Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Press Releases: After the fall

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The bad news for the Portland Press Herald just won't stop.

The layoffs slated for August 18 — the third staff-reduction this year — will leave a demoralized, overworked crew, with 20 percent fewer staffers overall than at the same time last year.

The company’s predictions suggest advertising revenue might be down as much as $200,000 per month, as compared to 2007. And publisher Chuck Cochrane admitted in the pages of his own paper that the company will lose money this year.

Circulation dropped by more than 10 percent in the six months between September 2007 and March 2008, according to records filed by the paper with the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The paper is for sale, but the deal — if it happens — won’t come soon enough to prevent the Seattle Times Company (the PressHerald’s corporate parent), from failing to make its September payment on the loans it took out to buy Maine’s largest daily and its two sister papers (in Waterville and Augusta) 10 years ago.

It’s time to ask: Could the Portland Press Herald go under? The future of daily newspapers has been in question since the dawn of the Internet age. But the questions are only getting louder. The Albuquerque Tribune, a daily newspaper founded in 1922, closed in February. Closer to home, the Argus Champion, a 185-year-old weekly in central New Hampshire, announced two weeks ago that it would close at the end of July.

So far in Maine, most newspaper closings have been like those announced by Rockland-based VillageSoup in June: after buying six papers from Courier Publications, the company condensed those six and its previous two papers into five publications.

But in the June-July issue of American Journalism Review, senior contributing writer Charles Layton explained “why a lot of newspapers aren’t going to survive.” It’s not a pretty picture: with print-advertising revenue dropping precipitously, and online revenue-growth slowing, “we may begin seeing, pretty soon, big American cities with no daily newspaper,” he writes.

One industry analyst Layton interviews says some dailies will survive — “small local newspapers . . . with circulation under 25,000,” and some very large dailies, such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. But many of the rest — including possibly papers as large as the long benighted San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune — may close down.

This trend is not without risk, as many have pointed out. After all, daily newspapers — and their Web sites — are still how many people get their news. That’s true even of people who don’t read much — TV news stories and many radio headlines spring from the pages of daily papers. How will people be informed citizens, the industry asks, if daily papers die?

Layton's article suggests people have already found other ways, quoting another news-business consultant as saying, “If a big newspaper in a metropolitan area dropped dead right now, nobody under 30 would care.”

He might be right about Maine: more than two out of every three 18-to-35-year-old residents of Southern Maine don’t read the PPH right now, according to an independent audience survey released in February.

Even young journalists see the writing on the wall. In a piece entitled “Don’t Bean Count Me,” posted July 17 on the Columbia Journalism Review’s Web site, 26-year-old Kathleen Nye Flynn (a former weekly reporter now a grad student at Columbia Unviersity's journalism school) asked reporters facing major staffing cuts to walk off the job in protest.

If they're at the Press Herald, they should probably take their resumes with them.