The Journal Tribune newspaper in Biddeford will shut down this month after 135 years of publishing, leaving six daily newspapers in Maine.

Founded in 1884, the Tuesday-through-Saturday newspaper is the only daily publication devoted entirely to covering the Biddeford-Saco area. According to its publisher, the Journal Tribune had been shedding subscribers and advertisers for years prior to being acquired in March 2018 by Reade Brower, who owns the Portland Press Herald and five other daily newspapers in Maine.

The Journal Tribune’s final day of publication will be Oct. 12. Its outgoing executive editor lamented the community’s impending loss of detailed, hyperlocal coverage on which the newspaper prides itself, while its publisher vowed to fill that void with enhanced coverage in other publications under the same ownership.

The closure comes at a time when more than one in five local newspapers has shut down over the past 15 years, leaving many communities without a reliable source of local news and information. In an era of widespread consolidation, the Journal Tribune’s failure also is the first major setback for Brower, an independent owner who has purchased six of Maine’s seven daily newspapers and more than a dozen weekly publications since 2015.

Brower said the decision was made to cease publication of the Biddeford newspaper because his media conglomerate, Masthead Maine, has other newspapers serving the same market, and because shutting down the poorly performing Journal Tribune will help strengthen the rest of the organization.

“People should be looking at this as a smart move that will keep us in business,” he said.

Masthead Maine CEO Lisa DeSisto, publisher of the Journal Tribune, the Press Herald and other Maine newspapers under Brower’s ownership, said the Journal Tribune’s 13-member staff was notified Tuesday of the closure. Six staff members are being laid off, six are being offered jobs at other Masthead Maine publications and one is retiring, she said. Employees who are being laid off were offered severance packages to continue working through Oct. 11, DeSisto said.

“We really worked hard to find spots for as many people as possible,” she said.

Journal Tribune subscribers are being notified by mail that they will begin receiving the Press Herald and its Sunday edition, the Maine Sunday Telegram, on Thursdays through Sundays after Oct. 12 for the remaining term of their paid subscriptions, DeSisto said. Subscribers to both newspapers will have the term of their Press Herald subscription extended by the length of their remaining Journal Tribune subscription, she said.

Longtime Journal Tribune journalists Dina Mendros and Tammy Wells will join the staff of the Biddeford Courier, a weekly community newspaper also owned by Masthead Maine that is distributed on Thursdays, DeSisto said. Journal Tribune Executive Editor Ed Pierce already was planning to retire Oct. 11, she said.

The Journal Tribune was unprofitable in 2018, DeSisto said, and cost-cutting measures implemented by the new ownership weren’t enough to turn it around.

“We really want to focus our efforts in the areas that have the most opportunity for success and growth, so to continue to kind of prop up the Journal Tribune was really just going to take resources away from somewhere else,” she said. “It was a really difficult decision, and we considered everything. Should we further reduce days of the week? Should we go digital only? But in the end, the thing that just (made) the most sense was to just stop publishing.”

Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant said he was “stunned” to learn Tuesday that the Journal Tribune is shutting down. Casavant said he had been under the impression that the newspaper was undergoing improvements and growing its online readership.

Casavant said he considers local newspapers vitally important for getting information out to the public and that the loss of the Journal Tribune will hurt the community, especially older residents who tend to rely more on print media. He noted that news coverage of local government activities already has declined to a great extent even with the local daily still in operation.

“When I was younger and I was on the city council – this is back in the ’70s – there used to be three or four reporters at every single council meeting, and there was always a Press Herald reporter there,” Casavant said. “Over time, because of budget constraints and readership issues, they started disappearing so that essentially now, unless there’s something outrageous or extraordinary, there’s no reporters.”

DeSisto said the Journal Tribune’s declining readership was evidence that the community no longer found it to be a “must-read” publication. She said subscriptions have fallen so dramatically that there are now three times as many Press Herald subscribers in the Biddeford-Saco area as Journal Tribune subscribers. As a result, there is not enough remaining advertiser interest in the Journal Tribune, she said.

