There was a time when daily newspapers in Maine wielded enormous political influence. Then, the Ice Age came to an end. People crawled out of their caves and discovered somebody had invented Wi-Fi.

So powerful were the print media in bygone eras that a late endorsement by the Bangor Daily News in 1974 is generally credited with giving independent James Longley the boost he needed to win the governorship. As recently as the 1990s, politicians in Cumberland County considered an endorsement from the Portland Press Herald essential in winning local elections. And in the late 1980s, a Waterville mayoral candidate, who had squeaked out a narrow win in spite of opposition from the local daily, was asked on election night if she was declaring victory. “Why?” she quipped, “Has the Morning Sentinel conceded?”

Even when television usurped some of newspapers’ power by broadcasting live debates, it was still the print folks who analyzed the results and decided who’d won. With that kind of authority, it was easy to understand how newspapers grew into arrogant institutions, unswayed by complaints from mere mortals. If you wanted to know what was going on, you had no choice but to read their ink-stained broadsheets.

It’s not like that anymore. Republican Gov. Paul LePage has twice won his office over the strenuous objections of the Portland and Bangor papers. GOP U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin only became successful at getting elected when he decided to ignore the dailies. And the Legislature now operates as if the traditional press doesn’t exist.

There’s a good reason for that. A state senator in Maine represents more people – about 35,000 – than the average number of copies the Press Herald, Maine’s biggest daily, sells on a weekday. According to the latest figures from the Alliance for Audited Media, the Portland paper unloaded a daily average of just shy of 34,000 papers in the three-month period ending March 31. That’s 10 percent below what it was selling a year before. The Bangor Daily did even worse, shedding 17 percent of its readers to drop below 30,000 a day.

For a bit of perspective, the Press Herald has lost nearly 20,000 daily sales since 2010. Its owner, MaineToday Media, can’t look to its other publications to fill that gap. The Maine Sunday Telegram (print circulation: 51,396, digital subscriptions: 2,786) lost 9 percent of print readers this year, with online substitutes making up only about half that shortfall. Nearly 28,000 people have stopped buying the Telegram in the past five years. The Kennebec Journal in Augusta saw print circulation fall a whopping 13.5 percent on weekdays and 7 percent on Sundays since the same period in 2014. In Waterville, the Morning Sentinel did even worse, down 15 percent during the week and 8 percent on Sunday.

The average Maine House district is now larger than the KJ’s daily sales.

These papers will hasten to explain that while the dead-tree edition is hurting, digital subscriptions are picking up the slack. That’s partially true. The Portland paper has over 2,700 online subscribers, but that still leaves combined circulation down 2.5 percent from 2014. The KJ and Sentinel have about 225 digital readers each, which barely makes a dent in their losses. And e-subscriptions aren’t nearly as valuable as hard-copy readers. A national study found print buyers are worth seven times more in terms of revenue generated than readers on phones and tablets.

The Press Herald, where new owner Reade Brower took over on June 1 amid much optimistic talk, is probably in more trouble than even these grim numbers indicate. The paper raised its cover price from a dollar to a buck and a half in early April, just after the reporting period for circulation figures closed. There are indications that increase has had a negative impact on sales, with the Portland paper ceasing distribution in much of western Maine earlier this month. “Before they added 50 cents to the price, we sold damn few copies,” a rural store owner told me. “Now, none at all.”

Brower and MaineToday publisher Lisa DeSisto have dealt with these setbacks in much the same way the politicians they cover handle negative news.

They’ve retreated into fantasy.

On the day Brower took over, they released a statement claiming the Press Herald’s daily circulation had increased by 3 percent in the first three months of 2015. Nothing in the Alliance for Audited Media report supports that.

Like daily papers in general, the truth seems to be irrelevant.

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