The national narrative about newspapers is expressed in two words: they’re dying.
Over the past few years, newspaper circulations have declined, staffs have been cut back, budgets have tightened with the shrinking economy and the explosive growth of digital and social media, and some publications even closed their doors.
However, the national narrative is largely driven by the experiences of big, publicly traded newspaper chains, like Gannett or McClatchy, or the big institutions, like the New York Times or Washington Post. Neither represents the real story of newspapering in Maine.
First, most daily and weekly publications are owned by Maine individuals and families who live and work in this state. While committed to turning a profit, these local owners read their newspapers like broadsheets — as opposed to spreadsheets.
Second, there is cautious optimism in Maine that its newspapers are rising again, albeit slowly, after some difficult years.
Maine’s papers are making money, hiring newsroom and other staff, either holding or growing circulation, and reaching more people than ever before with their print and online offerings.
That greater reach hasn’t necessarily translated into greater profitability, but even so, Maine’s newspapers’ balance sheets as a whole are trending in the right direction.
Third, Maine’s newspapers are now more competitive than ever before, battling for the best reporters and investing in new, more robust technologies to deliver content to ever more sophisticated consumers.
The existential crisis of Maine and national newspapers is reshaping their mission and invigorating them to rapidly adapt to new challenges. This strong competition and renewed sense of purpose promises to keep Maine’s newspapers vibrant.
So what does the future hold for Maine’s newspapers? The precise answer is unknown. What is known, however, is the future exists — despite gloomy predictions to the contrary.
Recently, in Portland, we hosted a panel discussion about the future of Maine’s newspapers. The participants came to some common conclusions, although with divergent opinions about how to get there.
First, print editions are not going away anytime soon. Plenty of fans still exist for printed newspapers, particularly in Maine, which supports dozens of excellent weekly papers that cover every inch of the state.
Going forward, though, print will become just one vehicle for readers, as opposed to the dominant one. Digital journalism and advertising will eventually supplant printed papers for primacy, but never replace them entirely.
This will happen not as readers’ news consumption changes, but as advertisers optimize how they pursue and attract customers online. For decades, newspapers have aided businesses in the quest for customers; as the digital age dawns, newspapers still remain ideally suited to provide this service for years to come.
Moreover, newspaper advertising departments are transforming themselves into full-service digital providers to businesses, offering value-added services such as website design in response to businesses’ growing digital needs. In other words, local advertisers will have as much to do with the evolution of Maine’s newspapers as any other force, actively driving news organizations to become more rooted in the digital economy.
The willingness of consumers to pay for information received online is also increasing. While not a full answer to revenue challenges, digital subscriptions add another revenue stream when done right and are proving successful at large and small papers across the country.
These models prove that readers value what newspapers have historically provided to their communities: unbiased, objective reporting and engaging, insightful information about the places where we all work, live and play.
It’s not yet clear what Maine’s digital subscription models might look like, but it’s fair to say greater experimentation is coming.
Finally, all newspapers agree that providing excellent, engaging content is paramount. Content is king and is driving competition and innovation across the industry, top to bottom.
It is a golden age for journalism and those that practice it. With more people consuming more content in more ways than ever before, journalism’s mission has never been more obvious or more important. And as long as that mission is valued, a business model will emerge to support it. It won’t be what newspapers looked like in the past, but it will be innovative and responsive to the rapidly evolving expectations of Maine’s media consumers.
Michael Cuzzi is a senior vice president with VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm located in Portland. Anthony Ronzio is director of new media for the Sun Media Group and former president of the Maine Press Association. Danna Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, contributed to this column.