March 16, 2010

More cuts coming for opinion content

— I thought I'd be clever by starting this column quoting Mark Twain saying the news of his demise had been greatly exaggerated. Seemed apt, since there's a lot of talk about the newspaper's future these days, and little of it is positive.

So I Googled ''Mark Twain'' and ''news of demise'' and the top-of-page link was someone writing about -- what else? -- a newspaper.

This reinforces the latest business cliches to infect my world. Along with ''it is what it is'' there's also been a healthy dose of ''it's not raining on us, it's just raining.'' And it's true. The entire newspaper industry has had a rough year.

But what we're experiencing is the industry equivalent of a correction, not an end to newspaper publishing. The Internet has replaced much of our classified advertising business and there's more competition for advertiser dollars from the Web.

STILL AN ATTRACTIVE MEDIUM

But newspapers across the country continue to attract substantial audiences -- audiences that in many cases are growing on a combined print-online basis -- and newspaper readers generally are better educated and have more money to spend than the population as a whole. This will be an attractive medium for advertisers for many years to come.

So there is a future for this industry, but it's a future that in the medium-term won't provide the profits of a decade ago. For newspaper owners with business models built on old assumptions, that spells trouble. The owners of this newspaper are in exactly that fix and have, therefore, put these papers up for sale.

They've also had to cut expenses in order to pay debt and keep the operation afloat during the sale period. For the journalists here, that's made for some difficult choices.

A few weeks back, I had to write a column issuing bad news about a reduction in our opinion offerings in response to budget cuts.

Today, I'm back with more bad news.

But the commitment to the core mission that I wrote about weeks back remains. While starting today we will be offering less opinion content on our print pages, we will still offer a place where people can sample points of view on Maine and the world and offer their own thoughts to the community.

We also plan to keep building our offerings online, where readers will be able to find content no longer in the print editions.

Already, you have no doubt noticed that the Sunday Insight section, which was reduced from six to four pages and combined with Sunday Business earlier this year, has shrunk yet again.

Sunday Business and Insight will now share a six-page section rather than an eight-page one. This means that Insight will be a back-of-section cover.

Squeezing this additional page from our offerings means that our Congressional Roll Call feature, which spells out how members of Maine's congressional delegation voted in Washington each week, will no longer appear in our print editions. It will, however, be available online at pressherald.com.

We'll also have less space for stories and columns. That means that some weeks there will be just one commentary piece on the Insight cover where there used to be two. It also means that we're going to drop the Sunday Maine Voices guest piece on the op-ed page from time-to-time so we can jump stories and columns from the cover of Insight to a page inside if needed.

We're cutting back on our opinion offerings Monday-Friday as well.

Starting on Monday, the editorial page will be home to reader letters, editorials and a political cartoon as usual. But a Maine Voices or local column, both of which used to appear on our op-ed page -- which we called ''Forum'' -- will now appear on the main opinion page. Also, our Thursday Community Voices lineup of local columnists writing about the region's multicultural community will not appear in the print edition, but will be available at pressherald.com.

The op-ed offerings Monday-Friday are being cut back to a single, nationally syndicated column. Originally, we discussed reducing the daily opinion offerings to a single page. However, that would have meant dropping some, or possibly all, of our nationally syndicated lineup, which includes Ellen Goodman, George Will, Cal Thomas, David Broder, Cynthia Tucker, Kathleen Parker and Leonard Pitts. Very few of our readers like every one of those columnists, but nearly all of our readers have a favorite in that group, so it was important to keep this lineup.

NEW DAYS FOR NEMITZ

Another opinion change is that the work of our staff columnist, Bill Nemitz -- whose work I have the pleasure of editing -- will appear on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays instead of Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. (Nemitz, by the way, is on vacation this week and next, and his column will return Aug. 26).

This change is being made because on some days of the week our Local & State section has been combined with the first section of the newspaper. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Nemitz's work will get the section-front display it deserves. On Sundays, you're likely to see Nemitz's column on the front page more often, owing to the fact that the Maine/New England section has been combined with the first section of the Telegram.

Attendant with these changes is a shift in staff resources. The editorial department will no longer have a full-time letters editor. We will staff our letters desk on a part-time basis and have a dedicated phone line -- 791-6485 -- where readers can leave voice mail messages with questions about letters or return calls placed as part of our letters verification process.

These cuts are real, and this is not a case of less is more. But suggestions that this spells the end of newspaper journalism here or anywhere else are exaggerated, indeed.

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