Maine's Two Largest Newspapers Reduce Staff

September 23, 2011 at 3:35pm

By Josie Huang

MPBN News Producer


Seismic shifts are changing Maine's newspaper landscape, with its two largest dailies planning to significantly reduce their staffs. The Bangor Daily News on Thursday said it was offering voluntary buyouts for up to 30 employees, with the possibility of layoffs later.This comes just a week after the Portland Press Herald said it would be cutting 40 jobs - about 15 percent of its work force - first through buyouts, then layoffs.


Both newspapers, which are losing advertising because of the economy and competition from the Web, cited declining revenues.


"When you look at print revenues and you break down, and if you look particularly at classifieds, you'll see a really really sharp drop for the entire industry and that's put a strain on newspapers nationwide," said Todd Benoit, the Bangor Daily News' director of news and new media.


Benoit said the offer of buyouts to all 230 or so staffers is not as alarming as it might sound. Benoit said it's unlikely that there will be a net loss of 30 people as some of the departing workers would be replaced because their jobs are essential.


"The 30 was the ceiling but it was not a goal," Benoit said.


But at least one goal seems to be shaking up the workforce make-up, something alluded to in a staff memo provided to MPBN. The memo said "as our industry continues to change demanding new skills for our employees and new directions for newspapers, we must undertake a broad restructuring to help us become more productive and effective."


As an example of this restructuring, and the evolving expectations of editors, the paper added two reporters in the last year to cover southern Maine, traditionally the territory of the Portland Press Herald. Benoit said the reporters, who not only write but sometimes take their own photos, don't have a bureau -- at least not yet.


"They're on the street they're doing interviews and visiting City Hall. We're wondering how we might come up with a physical place in Portland and what that might look like, and whether we need to," said Benoit.


But even if the buyouts at the Bangor paper are as much about restructuring as they are about cutting costs, they could backfire, in the opinion of one media analyst.


"Voluntary buyouts tend to be taken by the best people. The people who don't take the buyouts tend to have the worst prospects for finding new jobs," said Paul Gillin, former editor at Computerworld-turned author who runs the Web site Newspaper Death Watch. He's been tracking the declining fortunes of the newspaper industry for the last four years, and says he's not surprised to hear about the job reductions at the Maine newspapers.


"Newspapers have been bleeding people for five years," Gillin said. "The population of US newsroom has declined by various estimates between 40 to 50 percent over the last five years, and there's no sign that trend is going to reverse."


Gillin said that the crisis seemed to crest in 2009-2010. That was around the time the owner o f the Boston Globe was threatening to shut down the paper unless employees accepted wage cuts and other concessions.


But job losses in the industry continue to pile up. According to the website Paper Cuts, September alone has seen more than 150 job losses reported nationwide -- and the month's not over yet.


Still, a journalism professor at Boston University said he was shocked by the planned reductions at the Bangor and Portland papers both of which have already gone through multiple rounds of job cuts over the last decade.


"I would have thought by now that they had the right cost structures in place after so many previous reductions especially at the Press Herald," said Lou Ureneck.


Ureneck had worked at the Portland Press Herald for 22 years, rising from reporter to the paper's top editor by the time he left in 1996. In light of all the deep cuts at newspapers, and the impact it has on the quality and breadth of coverage, Ureneck has been calling on news executives to justify their financial decisions to the public.


"So if in fact these newspapers are not making money --or not making enough money -- let's get specific about that," said Ureneck. "And if they are making money, well, how much money are they making, let's talk about what the appropriate margin and what's the right return on investment and so forth."


Ureneck maintains he is confident that newspapers will enter a new era of prosperity. The consumption for newspaper content is higher than ever before, he said, and more newspapers are adopting the practice of instituting paywalls on their websites.


At the Bangor Daily News, Todd Benoit said he's also optimistic about the future. He talks about the paper shifting more of its attention to attracting advertisers to its website, which he says is the most visited news site in Maine, with more than 8 million page views a month.


"I don't think we're anything like doomsday, I think that we're actually stronger now than we've been in several years, and we'll be even stronger in 2012," Benoit said.


The deadline for the paper's reporters to decide whether to take a buyout is October 3. As for job cuts at the Portland Press Herald, publisher Rich Connor declined to comment.







BDN's Todd BenoitBDN's Todd Benoit