Journalism is an “ism,” meaning that it’s a doctrine, a practice, a way of looking at the world.

Its adherents are trained to ask a lot of questions and verify the answers, often by asking more questions of someone else. The facts are assembled and reported to the world, not always to the delight of the people who appear in the stories.

The people drawn to this work make absurd sacrifices of their time and talent, knowing that they are going to infuriate as many people as they please. When I first started as a reporter, I thought other reporters were my enemies. But I soon realized that we were all part of a big, dysfunctional family.

And in Maine, the family is in mourning.

The owner of the Biddeford Journal Tribune announced last week that it will shut down production after a 135-year run. The daily newspaper – an evening paper until two years ago – could not stay ahead of losses in circulation and advertising revenue.

The announcement was made by Masthead Maine, the parent company of the Journal and five other Maine dailies as well as the Maine Sunday Telegram and 25 weeklies – in other words, my bosses. The decision may have been a rational one, but still sad for the people who worked at the Journal and sad for what’s left of its readership.

A daily newspaper is a business – at one time a very lucrative business, but not these days. When a business can’t keep revenue ahead of expenses, it adapts to the market or it dies.

But a newspaper is not just another business. We can’t switch product lines, because the thing we do – journalism – isn’t a product. It’s an “ism.” Good journalism can change a lot of things, but it doesn’t make money, and even at the prevailing low wage, it’s expensive to produce.

The Journal Tribune is only the latest casualty. According to a 2018 study by the University of North Carolina, one in five American newspapers has shut down since 2004, leaving large parts of the country without any local news coverage, a phenomenon the researchers call “news deserts.”

Things are only slightly better in the publications that stay afloat. Newspaper employment has been cut in half since the Great Recession. Hundreds of publications are officially still in business but are “ghost newspapers,” just shadows of their former selves. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced last week that it would produce a newspaper only three days a week.

In other bad newspaper news last week, the Newseum in Washington, D.C., the industry’s monument to itself, announced it will permanently shut its doors later this month. When your tombstone goes out of business, folks, it’s not a good sign.

Maybe the most alarming number is the decline in readership. Nationally, newspaper circulation has dropped from 122 million in the years before the Great Recession to 73 million last year. The UNC study cites Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, who predicts that as many as half of the nation’s dailies will no longer be in print as soon as 2021 if current rates continue.

If you think like a journalist, you might want to ask a question now. It might be, “So what?”

If people don’t want to read the newspaper, they can’t be too sad about them disappearing. The internet has made it much easier to get information and publish it. There are many ways for people to get their news, maybe better ways.

Maybe, but I haven’t seen it. Every reader’s attention span is a finite commodity, and the competition to grab a piece of it is not between different sources of local news.

To keep up, the local newspaper has to be more compelling than The New York Times, Fox News, Hollywood, the world’s cutest cat videos and the Twitter feed of a certain world leader who knows how to get everyone’s eyes on him.

That’s a lot to ask from a story about a controversial zoning amendment.

All across the country, municipal governments, even state legislatures, are doing their business in places where nobody is asking them any questions. Political operatives get to tell their own story, in their own self-serving way. People may have more information than ever, but we’re not better informed.

But, we’ll have time to mourn representative democracy later. Today our condolences go out to the men and women who put out the Biddeford Journal Tribune.

You hung on for a long-time in tough circumstances that were not of your making. You had a good run. We are going to miss you.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.