By BOB MENTZINGER
As the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants, as Thomas Jefferson said — so, too, must there be a time for refreshing leadership in the Fourth Estate that guards our democracy.
In my 18 months as editor of The Times Record, I discovered a passion for community I’d not experienced at any newspaper I’d staffed or led in the past 25 years. The Mid-coast is a dynamic place, requiring a dynamic recording of news and events. It also requires a news organization to be responsive to community, and fiscally responsible enough to serve its mission.
As recently as 9/11, Americans rushed to pay 50 cents for a paper, considering it the most trusted, lowest-cost place to obtain news and intelligent discussion of context. Since then, Twitter now directs you to hundreds of stories on a topic, for free, with video, links and flash forums for instant discussion. An interactive newsstand in your pocket. It’s irresistible.
Maine’s older readership has been less demanding of digital, but even here, the market is speaking — loudly.
At The Times Record, print circulation dropped more than 10 percent in the past decade — damping circulation revenue and the ability to raise ad rates. During my tenure, page count was cut by a quarter, page size by 10 percent, and the ratio of news to ads tilted from 55-45 to 45-55. In some competitive U.S. markets, printed distribution has gone from seven days to three — or, as in Denver and Seattle, none at all.
Most papers — including this one — still get the majority of their revenue from print. That’s why you saw the price of your daily Times Record increase 33 percent, and your weekend paper 50 percent, in the past nine months, even as the news hole shriveled.
The printed newspaper is very literally disappearing before our eyes. Higher print subscription rates are tacit admission that digital advertising won’t solve the problem. A digital ad fetches 10 cents on the dollar of a monopoly-era print ad, and Google can target advertisers’ potential markets with pinpoint accuracy at even lesser cost.
Meanwhile, digital-only local news outlets are failing, too. Patch, the hyperlocal national news company spawned by AOL, cut 75 percent of its staff this year. Main Street Connect, a heralded online platform for local news, went bankrupt in May 2013. Village Soup, a digital news platform developed right here in Maine, closed in 2012, though its technology survives.
For independent local news to survive, I’ve become convinced we need thousands of readers — “the crowd” — to take over the financing of it. From the one or two big advertisers that used to pay for local journalism, the ones who benefit from it — our citizens — need to be the ones who step up and preserve it.
A nonprofit news organization run by a board of directors from the community would care more about serving its communities with incisive journalism and innovative new platforms than about cutting expenses to make a profit. Successful examples of this are very nearby.
The nonprofit Day of New London (Conn.) has been held in public trust since 1939 and is listed by Columbia Journalism Review as one of the top 100 U.S. newspapers under 100,000 circulation.
The Day Trust devotes its attention to ensuring the newspaper will remain independent and locally-owned, and that profits be distributed to nonprofit organizations within the circulation area or else plowed back into the operation to develop new revenue. And there is plenty of unmined revenue to be tapped, print or digital.
“The crowd” will not pay more for less forever. It will find better options. The ad-supported model is not only dead — its demise, foretold for at least a decade, might actually be the best thing for true community journalism. We will see.
I enjoyed the opportunity to discuss local journalism with you while I was entrusted with The Times Record. It’s a conversation I am sure we’ll continue to have.
Bob Mentzinger is a media consultant who has managed newsrooms in Maine from 2003 to 2014 and was recognized by the Maine Press Association in 2013 as the state’s top editorial writer.