Making sense of the Portland Press Herald’s elimination of its Monday print edition

Those of us who have followed the transition of newspapers from print to free digital and, now, to paid digital have long predicted that seven-day print will eventually morph into one weekend print edition supplemented by digital the rest of the week.

Last week the Portland Press Herald announced it would take a step in that direction, eliminating its Monday print edition starting in March. Like many papers, the Press Herald has been emphasizing paid digital, so a cutback on print should be seen as an inevitable next step rather than the beginning of the end.

Still, I was curious about the decision to cut print on Monday. Among those of us who follow such things, the speculation usually involves eliminating the Saturday paper, or publishing the big Sunday paper on Saturday as an all-weekend edition. (The Sunday edition of the Press Herald is called the Maine Sunday Telegram.)

According to the Press Herald’s latest filing with the Alliance for Audited Media, the Saturday print edition is slightly larger than the Monday edition (25,450 to 25,358). The Saturday edition, though, gets an artificial boost — the Press Herald offers a four-day Thursday-through-Sunday print subscription as a cheaper alternative to seven-day (soon to be six-day) print. Paid Sunday print circulation is 40,091.

Still, anyone who’s paged through the Monday edition of a local daily newspaper knows that advertising on that day is virtually non-existent. So, for a variety of reasons, the Press Herald probably made the right choice.

Also, Kris Olson offers this:

The Press Herald isn’t the first daily paper to cut print days. It’s worth watching, though, because the owner, Reade Brower (who also owns most of the daily newspapers in Maine as well as a few weeklies), seems committed to coming up with a long-term strategy for economic sustainability. Press Herald publisher Lisa DeSisto tells her paper that the Monday move will enable the paper to avoid cutting staff.

Perhaps he might consider emulating the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which last year eliminated print except on Sundays and gave its paid subscribers free iPads so they could continue to read the paper online.

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No, the Digital First approach to newspaper ownership is not defensible

Politico media columnist Jack Shafer has written, if you can believe it, a semi-defense of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and its principal, Randall Smith, who are in the midst of running their newspapers into the ground. Alden owns the Digital First Media chain, whose Denver Post is the locus of an insurrection against hedge-fund ownership. The 100-paper chain also owns three Massachusetts properties: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

Shafer’s argument is a simple one: the end is at hand for the newspaper business, no one has figured out how to reverse its shrinking fortunes, and so therefore Smith can’t be blamed for squeezing out the last few drops of profit before the industry collapses. “Smith may be a rapacious fellow,” Shafer writes, “but his primary crime is recognizing that print is approaching its expiration date and is acting on the fact that more value can be extracted by sucking the marrow than by investing deeper or selling.”

Now, it’s possible that Shafer is right. But I’m considerably more optimistic about the future of newspapers than he is. Let me offer a few countervailing examples.

1. I certainly don’t want to sound naive about GateHouse Media, a chain of several hundred papers controlled by yet another hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group. GateHouse, which dominates Eastern Massachusetts, runs its papers on the cheap, too, and I’ve got a lot of problems with its barebones coverage of the communities it serves.

But GateHouse, unlike Digital First, is committed to newspapers. That’s why both insiders and outsiders were hoping GateHouse would buy the Herald. I genuinely think the folks at GateHouse are trying to crack the code on how to do community journalism at a profit for some years to come — and yes, its journalists are underpaid, and yes, I don’t like the fact that some editing operations have been centralized in Austin, Texas. But it could be worse, as Digital First demonstrates. For some insight into the GateHouse strategy, see this NPR story.

2. Smaller independently owned daily papers without debt can do well. The Berkshire Eagle is in the midst of a revival following its sale by Digital First to local business interests several years ago. In Maine, a printer named Reade Brower has built an in-state chain centered around the Portland Press Herald that by all accounts is doing well.

3. Large regional papers like The Denver Post are the most endangered. Transforming The Washington Post into a profitable national news organization, as Jeff Bezos has done, was a piece of cake compared to saving metros. As I describe in “The Return of the Moguls,” billionaire owner John Henry of The Boston Globe is pursuing a strategy that could result in a return to profitability: charging as much as the market will bear for print delivery (now up to more than $1,000 a year) and digital subscriptions ($30 a month). Globe executives say the paper is on track to pass the 100,000 mark for digital subscriptions in the first half of this year, and that the business model will start to look sustainable if it can reach 200,000.

In other words, reinventing the newspaper business is not a hopeless task. Randall Smith and Alden Global Capital have taken the easy, cynical route — but not the only route. There are better ways.

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