authority of the Bangor Daily News. Here’s the terms of service for this arrangement (I’m sure they’ve been updated, I received this in late 2011)

BDN Blogger Terms of Service

The Content is a Commodity

I’m skeptical of the Press Herald change to metered usage because I believe it will only drive traffic to the BDN. It’s playing into the BDN’s strength, and that’s the pageviews game.

The truth is that I can read the same article the Press Herald publishes on the BDN, with the exception of a few articles like “Unsettled” or a Bill Nemitz article. 95% of the articles published are a commodity.

Disruption at a National Level

We’re also seeing major disruption on a national level; new entrants like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and Vox are scaring traditional news organizations like the New York Times. They have different organization structure, different revenue streams, and don’t have the baggage that traditional news organizations have.

Long story short, I believe there’s implications at a local level.

Prediction #1

In the next 5 years, the BDN or the Press Herald will cease to exist. Only one organization will survive. The only edge case that could change this is outside funding. There’s no way billionaire Donald Sussman will let the Press Herald die in his wife’s backyard. The same rule applies if a conservative billionaire purchases the BDN.

Prediction #2

Someone will smarten up and realize that there’s opportunity knocking. A new entrant will emerge, and hopefully will do the following:

  1. Fewer staff - less bloat.
  2. Digital-only – once again, fewer expenses. It’s pretty cheap to start a website nowadays.
  3. Real journalism – high-quality articles that aren’t a commodity
  4. Nimble – the new entrant will be much more flexible than the BDN or Press Herald.
  5. Master of Selling – the new entrant will persuade long-time journalists to join (could be equity, cash, or more freedom as a journalist)

I think the Maine Media Collective is onto the right idea. They’re creating high-quality content that’s memorable, and it’s also timeless (and also targeting people outside Maine.) The majority of news on the PPH/BDN is read, and 6 months later is irrelevant. A few examples of content I’d like to see instead:

  1. The East-West highway debate
  2. What’s going on in Millinocket? (a video series or something similar)
  3. An in-depth look at the industries that used to shape Maine (I always love hearing “old-timer” stories from my grandfather and grandfather-in-law.)
  4. The offshore wind effort (I’d love for someone to explain how they generated power in calm seas…hint, they fed power back from the grid )
  5. The Peter Vigue story
  6. The incestuous relationship between the University of Maine System and it’s “child” universities (specifically the shuffle of administration from one school to another)
  7. Brain drain

 

Anways, this is just a collection of my thoughts. I’d love to see someone come in and shake things up.

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