Competition Heats Up In Portland, Maine

Changes At Casco Bay; A Quick Start For the Phoenix.

For a city with a population of less than a quarter-million, Portland, ME, has seen more than its fair share of alternative newspaper publishing activity in the past few months.

The action began with a big shake-up at Casco Bay Weekly, a local alternative that has pretty much had the market to itself for more than a dozen years. Last month, Managing Editor Lael Morgan replaced Julie Watson as Publisher of the paper; Watson, who had been with the paper for seven years, has assumed an advisory role as Publisher Emeritus.

Morgan is a Maine native and the former wife of the paper’s owner, Dodge Morgan. After years of lobbying by her ex-husband, Lael finally relented last June and left her position as a professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, to return to Maine to run the paper. She has more than forty years of experience in the newspaper business, including a stint as reporter/photographer for the Los Angeles Times.

Lael has already seen significant editorial improvement in CBW since she returned and David Tyler took over as the new Editor. “The place was pretty much in turmoil when I got here because Laura [Conway, the former Editor] had just left. Right now, I think we’re as strong editorially as we have been in years,” she says. “[The staff] has been scooping the daily. Boy, do they know the city. We’ve had a pretty exciting few months.”

Outside observers also sense that things have changed for the better. Monte Paulsen, who co-founded CBW in 1988 and is now a freelance journalist, says the paper has improved. “CBW has really been getting back on its feet and is pursuing its own mission; there has been almost an entire replacement of staff. It’s in the second generation of people running it with a different vision. They had to rediscover what the paper was and reinvent it.”

But just when CBW was finding its moorings, trouble appeared on the horizon: Regional publishing powerhouse Phoenix Media/Communications Group decided to start a paper in Portland. Phoenix Media publishes the Boston Phoenix and two other alternatives, and owns several radio stations as well as the personals vendor TPI. Says Paulsen, “CBW, for the first time since Dodge bought it, has to compete again. They’re going to have to figure out what it is to be in a competitive environment.”

The first issue of the Portland Phoenix hit the streets on September 17. Phoenix Media President and CEO Barry Morris says the seeds of expansion were planted in May 1999, when Phoenix Media purchased a local radio station in Portland. “We began to look at Maine very carefully, in terms of co-marketing and co-promoting,” says Morris, whose company already has experience in two other markets where it publishes a paper and owns a radio station. “We had some familiarity with the Portland market. We clearly knew that it would be appropriate for us to have a paper up there.”

Phoenix Media first approached Dodge Morgan about selling CBW, but, according to Morris, Morgan had already decided to turn the keys over to Lael. So the only remaining option was to start a new paper.

And even though his company has significantly deeper pockets, Morris thinks CBW can survive. “If two publications are going to flourish in the same market, typically, they’re going to have to find their own niches, both editorially and in advertising. If both papers are able to develop independent readerships, advertisers will be able to put money into both papers. That’s what we’ll have to do in order to survive. I think the CBW just has to be confident that they have their own strategy and niche.”

Lael Morgan says her paper has responded well to the new competition. “Our return rate [at five percent] has been less in the last two weeks than we’ve ever had,” she says, “And in the last two weeks, we picked up more new accounts than our accountant has seen in years.”

Page counts appear to indicate a tight battle. The February 24 issue of CBW weighed in at 40 pages, while the Phoenix published a 48-page issue the same week.

Phoenix Media headquarters is satisfied with the progress they’ve made in Portland. “[The paper] has been well-received. Apparently, we have a reputation that precedes us,” says Senior Managing Editor Clif Garboden. “One thing that we’ve been able to do up there with great success is to keep the product outstandingly local. Some people might say, ‘This is just a Boston paper,’ but there’s very little shared, except movie reviews, a certain amount of national music coverage and an occasional column.”

With 35 years of publishing experience under their collective belts, Morris is confident that Phoenix Media will succeed in Portland. “What we have is a model for how we produce our newspapers and the kind of content that we know readers appreciate.”

Lael Morgan sounds equally confident: “We’re unique at what we do, and we’ve been around for more than a decade,” she explains. “Mainers are pretty loyal people.”

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