Maine Papers: We Deserve Tax Dollars
Fuddy-duddy study: The Maine Press Association held a State House news conference on May 3 to announce that the state’s newspaper industry is “an economic engine.” To prove it, the group released a study by Planning Decisions Inc. of South Portland that shows the annual sales of all Maine papers is almost equal to the sales of potatoes. In real numbers, that comes to $154 million in 2010.
For the record, potato sales came to more than $159 million. But what’s five million bucks among friends?
The report goes on about how many people the newspaper industry employs (1,766), how much it pays in wages and benefits ($71.3 million) and its tax bill ($7.5 million). That last figure would be a lot higher if newspapers weren’t exempt from the sales tax, but the report doesn’t mention that.
Nevertheless, those are impressive numbers, although I suspect they’d be less so if compared to, say, the Maine fast-food industry or the state’s combined convenience-store purchases or the amount of liquor sales Maine loses to New Hampshire every year. A little perspective might have made this study a more valuable tool for legislators who are considering bills that would have an economic impact on major daily papers.
The reason the MPA released this information at this time is because state Rep. Terry Hayes of Buckfield has introduced bills to reduce the amount state and local governments pay to place legal notices in papers. One of her bills would cut the $500,000 it currently costs the state to run these ads each year to $250,000 by eliminating the requirement that notices be printed both when rules are proposed and when they’re adopted. The latter round of notices would be listed on a new state Web site, instead. Another bill would let cities and towns use cheaper free papers for legal notices, rather than more expensive papers with second-class postage licenses. Hayes is also proposing a study of her own to find ways to cut down on the number of ads that have to be printed.
In the past, newspapers have claimed their opposition to similar measures wasn’t based on the money they’d lose. It was all about transparency in government and the public’s right to know. (They never explained why they couldn’t satisfy both of those goals by simply publishing the notices for free, just the way they do lots of other information.)
“Our concern is not with money, but with the communities we know,” the Village Soup newspapers editorialized in 2008.
That same year, the Lewiston Sun Journal had an opinion piece that claimed putting legal notices online wouldn’t save money or serve to inform the public, “and not because we have a financial interest in keeping public notices on our pages. Though critics are quick to cite this conflict, our concern is about keeping government notices ‘public,’ not just published.”
This year, the MPA has dropped the pretense of saying it’s not about the money.
“While we recognize it’s a fiscal issue for the state,” said association president Tony Ronzio, editor/publisher of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, “it is equally as much of a fiscal issue for our members and our industry.”
Nice to have that hint of honesty. Finally.
One final note on the study: The chief economist at Planning Decisions Inc., the company that compiled this information, is Charles “Chuck” Lawton. I’m not sure how intimately involved Lawton was in this project, but since he writes a weekly column for the Maine Sunday Telegram, it appears his company has a conflict of interest that should have been disclosed in news stories.
And speaking of conflicts, shouldn’t papers that ran articles on this issue disclose their own by including the amount they earn from tax-supported legal notices in their coverage? That way, readers could have more accurately assessed the claims made in the study.
Lame excuse: On May 3, the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel carried a “Note to readers” on their editorial pages attempting to explain why the previous day’s papers had contained no coverage of the death of Osama bin Laden.
“Breaking news never comes at an opportune time,” it said. “As the word spread about [bin Laden's death], our newspapers were bound, stacked and heading for subscribers and vendors all around Central Maine.”
The unsigned piece goes on to note, “[P]rinted newspapers must abide by their deadlines.”
I don’t know what time the KJ and Sentinel have to be printed, but the first reports on this incident were on the wires shortly after 10:30 p.m., when President Obama announced it on live TV. If, as the note claims, the papers were already printed and on the road by then, that seems ridiculously – and unnecessarily – early.
Most of the nation’s newspapers tore up their front pages to carry this important news. That these two MaineToday Media publications didn’t speaks volumes about their commitment to inform their readers and their ability to compete with more immediate media.
I guess covering real news is a lot tougher than printing legal notices.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.