At last week’s roundtable exploration of the future of Maine’s newspapers, I came away with one piece of good news: Old people still love newspapers.
And since Maine is the “oldest” state in the country, I guess those of us who write for newspapers must take our hope from whence it comes.
The two-hour discussion in Portland on May 7 was sponsored by Vox Global, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Press Association.
The exceptionally astute panelists were Tom Bell, Portland Press Herald veteran reporter and president of the Portland Newspaper Guild; Terry Carlisle, vice president and general manager of the Ellsworth American; Tony Ronzio, new media director for the Sun Media Group and former editor the Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel; Todd Benoit, director of news and new media at the Bangor Daily News; and Bill Kuykendall, senior lecturer in new media and cooperating professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine.
Mike Cuzzi, senior vice president and manager of VOX Global’s Portland office, moderated the fascinating discussion. Enroute to Portland for the event, I was musing about the ad for the event published on the sports page of this newspaper — smart placement.
Many of us reach for the sports page first. The sports page that day, however, did not include my Red Sox results. I was directed to the newspaper’s website for that information. And my paper was delivered with Arby’s coupons.
My conclusions: The principle purposes of my newspaper these days are to deliver advertisements and alert me to what isn’t in the paper, but obtainable on the newspaper’s website. Well, turns out I wasn’t that far from the truth.
First, a confession. I can’t eat breakfast without the morning newspaper propped up in front of me. The walk out to the roadside box to get the paper is a favorite morning ritual (I’m quite a sight in my pajamas and robe, with binoculars to check out the birds).
So I was delighted to learn that Maine’s major newspapers are moving back to traditional coverage of local news, although diversification seems to be a path many newspapers are following, setting up businesses that build websites, maintaining Facebook pages for clients, even broadcasting live local hockey games.
“We’re on the Web because that’s where our readers are,” said Benoit, who reported that the Bangor Daily News has more readers than ever, but they are not all reading the traditional newspaper. “Our job is to find readers for our advertisers,” noted Benoit in a surprisingly frank acknowledgement.
Ronzio said something that really hit home with me: “The audience decides who to trust.”
I attended a presentation recently on the use of social media by political candidates and businesses, and learned that most people these days place more faith in the recommendations of their Facebook friends than they do in television ads.
Benoit said, “We owe it to our readers to put difficult issues into context,” citing the Bangor paper’s recent 3-part series on sewage treatment in … Portland! That was a good example for Bell’s comment that he’s never seen “a newspaper environment that’s more competitive than today’s.”
Carlisle chimed in that the Ellsworth American “has its own columnists and contributors, but not citizen journalists.” Later, when I got to ask a question, I presented myself as a citizen journalist. She smiled.
Carlisle came up with some of the best quotes. “Until people have children and settle into a career they’re not interested in what we offer,” she said. “We don’t worry about that.” Carlisle wrote off the young, saying, “We’re not investing in that market. So obviously we don’t care about it.”
She also said the Ellsworth American took down its free website, replacing it with a paid online service. “People are happy to pay,” she said, reporting that 10 percent of her newspaper’s subscribers get the paper online.
Benoit (thankfully) disagreed. “We owe it to our readers to deliver the product,” he said, focusing on what the newspaper needs to do “to deliver audiences to our advertisers.
“We haven’t found the right model yet,” he conceded.
“We have to understand that it’s the local community that sustains us,” said Ronzio. “It’s not going to come from WalMart. It’s how you serve the local community with news and advertising local businesses that will determine the future of Maine newspapers.”
I liked that message, but there was this bit of bad news: Newspapers now favor young reporters who are good in multimedia. “Old traditionalists will struggle,” reported Benoit. Gulp.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.