The steep decline of Maine newspaper jobs, in six sad charts

Closure of Biddeford-Saco daily paper part of alarming trend.

In the past 20 years, Maine lost more than half of the jobs in its newspaper industry. By 2018, the number of people on the payroll of a Maine newspaper had dwindled to a little more than 1,100, down from 2,526 at the turn of the millennium.

Just this week, Portland Press Herald publisher Masthead Maine announced it would close its Biddeford daily, the Journal-Tribune, which was published for 135 years. Six people will be laid off.

The steep decline in newspaper jobs does more than limit the career options of English majors. Studies suggest that deep cuts to print journalism negatively impact everyone. One study found newspaper closures lead to more wasteful government spending and lower voter turnout in state and local elections.

By industry, only jobs in paper mills, semiconductor manufacturing, wood-product manufacturing and vocational-rehabilitation services fell faster since 2000 in Maine.

Compared with all jobs, the first sad chart speaks for itself.

Unlike manufacturing, where automation has maintained or increased output while jobs dwindled, good reporting still requires a lot of shoe leather. Readers not only get thinner papers and less real reporting online, but the publications have very little investigative journalism, the type of time-intensive reporting that exposes waste, fraud and other crime in government, the business world, and other institutions.

The picture of newspapering in Maine is grimmer still: wage growth has also lagged other industries. Even industries with similar job losses had higher wage growth this century. (I can attest, from personal experience, that it’s quite common to spend years in a newsroom without a raise.)

Among Maine industries with an average of at least 1,000 employees, newspaper publishing had the sixth slowest growth in wages over this 18-year period.

The data includes all payroll jobs, full- and part-time (which is why the ski industry, for example, has such a low average weekly wage for any given year).

For a real downer, we can look at changes in both wages and jobs. The scatterplot below shows what an outlier the newspaper industry is, with some of the steepest job losses and some of the slowest wage growth.

Dermot Murphy, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in public finance, found that the death of local and regional news outlets resulted in higher costs for taxpayers and less efficient operation of local governments:

We found that local government borrowing costs significantly increased for counties that have experienced a newspaper closure compared to geographically adjacent counties with similar demographic and economic characteristics without newspaper closures.

Other research Murphy cited indicates that “a lack of local media coverage is associated with less informed voters, lower voter turnouts, and less engaged local politicians.”

This just in: We’re screwed

Looking more broadly, the reporting profession don’t seem so bad. The median wage last year was $39,290, which is higher than all but two of the 10 most common jobs in Maine. But those figures also include reporters working in other media, such as radio, television and magazines. An aspiring reporter could earn a comparable wage laboring as a pipe-layer, a chemical technician, a credit counselor or a prison guard.

Use the interactive graphic below to compare the median wage, entry wage, and experienced-employee wage for reporting and correspondent jobs with those of other jobs in Maine.

Reporter and correspondent jobs paid $2,170 more than the statewide median of $37,120 last year, but the estimated entry-level and experienced-worker wages were slightly below average.

Newspaper reporting drives the coverage the public gets from all news media — it’s the source of much of what you hear on the radio and see on TV and online, especially via social media — so its decline makes the entire community less informed and engaged. An ill-informed, apathetic citizenry is advantageous to anyone whose income or career could be damaged by public exposure of their malfeasance (corrupt politicians, white-collar crooks, polluters, abusers, etc.). There are winners and losers when the local newspaper shrivels or folds. The winners are few and the losers are many.