Republican Gov. Paul LePage loves to tell audiences that buying a Maine daily newspaper is like paying someone to lie to you.
Of course, the same could be said of the factually challenged governor.
Matthew Gagnon, the chief executive officer of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, sent out an email recently attacking the state’s largest daily. “It’s no surprise that a libral (sic) rag of a publication like the Portland Press Herald reguarly (sic) disregards inconvenient facts and omits information to paint conservatives in a negative light,” Gagnon wrote.
It appears spell check is guilty of the same crime.
In early May, the Maine Sunday Telegram published an in-depth investigation of questionable tactics used in an undercover sting operation by the Maine Warden Service. The agency responded by accusing the paper of printing “misrepresentations and inaccuracies.”
The wardens seem to believe those words are synonyms for “facts.”
Despite these mostly specious attacks, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms that could be leveled at the state’s newspapers. The copy editing is sloppy (the Lewiston Sun Journal has run headlines referring to the NFL team in Seattle as the “Mariners,” even though that’s the city’s baseball team, and the wire-service stories correctly identified the football team as the Seahawks). Upper management is timid about publishing anything that hints of, you know, S-E-X (rumors of Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling’s affair with a prominent lobbyist were ignored for weeks by the Press Herald until the story broke on a monthly magazine’s website). Enormous effort is wasted on trivialities (the Bangor Daily News website can’t go a day without a story about how Maine rates as a place to walk your dog or as a producer of quality meth or as a venue to have an affair with a prominent lobbyist). And papers are losing quality journalists (the Press Herald recently bragged about being a finalist for a major business journalism award, but two of the three reporters who wrote the articles on poor oversight of state development investments have since left the paper).
Whether it’s these shortcomings, the political attacks or demographic trends, the state’s dailies have been bleeding readers for more than a decade. From its high-water mark of an average of nearly 80,000 copies sold daily, the Press Herald now unloads just over 31,000, according to new figures from the Alliance for Audited Media. The Telegram, which once boasted circulation of 120,000 each week, is down to less than 48,000. Those figures represent a loss over the last year of 8 percent for the Press Herald and 7 percent for the Telegram.
Other papers showed similar declines. AAM reports the Bangor Daily shed 8 percent of its readers this past year and is now selling about 27,500 papers on weekdays and a bit over 34,000 on weekends. The Sun Journal is off 9 percent both on weekdays (17,873) and Sundays (19,515). The Morning Sentinel in Waterville and the Kennebec Journal in Augusta slid between 5 and 6 percent for all editions. (The state’s other two dailies, Biddeford’s Journal Tribune and Brunswick’s Times Record haven’t submitted circulation figures to AAM for several years.)
There is one glimmer of hope in the AAM statistics. The Press Herald, Telegram, KJ and Sentinel – all owned by Maine Today Media – added significant numbers of paid subscribers to their digital editions. The increase in online readers in the last 12 months more than offset the loss of print customers. If these figures are accurate (counting digital subscribers sometimes reflects certain fudge factors), Maine Today’s total circulation is now its highest since 2012, with a combined readership of over 45,000 for the Press Herald and over 62,000 for the Telegram (although it’s worth noting that online readers are far less valuable to advertisers than buyers of the print edition).
This turnaround isn’t showing up at other papers. The Bangor Daily, which places heavy emphasis on its online offerings, added just 31 new digital customers, hardly making a dent in the 2,500 print readers that vanished. The Lewiston paper, which has always appeared to be double-counting its online audience (it claims over 25,000 e-readers, 8,000 more than its weekday print circulation), lost over 600 digital customers.
Maybe Mainers are taking LePage’s advice, after all.
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