Both Brower and DeSisto emphasized that Masthead Maine is not abandoning the Biddeford-Saco area, and that readers will see enhanced coverage in the Courier, as well as continued coverage of the community in the Press Herald. But Pierce, the Journal Tribune’s outgoing editor, said it’s inevitable that the newspaper’s closure will result in an overall loss for area residents.

“Communities that are left without a local news organization, where do they find news about the mundane functioning of governments, like tax increases, or zoning decisions, or any other pertinent information that impacts their daily lives? That’s going away here,” he said. “The Press Herald … covers our county (York County), but this is a huge county. Our coverage area runs from Old Orchard Beach, Buxton and Hollis, over to Sanford, Shapleigh, Acton and Parsonsfield, and down to Ogunquit, Wells, Kennebunk and Alfred. There’s no possible way that the Press Herald, with all the other communities that they cover, will be involved in (covering) the day-to-day stuff that make up the fabric of our communities.”

The Journal Tribune’s impending closure isn’t happening in a vacuum. According to a 2018 report by the University of North Carolina’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, more than one in five newspapers has closed since 2004, leaving thousands of communities at risk of becoming “news deserts.” It said half of the 3,143 counties in the United States now have only one newspaper, usually a small weekly, and nearly 200 counties have no newspaper at all.

“The people with the least access to local news are often the most vulnerable – the poorest, least educated and most isolated,” the report said. It also noted that many of the nation’s roughly 7,100 surviving newspapers “are mere shells, or ‘ghosts,’ of their former selves.”

The report noted that the number of independent newspaper owners has declined significantly since 2004, and that consolidation in the newspaper industry “places decisions about the future of individual papers, as well as the communities where they are located, into the hands of owners with no direct stake in the outcome.”

It was that very concern that Brower, a longtime Maine resident who found success in commercial printing, has said led him to buy up most of the daily newspapers in Maine over the past few years, along with many of its weekly publications. Of the six Maine daily newspapers that will remain after the Journal Tribune’s closure, five are owned by Brower, with the independently owned Bangor Daily News being the only exception.

Brower’s newspaper empire, which operates under the name Masthead Maine, is actually a conglomeration of three discrete companies: MaineToday Media, which owns the Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and a commercial printing operation in South Portland; Sun Media Group, which owns the Sun Journal in Lewiston and weeklies including The Forecaster, the American Journal and the Lakes Region Weekly; and Alliance Media Group, which owns the Journal Tribune, The Times Record in Brunswick and four free weeklies known collectively as the Mainely Media newspapers.

Brower acquired the Journal Tribune via a swap with Pennsylvania-based Sample News Group in March 2018 as part of a package deal that also included The Times Record and the Mainely Media weeklies – the Biddeford Courier, the Kennebunk Post, the Scarborough Leader and the South Portland Sentry. In exchange, Sample acquired two newspapers in Vermont from Brower, which he said didn’t make sense geographically for him to retain.

DeSisto said that of the six Alliance media properties, the Journal Tribune is the only one that is not turning a profit. Among all the publications operating under the Masthead Maine banner, the Journal Tribune is the only one it has decided to shut down, she said. Masthead Maine has consolidated one newspaper, the Coastal Journal of Bath, into one of The Forecaster’s editions, and sold one, the Penobscot Times in Old Town, to the Bangor Daily News, DeSisto said.

DeSisto said advertising revenue has been declining every year, and that the companies have worked to offset those losses by increasing paid digital subscriptions, which have risen sharply. The companies’ long-term business strategy is built around increasing subscriber revenue and generating revenue from other sources such as commercial printing, delivering other publications and hosting sponsored events.

Meanwhile, the three companies have made significant changes to share resources, boost sales across all publications, centralize services and eliminate overlap, DeSisto said. Some of those efforts have resulted in staffing cuts through attrition, early retirement buyouts and layoffs, although Masthead Maine has endeavored to preserve newsroom staffing as much as possible.

“We’ve made significant (cost-saving) moves – we have one finance department for all three groups; there’s one circulation department,” she said. “We use our purchasing power as leverage with all of our vendors to get better rates. So we’ve been really aggressive in doing that, and we’ll keep doing it. We’ll never be done.”

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