Why the Sun Might Shine
Solar powered: It’s easy to dismiss the soon-to-launch Portland Daily Sun as a loopy miscalculation by idealistic journalism nerds oblivious to fiscal reality.
Portland’s news needs are already being catered to by a conventional daily paper, several weeklies, a few monthlies, a handful of Web sites, TV, radio and people shouting on street corners. Except for that last one, all these existing media outlets are struggling to find enough advertising revenue to stay afloat, as an increasing number of local business cut back, cut off or close. And even if it weren’t for the competition and the recession, daily papers aren’t exactly thriving much of anyplace.
Mark Guerringue, publisher of the Conway (New Hampshire) Daily Sun and co-owner of the Portland paper, thinks he has the answers to all those problems. First, Guerringue says, any new newspaper has to be free.
“People, basically, aren’t willing to pay for news,” he said. “It’s not that people don’t want news. They just don’t want to pay for it.”
So, the Sun will be free.
Guerringue’s second point is that overhead has to be kept to a minimum, something he plans to do by avoiding costly office space (the editor and two reporters will work on laptops from their homes and from local coffeeshops) and administrative staff, as well as by printing the paper at his existing press in Conway.
“What makes this doable,” he said, “is the technology. It’s transparent and portable. And all the backend stuff, including printing, will happen out of Conway.”
Third, he promises the Sun will be filled with local news – with the exception of two pages of Associated Press stories and two pages of comics – making it different from most of the free competition, with the exception of the weekly Forecaster papers, which also concentrate on local news.
“Other publications tend to be features-driven,” said Sun editor Curtis Robinson. “We’ll be news-driven.”
As for the death-of-daily-papers predictions, Robinson is convinced they don’t apply to free dailies, which appeal to the very readers who’ve abandoned the paid-circulation dailies.
“Free daily newspapers are the transition zone between print and the Internet,” he said. “They say print’s dead, but walk into any local coffeehouse and you’ll see five free print things.
“I see a market with a lot of clutter. There’s a niche between the Press Herald and the weeklies [and] that niche is news that the bloggers don’t do.”
The best evidence that Guerringue and Robinson might be right is the Conway paper, which has been around for 20 years, in spite of intense competition. It runs 24 tabloid pages on slow days and over 60 pages late in the week, the bulk of its copy locally produced (it still has those two AP pages and the comics). The company also has similar publications in Berlin and Laconia.
All those free dailies have earned reputations for feistiness. As one businessperson who has had occasional clashes with the New Hampshire papers told me in an e-mail, the Sun papers are “highly populist in orientation and delighted in goring oxen of all sizes and colors, which meant a little-guy vs. big-guy orientation to their stories.”
The Portland version is scheduled to hit the streets in late January or early February, one of the worst times of the year for newspaper ad sales. Robinson claims that was intentional, to allow the paper to establish itself before the more lucrative summer season arrives.
“We wanted to do a soft launch,” he said. “A lot of it is counterintuitive.”
Those who want some warning of when that launch will occur can keep checking the paper’s Web site at www.portlanddailysun.me.
Multi-powered:Blueberry Broadcasting appears to be moving aggressively to compete in the talk radio market in central and northern Maine. It’s already started by simulcasting the programming from WVOM in Howland (103.9 FM) on WKCG in Augusta (101.3 FM), giving its local and syndicated talk shows coverage from Houlton to Brunswick. According to North East Radio Watch, the VOM programming may soon be showing up on WMCM in Rockland (103.3 FM), as well.
Historically powerless: The Portland Press Herald made a feeble stab at adding some perspective to its Jan. 7 story about controversial Portland landlord Joe Soley and his dispute with city officials over the condition of one of the Old Port buildings he owns.
A sidebar claimed to offer a rundown of Soley’s many clashes with municipal government. But the sidebar begins in June 1997 and ends in September 2002, making it an odd little slice of the Soley saga. Whoever put the piece together (the main story was by staff writer David Hench) apparently only bothered to dig back as far as could be accomplished in the Press Herald’s online library. If that person had consulted the print archives, he or she might have discovered similar Soley follies dating back to the mid-1980s. If the research had included more recent years (and reporting from sources other than the Press Herald), the sidebar would have cited numerous additional battles between Soley, his tenants, local governments and the forces of nature. Might actually have been interesting.
Powered by hot air: Ever since the Maine Public Broadcasting Network announced in mid-December that it was shutting down three transmitter in northern Maine to save money, there’s been speculation MPBN was engaging in a political maneuver designed to force state government to give it more cash. This impression was reinforced by comments such as the one network president Jim Dowe made in the Press Herald on Dec. 19.
“I think we haven’t pressed our case with the Legislature quite hard enough,” he said.
As rumors circulated that MPBN was playing a dangerous game of chicken with the Legislature, David Morse, the network’s vice president for advancement and new media, was quoted in the Dec. 24 Bangor Daily News as saying, “This has not been a quid pro quo. We didn’t do this with the expectation that there would be negotiations. This is not a tactic.”
But in a Dec. 27 op-ed in the Bangor paper, Morse was back to what sounded distinctly like lobbying. “With the state reducing funding for our signal distribution,” he wrote. “we have no option but to cut back this signal distribution to a level that we can afford.”
On Jan. 6, Dowe told members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee the shutdown was being delayed from Jan 11 to late February. As reported in the BDN, Dowe said, “We have had some active discussions going on with various parties within state government, and frankly outside of state government, that gives us some confidence to delay the shutting down of the two towers until February 28th.”
I wonder who blinked.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.