The Portland Press Herald is really under the gun right now, from within and without its walls.
On the inside, PPH staffers have been working without a contract since the end of June. While there have been a couple of meetings between union and company negotiators, progress is slow, according to Kathy Munroe, the administrative officer of the Portland Newspaper Guild.
One factor may be newspaper owner Richard Connor's loud and repeated announcements that his company, which also owns the Waterville-based Morning Sentinel and the Augusta-based Kennebec Journal, is profitable, that revenue is up, that circulation is up, and web traffic is climbing.
Revenue and profit information is held closely in the private company, but Audit Bureau of Circulations numbers say the circulation decline has been accelerating for three years running (6.2 percent, 7.8 percent, and 8.7 percent for the years ending in March 2009, 2010, and 2011, respectively), with now barely above 51,000 copies daily. Web-traffic stats are notoriously hard to rely on, but the Press Herald's site is no longer the top news site in the state; it is now second to the Bangor Daily News's online presence, according to Al Diamon's reporting on Compete.com and other online trackers.
The union members, who collectively own 15 percent of the company, want raises. (They took a 10-percent pay cut as part of the deal that let Connor purchase the company in March 2010.) Connor just announced that he wants buyouts and layoffs because of declining advertising revenue.
He is an experienced union-buster (and has already been reducing union numbers by outsourcing five people's jobs to a call center in Central America; see "Calling MaineToday in Honduras," by Jeff Inglis, August 5). This could be a drawn-out fight that could include debates over what — and whether — profits actually exist at the paper. (Munroe says the union is able to see some revenue numbers, but not the full financial status of the company.)
While attempting to keep his staff on task, Connor is facing what may be an even bigger challenge from outside. For years now the company that owns the third-largest Maine daily newspaper (the Lewiston Sun Journal) has chipped away at the Press Herald's base with its group of Forecaster newspapers, which include a Portland edition as well as editions covering the northern and southern suburbs.
And a year ago the second-largest daily paper in the state siphoned from the PPH, when the Bangor Daily News hired away business reporter Matt Wickenheiser, and tasked him with reporting from Portland.
But in the past month, as initially reported by Al Diamon, the BDN has fully joined the fray, adding two more reporters covering southern areas of the state.
The coverage gap is closing; it's actually possible that by the end of 2011, the Press Herald will have fewer reporters on its home turf than its two chief competitors combined. (Add the BDN's three to the Forecaster's six, and you're just three shy of the pre-layoff 12 PPH reporters — not counting sports or State House coverage.)