Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Failed suburban paper tries again in the city

Published in the Portland Phoenix

A branch of the Portland Press Herald that couldn’t keep a weekly newspaper afloat in the suburbs has shifted to a new publication geared to compete directly with the Portland Phoenix.

As described, the new paper will be what the industry refers to as a “faux alt” — a “youth-oriented” weekly that attempts to imitate genuine alternative papers such as the Phoenix. A press release announcing the change says the new publication will include coverage of the local arts scene, as well as “household tips and repair ideas . . ., budget tips, . . . (and) recipes” targeted at 27- to 37-year-old people living between Brunswick and Old Orchard Beach, and inland from Portland to Windham.

Similar efforts by other daily-newspaper companies around the country have resulted in terrible failures, including the closure of the Miami Herald’s Street Weekly in January 2005, after six years of financial losses. And this January, the Tampa Tribune’s attempt, Orange, folded after just 20 weeks of publication. Industry statistics show that daily newspaper readership is nose-diving — especially among younger audiences. These faux alts are an admitted marketing ploy to deliver younger readers to advertisers.

The Press Herald has tried before: in the early ’90s (going up against the alternative Casco Bay Weekly in its heyday) the daily planned Go magazine as a stand-alone publication, but after suffering low newsrack pickup, it was demoted to an entertainment insert in the Thursday Press Herald. And in the summer of 2006, there was the Old Port Times, an advertorial product covering Portland night life that appeared briefly and has never again been heard from.

The staff of the new paper will be substantially the same staff as worked at the Community Leader, a three-year-old effort by a division of the Press Herald to attack the Forecaster (owned by the Lewiston Sun Journal, making the Leader part of a daily newspaper battle-by-proxy) in its home turf of Falmouth and Freeport.

In a letter to readers in last week’s final edition of the Community Leader, its publisher — who is keeping his job — outright admitted that former readers and advertisers “are in good hands with the Press Herald and our competitive publishers” — meaning the Forecaster and the Sun Journal won, hands down.

The new weekly publication’s name reflects the Press Herald’s apparent plan: Switch. And while the paper, like its daily parent, will likely depend at least in part on sources answering questions over the phone, Switch’s top brass appear to be following the Press Herald execs’ lead on handling calls they get from reporters — which is not to return them at all.