Service of Drastic Measures that Saved a Newspaper Section: How Long Can It Last?

January 17th, 2019

Categories: News, Newspapers, Subscriptions

Sarah Mervosh’s New York Times article about the creative marketing measure The Portland Press Herald took to preserve its regional book reviews intrigued me as much as I worried that the rescue will last only a year. The dwindling number of these sections around the country is appalling and indicative of the poor health of the newspaper industry.

After reading that the largest circulation newspaper in Maine was going to cancel the section, best-selling author Stephen King, known for his horror books, asked his 5+million Twitter followers to “tell the paper DON’T DO THIS,” according to Mervosh. The paper challenged King—who worried that the lost publicity would rob local writers of the ability to buy bread and milk—to ask “his followers to buy 100 digital subscriptions.” They would reinstate the local reviews if he did and they did.

The Press Herald ran with the ball and this Twitter conversation took place with King:

  • TPH: “We’d be willing to bet a retweet by @StephenKing would get us over the threshold.”
  • SK: “Sales pitch? Blackmail? Either way, 71 people have subscribed so far. Are there 29 more Twitterheads out there who want to ante up? just asking.”

Photo: pinterest

The paper’s staff created a deal—for $15 you get a 12-week subscription. Chief exec of the Press Herald‘s publisher Maine Today Media, Lisa DeSisto “credited her employees for asking the community to pay for the journalism they want.”

They ended up with 200 new subscriptions in two days. The paper “pledged to continue the reviews of books about Maine or by Maine authors.” In addition, Joshua Bodwell with the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance raised enough money to pay for ads to cover the book reviews for a year.

This rescue happened as the newspaper reporter hemorrhage in this country continues unchecked. Mervosh wrote “the number of journalists across the country dropped by nearly half from 2008 to 2017, according to the Pew Research Center.” Recently 20 reporters were axed by the Dallas Morning News and almost all reporters are gone at The East Bay Express, she wrote.

A reporter with The Sun Journal in Lewiston, Steve Collins, wrote that it was “encouraging” that people saved local book reviews “But seriously folks, the chief reason to read your local newspaper is you need local news.” He added “Imagine a Maine where you know nothing about anything that goes on. That’s a real horror story.”

Given that most communities don’t count a popular author like Stephen King among their citizens to tout their cause, would such a tactic have legs elsewhere? Would crowdsourcing work for other newspaper sections? Should a community’s residents have to pay to ensure the survival of their favorite newspaper sections? Was the tactic blackmail or business today?

Photo: tulsahistory.org

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10 Responses to “Service of Drastic Measures that Saved a Newspaper Section: How Long Can It Last?”

  1. David Reich Said:

    That state of the newspaper industry is very sad and very dangerous.

    Young people have grown up getting news online for free and many balk at paying a subscription. And online sites like Craigslist years ago destroyed the major moneymaker for many papers — the classifieds.

    Yet now, more than ever, we need newspapers to keep us abreast of local and national happenings that too often would go unreported and unnoticed. Imagine where we’d be now if not for persistent and deep-diving reporting by The NY Times, WaPo, USA Today and even The Wall Street Journal.

    If papers threaten to take away some loved items like, in the case of The NY Times, the Crossword, imagine how people would holler…and some might even subscribe to keep it alive.

    That solution, unfortunately, won’t work in every newspaper’s case. Good that its’ working, even if temporarily, for The Press Herald in Portland.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    David,

    I agree and for so many reasons mourn the loss of so many good newspapers and the crucial work of many reporters. TV and radio sound bytes have their place but to get the story behind them you need something to read that’s more than a Tweet and a few paragraphs on Facebook.

    As for your example of the NY Times cutting off its crossword, I envision a huge fight and pickets ending in losing as many subscribers as they’d gain if they then pulled off a marketing scheme as The Press Herald did. New Yorkers can be a cranky bunch and once their backs are up, faghedaboudit.

  3. Judy Schuster Said:

    As an individual who worked on newspapers before getting into public relations (and whose husband made a career out of editing newspapers), I mourn the loss of too many good local newspapers. If Steven King’s tweet saved the newspaper regional book section, then I personally applaud his action. I wish that more people would defend local news because “the devil is in the details” and television and radio simply haven’t the time to deal with those details. The Twin Cities newspapers are still competitive and I rarely need to go to the NY Times or Wall Street Journal for more information. That makes me very happy.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Judy,

    You are lucky to have a choice of papers in your city. May the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press live on and thrive! Other cities should follow their lead. No doubt the circulations are robust. The twin cities have a motivated and well educated, supportive population.

    Maine is fortunate to have a generous author who could so easily forget his colleagues. Kudos to Stephen King!

  5. Martha Takayama Said:

    I think what Steven king did is brilliant and thrilling. I consider it a new form of consumer activism with only good intentions. Anything that encourages reading, writing, thinking in our age of instant repetitive and often shallow information is a positive.

    Equally significant are Judy’s observations.

    It is interesting also to remember the impact on young people who wanted to be writers and journalists for myriad positive reasons after the Watergate affair. We have a tendency as a nation to be driven by impulse, and haste to not evaluate calmly and completely the ramifications of rushing to respond to the endless momentary trends that the ceaseless saturation with instantaneous tends that digital media and ? inundate us with.

  6. Edward Baecher Said:

    Edward wrote on Facebook: Since I can remember, always spent an hour or so reading something in the morning to this day, but not on paper anymore. Local articles, national news and yes FB

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Edward,

    I’ve not been home or by a TV for the evening news, except when on vacation, since I can’t remember when. I listen to radio in the morning, read The Wall Street Journal daily–in print–and sections of the NY Times and follow headlines that come to my phone on Twitter, Facebook and by email. When I lived upstate I missed the printed newspaper when it went out of business. My phone didn’t work at the house and we had no Internet access so electronic forms of local news were out of the question for me.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Martha,

    I am not a fan of horror books or movies but I am in such awe of Stephen King for his generous spirit and concern for his fellow writers that I might buy one of his books for that reason. Who knows? I might become a fan of the genre.

  9. Martin Johnson Said:

    All print media is at some form of risk. Instant electronic communications has supplanted print media in most areas and it is sentimental nostalgia to enjoy the tactile and tectonic aspects of a real dimension in the process, I believe, of simple reading. There is something about holding and, yes caressing, an old book, a hot off the press newspaper and a real letter sent, written by hand in an envelope with a stamp and date. All this gives events and history its true third dimension – but sadly, today we are reduced to two – or is it only one?

    Martin

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Martin,

    Based on the revival of vinyl records, the fact that e-book love is growing cold and traditional books are back in favor and the Arts & Crafts movement’s response to the industrial revolution, I have hope at least for books. Newspapers and magazines not so much–but you never know.

    I’m a luddite who prefers to let the kinks be identified before jumping at every new gizmo and gadget. That said, I love a great greeting card to send or receive. That doesn’t mean I’d invest in Hallmark. I’m grateful when folks remember me with an e-card–when new I sent a few myself–but it’s just not the same. But if digital is all you know then what’s the difference?

    The scary thing about getting all the news online is that much of it really is fake. I always check the source but not everyone does. You do: I see that with the news you share and link to. Too many believe what they hear or read from conservative or liberal pundits alike and at the same time they discount what the opposite side has to say. We’re in a scary place.

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