Four daily newspapers in Maine, including the Sun Journal, will cease production of their Monday print editions as of March 2 in a cost-cutting move to preserve newsroom jobs, according to their CEO.

The four newspapers — the Lewiston Sun Journal, Portland Press Herald, Morning Sentinel in Waterville and Kennebec Journal in Augusta — will continue to produce a complete online Monday edition that will be available to subscribers, according to Lisa DeSisto, CEO of Masthead Maine, which publishes the newspapers.

Further, the Sun Journal plans to offer additional content targeted to readers of the digital Monday edition.

Masthead is following an industry trend, spurred by declining print advertising revenue and increased digital news consumption, that has led at least 100 U.S. daily newspapers over the past 15 years to cut the number of print editions they produce each week.

“The savings from a digital-only Monday enables us to keep our newsrooms at the size that they are and continue to produce the journalism that’s important to our community,” DeSisto said. “We know that we have a lot of work to do to get a portion of our customers comfortable with this, and we’re committed to that smooth transition.”

Masthead needs to reduce costs, she said, and the only alternative would be to cut newsroom staffing, which the company doesn’t want to do. DeSisto declined to say how much money Masthead expects to save from the change to digital-only Mondays, but she noted that the bulk of savings would come from reduced paper and distribution costs.

She said Masthead is anticipating a “modest loss” of advertising revenue as a result of the change, but that the cost savings will more than make up for it. About 37 percent of the company’s revenue came from print advertising in 2019.

No jobs will be eliminated as a result of the change, DeSisto said, although the company expects a reduction in overtime hours for printing press operators, as well as reduced schedules for a few part-time workers. Masthead papers are printed in house but delivered by independent contractors.

Masthead currently delivers major national newspapers such as the New York Times in addition to its own publications. DeSisto said the company will need to work out arrangements with those publishers to either deliver their Monday editions the following day or have them pay the contractor fees for Monday delivery.

The biggest hurdle for Masthead will be assuaging its many print-only subscribers who are used to reading the paper seven days a week. Masthead Group Vice President of Circulation Stefanie Manning said about 70 percent of the four newspapers’ full-week subscribers have not registered for their digital offerings such as e-papers, mobile apps and websites.

Despite the move to reduce print output by one day a week, the company has no plans to cut the price of a full-week print subscription at any of the four affected newspapers. Instead, Masthead is planning a marketing and communications blitz to help those subscribers get signed up for digital access, Manning said.

“We know there is going to be a segment of our audience that isn’t interested in digital access, or that don’t have access to a computer, an email, (or) the internet in their home,” she said. “We’ll do everything that we can to nurture those customers through the process.”

DeSisto said Masthead, which owns five of Maine’s six daily newspapers, has no immediate plans to reduce print publication any further.

“We are committed to, and value, our print customers,” she said. “We don’t have any plans to further move to (another) digital-only day. How our business unfolds will dictate what’s possible in the future.”

The number of U.S. daily newspapers that print fewer than seven days a week is expected to increase dramatically starting this year, according to the University of North Carolina’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. Since 2004, more than 100 newspapers have reduced their frequency of printing by a big enough margin to be reclassified from daily papers (printing three or more editions per week) to weekly papers (printing one or two editions per week), it said.

Major U.S. daily newspapers that have cut back on days with print editions over the past several years include the New Orleans Times-Picayune – one of the first to do so, in 2012 – and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – one of the most recent, in 2018.

Countless others have reduced their frequency of printing while still remaining dailies, often by eliminating their print editions on Mondays and/or Saturdays – typically the two least profitable days of the week. Masthead chose Monday because it is the company’s weakest day of the week for print advertising, Manning said.

In an August 2019 report on newspaper strategies for reducing print publication days, David Ho of the American Press Institute said communicating with readers and advertisers is critical when eliminating print days. Publishers can use various tactics, from publishing articles, columns and ads, to holding meetings with community and business leaders and one-on-one discussions with subscribers, to help mitigate the loss of subscribers and advertising revenue, Ho said.

It’s important that newspapers prepare adequately for any shift to digital-only content, he said, which includes developing strategies for winning back those who cancel their subscriptions as a result, and dealing with pushback from within the newspaper’s own ranks.

Ho recommended a “deliberate route” to reducing print publication days as part of a larger strategy to promote long-term sustainability, rather than as an act of desperation in response to an alarming balance sheet.

“Cutting alone is not enough to ensure a newspaper will continue to exist and serve its community,” he said in the report. “Publishers need a deeply planned and well-executed strategy, one that acknowledges that reader habits have moved beyond the seven-day daily paper. The approach must also deliver the quality content that audiences demand to the technologies and platforms they currently use.”

According to the report, some industry leaders believe it’s inevitable that most newspapers ultimately will have to cut back print publication to their most profitable days of the week for print advertising – often Sunday, Wednesday and Friday – while producing digital-only content on the other days.

“Most publishers of dailies acknowledge that even in the best of times, there were only three days that were profitable,” with those days effectively subsidizing losses the other days of the week, said Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight chair of journalism and digital media economics at UNC, in the report.

In an interview Friday, Abernathy said the Sunday paper alone often accounts for 60 percent of a newspaper’s profit. She said the biggest risk newspapers face when cutting back on unprofitable print days is not the loss of revenue but the possibility of turning off loyal daily readers.

“If you’re going to transition (to digital-only days), you need to think about who your most loyal readers are, and how not to alienate them,” Abernathy said. Other newspapers have employed a variety of tactics, including handing out tablet devices to loyal readers and teaching them how to use the devices, she said.

Masthead is a conglomeration of three discrete companies: MaineToday Media, which owns the Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel and a commercial printing operation in South Portland; Sun Media Group, which owns the Sun Journal in Lewiston and weeklies including the Advertiser Democrat in Norway, the Rumford Falls Times, the Livermore Falls Advertiser and the Franklin Journal in Farmington; and Alliance Media Group, which owns the five-days-a-week Times Record in Brunswick and four free weeklies known collectively as the Mainely Media newspapers.

In October, Masthead closed Biddeford’s daily newspaper, the Journal Tribune, after 135 years of publication. Masthead owner Reade Brower has said the paper had been shedding subscribers and advertisers for years before he acquired it in March 2018, and that his company had been unable to turn it around financially.

Brower said Friday that the move to digital-only Mondays is a prudent economic decision that will help build a sustainable model for the company’s newspapers to survive and thrive into the future.

“It allows a lot of things to happen,” he said. “It helps with the labor crunch, and it gives our drivers a day off, which I think will help us retain drivers.”


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