Phoenix Media Plans Fall Debut in Portland, Maine

Mirrors Boston Model with FM Station

The publishing field will be crowded Down East as the publishers of the Boston Phoenix start a new paper in Portland, Me., already the home of AAN member Casco Bay Weekly. The Portland Phoenix, a free alternative weekly, will begin publication sometime this fall, according to Phoenix Media Communications Group President H. Barry Morris.

The Phoenix has expanded in the past, taking over an existing paper in Providence, R.I. and starting from scratch in Worcester, Mass. In both cities the company has been successful in creating profitable alternative papers with a mix of local reporting and content originating from Boston. And in this instance the Phoenix is replicating its Boston media model by buying radio station WCDQ in Portland, rechristening it WPHX, and simulcasting from Phoenix-owned WFNX.

Phoenix Media Chairman and Publisher Stephen Mindich said the Portland expansion had been in the works for a couple of years. “We looked at expanding a couple of years ago, but the question was could Portland sustain [another alternative] paper with a population that is partly seasonal. We’d been trying — unsuccessfully — to buy stations in Providence and Worcester, and when the opportunity to buy [WCDQ] came up, we took it.”

Publisher Julie Watson of the Casco Bay Weekly said, “I won’t say we’re not concerned, but I think there’s room for two papers here. We’re going to keep doing what we’ve been good at for the last 11 years, which is focusing on local news and issues. That’s our bread and butter.

“We’re two different kinds of alternatives. We do much more local news, and our advertisers are almost all local. We get a little bit of national advertising, but the Phoenix has a lot of [nationally sold] cigarette and liquor ads.

“I think they’ve got their work cut out for them,” she added.

Doug Rooks, publisher of erstwhile AAN member Maine Times and a former business partner with Casco Bay Weekly, thinks the entry of the Phoenix into the Portland market will be an “interesting test of what role alternative papers have in Portland. It’s potentially significant, especially if people get interested in the competition [between the papers]. The worst case scenario would be a Big Yawn.

“I think it will be healthy if the Phoenix stirs up talk. Casco Bay Weekly has become slightly more generic, in my observation. This will test whether Portland people really want a local alternative paper, or a glossier product from Boston. I can’t really predict at this point, but Portland is a hot market — it’s got some national buzz. When the conversation turns to where young people are going, Portland comes up. I’m not surprised that new publications are opening up.”

In addition to the Phoenix, a new glossy monthly recently began publication in Portland, bringing even more competition for readers and advertising. Clarke Canfield, a business reporter for the Portland Press Herald, said, “I honestly don’t know if it makes business sense for the Phoenix to come to Portland, but the company is following the same model it used to go into Providence and Worcester. So if they’re making money there, then why not Portland?

“I’m not sure what shape Casco Bay Weekly is in, although just looking at the ad count, it seems they’ve been healthy for a number of years. And the owner of CBW, Dodge Morgan, has pretty deep pockets himself. He used to own the Maine Times and lost hundreds of thousands over the years, so he’s not in it for the money (because he has plenty of that).”

WPHX began simulcasting last week, and for now the plan is to maintain a ratio of about 80-20% Boston-generated programming to locally produced shows. As for the paper, Mindich said, “We have a very solid editorial plan, and people will see what kind of strong commitment we have to local markets.”

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