OpEd: Newspapers nurture community, at a price (March 11, 2014)

By BOB MENTZINGER

Last month I congratulated my staff on a modest drop in our 2013 print circulation. In an industry that’s averaging a 5 to 10 percent annual loss of print subscribers, it turns out we’re doing OK.

Several of you have told us there “isn’t enough in the paper” to justify signing up again. That prompted me to take a hard look at the news hole and what’s in it.

The results may surprise you.

Last month, the daily news hole — the non-advertising space devoted to news — was filled with an average of 70 percent local news, with “local news” described as any story with a local dateline — produced by staff or not — as well as obituaries, locally written editorials, letters to the editor, all local news briefs and calendar items, police blotter and courts listings, local photos and the weather map. The analysis did not include Sports or Ticket, or the many specialty publications we produce each year.

By comparison, local news as defined above filled 63 percent of the news hole in February 2013.

On a daily basis, I looked at Fridays, when we ask readers to pay $1.50 for a larger newspaper — priced at or below similarly sized newspapers’ weekend editions.

This year’s Feb. 21 edition was 84 percent local; last year’s commensurate Friday was 61 percent local.

So, less local news? Not as a percentage of the product. The Times Record is more local this year than it was last year. And that trend will continue.

There’s been a rush of new local content to improve the lives of our Mid-coast readers:

— daily staff-written editorials and Opinion articles from across the local political spectrum;

— more letters to the editor featuring local voices;

— hyperlocal weekly financial data including town-level unemployment rates, retail sales and building permits, and Making Change — a story about a successful local business startup — every Wednesday in Business;

— an all-local front page, daily, usually without a single nonlocal dateline;

— a Sports section completely dedicated to covering school sports; and

— starting this week, morning temperatures for nine local weather stations.

Next month, we’ll bring recent home sales data to the Business page, so you can see how home prices are doing in your neighborhood. And we have other plans to engage you in the stories of your communities.

Eighty percent local and growing. That’s a local newspaper.

On digital, we’ve relaxed the paywall so anyone can see five articles for free, every month.

As you will soon see — with the advent of similar pay-as-you-go models popping up at daily papers in Bangor, Lewiston, Portland, Augusta and Waterville — The Times Record online is a generous offer that gives a glimpse of our communities while recognizing our industry, like any, needs revenue to ensure the quality of the product.

The Times Record was a pioneer in this online model, and we are gearing up to make changes that further justify the price of admission.

But is it worth it? To answer that question, I ask this: What can you buy for $1 these days?

If someone offered you a substantially greater sense of your community for $1, isn’t that a worthwhile proposition? I think so.

So why are readers seeing a paper that’s more local than ever — not to mention new digital offerings such as a website and affiliated social media properties — and say it’s not enough?

Two reasons.

One is a syndrome I’ve alluded to before as “the Snickers bar effect.” Name me a product manufactured in the United States — and newspaper DNA is firmly manufacturing — that has not gotten smaller even as the price has gone up. There are none.

For years, we asked only a token fee for the paper. … 25 cents never came close to subsidizing even the newsprint for the daily newspaper, never mind the labor, distribution or legal costs.

Then, as the digital age dawned, we merely carted our fee-based product out into cyberspace for free. Know of any businesses that regularly give away the store like that?

When readers say there’s “nothing in the paper,” what they are likely reacting to is the size of the newspaper, not the composition of it. And they’re right.

According to my analysis, the space for news has shrunk about 12 percent last year to this in The Times Record. This happens when more ads are placed per page, when page count is limited, and when the size of the pages shrinks. All three of these things occurred last year.

Every newspaper in the country is smaller than it was 10 years ago — the Sunday New York Times, USA Today, The Boston Globe. Some are drastically smaller. Others don’t even exist anymore (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Rocky Mountain News) or have gone to fewer days of delivery.

Like any business, newspapers need to keep costs in line with revenue. If readers don’t help fill the breach left by advertisers who have a range of new options, there will be fewer resources to meet readers’ rising expectations — and the paper will get smaller.

This phenomenon is not confined to Mid-coast Maine. Only two U.S. newspapers added print subscribers last year; all the rest saw print readerships continue a decade-long decline.

As you consider what makes life in the Mid-coast so great, consider that a large part of it is community. Being able to communicate with each other — and to be able to see, feel and hear each other in words, audio, video and pictures — allows us to experience our incredibly special sense of place so we can treasure and nurture it, and have conversations about how best to steer it.

In my opinion, the pages of The Times Record do that — every day.

Whether the pages are smaller or fewer, or whether there are three reporters (as there are now) or 12 (as there were at the turn of the century), it turns out knowing about your community is still affordable.

BOB MENTZINGER is managing editor of The Times Record.

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