Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Paper in rural Maine succeeds with local and regional content, twice-monthly frequency and national audience

The editorial and business office of The Quoddy Times in Eastport, Maine (Photo by James Fallows)
Husband and wife team James and Deborah Fallows roamed the country in their tiny plane for four years, reporting for The Atlantic on innovation and renewal in small cities and towns. Their book about the first leg of the project, Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America was published in May 2018. This year they began the second part of the project, and aim to explore a wide range of themes, including how local news media are faring.

Local journalism is important, James Fallows writes in their newest piece, "because so much of the future of American economic, cultural, and civic life is now being devised and determined at the local or state level . . . Voters, residents, and taxpayers need to know what is happening (or not), and what is working (or not), in their school systems, and their city councils, and their state capitals. It is imperiled for obvious reasons. What has happened to media revenues in general has happened worst, fastest, and hardest to local publications, newspapers most of all."

Eastport, Maine (Wikipedia map)
The newest piece profiles The Quoddy Tides, a thriving, twice-monthly, family-owned and family-run paper in Eastport, Maine. Eastport is the easternmost city in the U.S., scattered over several islands and with a population of about 1,300; the QT has a paid print circulation of just under 5,000. "It is run on a shoestring, but it has some 20 contributors and correspondents in the region, and it is full of both articles and ads, and it matters in its community," Fallows writes.

The QT is successful because it aims for a regional audience and market and has a "substantial" mail circulation, delivering papers to subscribers in 49 states. Extraterritorial circulation is not unusual for papers on the Maine coast and other vacation and second-home areas. Its family ownership "means that it can spend its modest resources as it chooses. It is not under external-ownership pressure to meet regular profitability targets, which has sent so many small papers into cycles of cutback and decline," Fallows writes. However, the husband and wife who own and run the paper, Edward French and Lora Whelan, emphasized to Fallows that the kind of journalism they provide has kept the paper alive.

French's mother, Winifred, started the QT in 1968, more than a decade after she and her husband moved to Eastport from Arizona. "She had no newspaper experience," Whelan told Fallows. "But she thought these communities really needed a voice. So she talked to other small newspapers and had correspondence with people all around the country about how she should set this up." French grew up helping with the family business and stepped in to run the paper as an adult.

The paper is packed with local content, including tribal issues, high-school sports, impact of state and federal laws, fishing industry news, editorials, letters to the editor, obituaries, births, church notices, tide tables, city-council coverage, and more. "I think it’s important for newspapers not to keep cutting," French told Fallows. "If you keep cutting, there’s less and less reason for people to buy the paper. If you want to keep a healthy circulation, you have to make the investment in reporters and providing the news that people can’t find anywhere else."

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