This week, the Encyclopedia Britannica announced it will no longer publish its annual print edition. The encyclopedia began publishing 244 years ago, making it the oldest English publication of its kind. This news will provoke lots of reactions, including that it’s the sad end of an era.
But it would be a gross mistake to conclude that people no longer want the information found in encyclopedias. As anyone with a computer knows, the encyclopedia is obsolete because virtually everything it contains is available through an Internet search engine. As Encyclopedia Britannica officials noted, the books were out of date the minute they were unpacked and put on the shelf.
The same can be said about the newspaper business. The demand for what news organizations provide is, in fact, as strong if not stronger than ever. Yet like the encyclopedia, the printed newspaper that arrives at your doorstep each morning can be woefully out of date. We all have come to expect never-ending updates on the missing baby, the armed man in the stand-off with police, the Senate race, the state budget fight.
The BDN’s website and apps traffic reflect that demand — 14 million page views per month, at last count — as does the traffic at other digital news platforms.
If demand for information is greater than 25 years ago, it may be because the world outside our borders is a sometimes frightening, confusing place that is somehow closer than ever before. Polarized politics seem to demand that we choose sides, whether we want to or not, and we crave context. Rapidly changing cultures and social mores confront us and we want to understand.
So if demand is strong, why would the newspaper group operated under the Village Soup banner be out of business? The company published the Bar Harbor Times, the (Belfast) Journal, the (Rockland) Herald Gazette and the (Augusta) Capital Weekly. The armchair analysis is that company management moved from a search engine approach to a set of encyclopedias, albeit ones published weekly.
Founder Richard Anderson retired to the Camden area in the mid-1990s and in 1997 launched what was probably the nation’s first online-only community news organization.
The company, propelled by Mr. Anderson’s intellectual energy and willingness to innovate, pioneered the model with which we were familiar from CNN. But instead of live shots of plane crashes and presidential press conferences, Village Soup posted photos of house fires and stories about city council votes sometimes less than an hour after they occurred. This is the norm today, of course, but Village Soup broke the ground.
Later, the company started its own weekly newspapers, then bought its competitor’s weeklies. And in the end, Village Soup held back news from its website to feature in its weekly papers.
Providing the news is not a public service; it is a business that must earn a profit, and that model failed.
Seeing 50-plus people lose their jobs, many of whom BDN staff valued as colleagues and friends, is sad. And the response from affected communities, who lament losing their hyperlocal news, also is sad. And it’s a challenge to us at the BDN to provide that news.
The late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil famously said that all politics is local politics. The same can be said about news.
We make the distinction between community journalism like that of weekly papers, and larger metro or regional papers. But in the end, all news consumers want the same thing — to know more about their world, from crime in their neighborhood, to how well their schools are teaching their children, to how efficiently their tax dollars are being spent at city hall, the State House and in Washington. If we can provide that — and we know that’s a big “if” — we expect to be welcomed in your town.