March 16, 2010

Cost-cutting won't undermine our mission

— The opinion pages of the newspaper haven't been immune from the cost-cutting at our company that you've no doubt read about, but we continue to fulfill our mission, and readers should rest assured that won't change.

These are challenging times for the newspaper industry. For the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, there are three major factors driving our need to economize and the decision by our parent, the Seattle Times Co., to put our newspapers up for sale.

The first is that the changes brought on by the emergence of the Internet as a source for news and entertainment have undermined the traditional newspaper business model. This is especially being felt in the classified advertising side of our business, where online competitors have had a huge impact.

The second is that high energy prices and a slowing economy have put our industry and many others in a slump apart from any impact that new technology is having on our business.

And, finally, many newspaper companies around the country -- including our own -- have debt structures that were built on assumptions about revenue and profitability that no longer hold true. This is forcing newspaper owners to restructure, and in the case of the Seattle Times Co., that means putting our newspapers up for sale.

THERE'S GOOD NEWS, TOO

That's the bad news, and it translates to getting by with fewer resources for our news and opinion operations.

But it's not all bad news. We continue to have a substantial audience for our printed product -- despite dire claims to the contrary -- and the newspaper's online audience is growing.

Newspapers generally are facing a difficult transition period, but there is still a strong demand for the kind of journalism that appears on these pages every day. The challenge for us as journalists is to find ways to navigate the difficult business environment while still fulfilling our mission as Maine's leading source of news and opinion. As part of that mission, we've got to adapt to the changing media landscape, in part by opening our pages -- both print and Web -- to the voices of our readers.

In recent weeks, we've taken steps toward meeting those challenges on the newspaper's opinion pages.

I won't sugarcoat the realities here. Some of what we've had to do involves cuts to our offerings to bring our costs down. That's one of the challenges. But as we've gone about making these changes, we've preserved what is most important to our readers and have continued to push forward with transforming our offerings to meet the demands of today's audiences.

One of the biggest changes we've made has been to combine the Business and Insight sections of the Sunday paper into a single eight-page section, with Business leading off on Page C1 and Insight picking up on Page C5.

This means Insight now covers four pages instead of six, and as a result, we've had to make some cuts.

The local and syndicated columns that previously appeared on the third page of Insight have been eliminated, and the popular stack of syndicated editorial cartoons on that page has been reduced and placed on the page opposite the editorial page. This means there are fewer reader letters presented on the Sunday op-ed page.

Also, as of this week, Nancy Grape's column will no longer appear on our pages. Grape recently moved to California to be with her children and grandchildren full-time (she was spending winters there previously). It was felt, and Grape agreed, that it would be difficult for her to maintain a column about Maine without spending any significant time here throughout the year.

This is perhaps the most difficult of the changes for me personally. Fifteen years ago, as a reporter aspiring to write editorials, it was Grape who took me aside and showed me the basics of editorial writing. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to learn from one of the very best practitioners of our trade.

Always a tireless voice for women, always a professional, Nancy dissected issues with the skill of a surgeon. While one could disagree with her, one could never disrespect the intellectual prowess and emotional sincerity of her point of view or her love of this state. I know she is happy to be in the grandparent business full-time, but our pages will be poorer for her absence.

In Grape's place, we plan to restore Sunday Maine Voices columns from our readers, a feature that was lost when Insight was reduced.

CHANGES ON SATURDAY

We've also lost some staff support for the editorial department. As a result, we eliminated the longer editorial that ran on Saturdays. In its place is a sampling of opinion from other Maine newspapers as well as an expanded letters package. This is in keeping with our efforts to add more reader voices.

To that end, we replaced a regular contribution from syndicated columnist Cynthia Tucker with a Maine Voices column on Saturdays. Tucker is still part of our rotation of syndicated columnists appearing on other days of the week.

And finally, as a cost-cutting move, we plan to reduce the number of locally produced editorial cartoons appearing in the newspaper from three per week to one per week. Steve Meyers' work will continue to appear on Sundays. However, we will use syndicated cartoons for our Tuesday and Thursday editions. The talented Mike Prevost, who has been drawing for us every other Thursday, will no longer be contributing to our pages.

These are tough choices, but in making them we've preserved the journalism that is of prime importance to our audience.

Each day, we still offer a lively mix of editorials, local columnists and syndicated points of view. We still plan to go in-depth from time-to-time on important issues. We'll also be pushing into new realms, with more Web offerings and interaction with our readers in the future.

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