Newspapers carving out a new tomorrow

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We rarely write about ourselves in this column, but people keep asking — what’s happening to the newspaper industry?

A lot, thank you, and most of it good.

We do appreciate that readers are concerned about the challenges our business has faced over the past three years.

Many have heard about the handful of metro newspapers that closed at the height of the recession. Still with nearly 1,500 daily newspapers in the U.S., that was an exceedingly small number.

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Compare that to the more than 350 banks that have failed since 2007. And that toll would have been far higher without a massive government bank bailout.

Fortunately, our situation was not nearly that dire.

But it has been a difficult few years, not just for newspapers, but for TV, magazines and radio stations.

That’s the nature of a recession.

But our concerned readers also wonder whether the newspaper industry might not survive the technological revolution we are facing.

The news, so far, is good. Newspapers, including the Sun Journal, are finding 2011 a better year than 2010.

The outlook seems to have stabilized and, we are pleased to report, newspapers and their websites still remain the dominant way news and advertising is distributed in Maine.

A recent report by Planning Decisions Inc. for the Maine Press Association found there are seven daily newspapers and about 40 weeklies in Maine.

They have annual sales of more than $154 million and employ nearly 1,800 people.  They paid wages and benefits of $71.3 million, invested nearly $7 million in new buildings, vehicles and equipment, and paid about $7.5 million in state and local taxes last year.

To put that all in perspective, the newspaper business is about the same size as the semiconductor industry.

All that economic activity, of course, creates “downstream” economic benefits in communities across the state, as newspaper employees buy homes, cars and groceries.

But it is the news-gathering reach of newspapers that is most dominamt. The state’s TV stations are located in Bangor and Portland. While the seven daily newspapers are located in the state’s largest communities, their reach is far wider.

The Sun Journal alone has regional offices in Norway, Rumford and Farmington, with two reporters and other employees in each bureau. What’s more, the Sun Media group operates 11 weekly newspapers that provide in-depth community news coverage to a host of communities from South Portland to Old Town.

The state’s daily newspapers have five full-time reporters covering state government, a total unmatched by any other media.

While print circulation in the state continues its slow decline, the loss of readership and reach has been more than offset by gains in online users.

With 2.4 million unique visitors within the past year, combined with print readership, the Sun Journal is read by more people than at any time in our history.

The shape of the new media environment is also beginning to solidify.

Bloggers tend to link to news stories in traditional news media. Twitter tends to quickly transmit breaking news, while Facebook is largely for sharing.

All the online activity tends to increase the traffic and audience for traditional newspaper websites, research has shown.

The Web has also given newspapers the ability to do two other things:

First, it has put newspapers on a level playing field with broadcast media when it comes to breaking news.

When a crane and a roadway fell into the Androscoggin River last year, users of sunjournal.com had a basic story with headline within nine minutes of the incident, and a staff photo of the collapsed road posted 23 minutes later.

Second, the Web now allows newspapers to use video to help tell stories. In 2010, the Sun Journal produced 409 videos that were viewed about 175,000 times.

There are, of course, still challenges to be met and questions to be answered as we move forward.

But this much is certain: Newspapers, in print and online, are using their traditional strengths to carve out a new future.

rrhoades@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.

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