The Times, we are a-changin’

Driven by industry trends, Island newspaper will charge for subscriptions.

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As of Jan. 2, The Times will begin charging for subscriptions. — Lexi Pline

In Dan Kennedy’s hometown of Medford, there is a newspaper owned by GateHouse (the national chain that just completed a merger with Gannett), that doesn’t have a single full-time reporter to cover that small city’s news. No one on staff to report on the mayor, the city council, or school committee.

At least his town still has a newspaper. GateHouse, in the past year, has closed some newspapers and merged others in cost-saving moves, with even more slashing predicted after the merger. You need look no further than Cape Cod to see a newspaper with a continually shrinking staff. The Cape Cod Times, a GateHouse daily, has suffered repeated layoffs and buyouts, leaving the newspaper with holes in its coverage.

Media experts say it’s a loss of revenue from advertising to places like Google and Facebook, as well as the dip in classified advertising as it moves to platforms such as Craigslist, that has newspapers all across the country struggling mightily.

The Martha’s Vineyard Times is not immune.

That’s why as of Jan. 2, The Times will ask readers to begin paying for New England’s best weekly newspaper — both the print edition and online. The price for a year’s subscription for print delivery and unlimited web access is $40, $1 on the newsstand. (See the answers to frequently asked questions about the change.)

It’s not a decision taken lightly by owners Peter and Barbara Oberfest, but they believe the community will find value in playing a role in keeping The Times newspaper and website as a robust source of Island news.

“Truly healthy communities depend on strong newspapers, and strong, always-improving newspapers depend on a stable financial base. The change we are announcing today will propel The MV Times toward an important new model of reader, advertiser, and community support,” Peter Oberfest said.

The Times began as a paid-subscription newspaper in 1984, but switched to a free model two years later. That made sense at the time, Doug Cabral, the former Times editor and publisher who made the decision in 1986, said.

“The idea actually came to me from Phyllis Hughes, publisher for MPG [Newspapers],” Cabral said. “I seized on the idea and implemented it.”

The idea was a simple one — get the newspaper in the hands of readers, and provide them with must-read content. It provided a good vehicle for advertisers to reach those same people.

“It changed things dramatically,” Cabral said, noting that the fledgling newspaper became profitable. “We tried to be the Islander’s newspaper rather than the summer visitor’s newspaper. We worked hard to try to claim that ground and protect it. It was a success. It was a risk. But 1986 is a lot different from 2019.”

In recent months, The Times has been exploring the idea of a paid model to help with revenue and to reduce the costs and waste associated with printing up to 15,000 newspapers each week for an Island with only 17,000 year-round residents.

“I would say the idea of having a total-market-penetration free weekly was a really good way to support journalism at one time, because even though you weren’t getting any circulation revenue, there was just so much advertising out there that if you could tell businesses that every household is going to get the paper, that was a pretty attractive proposition to them,” Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and media expert, said. “But given that everybody from the New York Times to the Washington Post, right down to The Martha’s Vineyard Times, is losing advertising to platforms like Facebook and Craigslist, then everybody has to think about persuading their audience to step up to the plate and pay for the fairly substantial amount of money that’s needed to put out the paper and the digital version of that paper. You just hope that people at the local level understand the value of what they’re getting, and they are willing to step up and pay.”

When newspapers stop publishing or are gutted, readers lose.

“Well, I think they lose an awful lot, but unfortunately in the climate that we’re in, I worry about whether people really understand what they’re losing, because we have this enormous interest in national news, being driven by the Trump administration, and so therefore we see the New York Times and Washington Post growing by leaps and bounds,” Kennedy said. “But what really affects us in our day-to-day lives is what’s going on at the selectboard meetings, the school committee meeting. Not only would we be losing that, I’m not even sure a lot of people these days appreciate how important it is. I don’t think we’ve done a good job; I don’t think the schools have done a good job with civic education, so that people understand how important what happens in their local communities really is.”

Kennedy also talked about the community social media pages that have popped up, mostly on Facebook. People think they’re getting informed, but they’re not really getting what they need there. “Yeah, you get some sociopathy, but you also get some people who are really well-meaning and are trying to contribute to the conversation in the community,” Kennedy said. “But what are you getting? You’re getting a lot of, ‘Does anybody know what’s going on with such-and-such?’ Instead of, ‘This is what’s going on with such-and-such.’ That’s why we need this kind of hyperlocal journalism.”

What Kennedy is getting at is that communities need the types of journalists who not only report what’s happening, but ask probing, informed questions of the people with answers, and dig deep by seeking and obtaining public records — a process that takes time and training. A good example is Times reporter Rich Saltzberg pushing for the U.S. Coast Guard to release documents that show it knew about lead contamination at its West Chop housing — a discovery that’s led to a national investigation by the federal agency.

The situation with local news is so dire that Kennedy is part of a legislative initiative to study the state of Massachusetts journalism. The bill was filed by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, and had a hearing earlier this year. The proposed 17-member panel would research the issues and look for possible solutions for the industry. It’s nothing as ambitious as what New Jersey did last year by creating a panel that actually has $5 million in public funds to pay for reporting projects.

Ken Doctor, who writes a column called “Newsonomics” for the Nieman Lab, told The Times the newspaper industry has been in steady decline since before the great recession of 2008. “Then it rapidly accelerated after the great recession,” he said.

Daily newspapers have lost $30 billion since 2005, and haven’t enjoyed a single positive revenue year since before 2008. Much of that ad revenue has been lost to Google and Facebook, digital advertising that now surpasses television, Doctor said. “The No. 1 strategy on the revenue side is to focus on digital subscriptions, figuring that the direct relationship with readers who appreciate and value local news … will pay.”

Doctor is so bullish on local news that he is launching Lookout, which is geared toward providing coverage in communities that are now underserved. The location of the launch will be announced sometime in January, and will happen this spring. “If we create robust local news products, backed by very good local journalism, written by people who actually know the community, and then deliver that mainly via the phone, in a way that is useful, and attractive, and fast, then we can ask citizens locally to pay for high-quality local journalism. Again, advertising would be strong, but a secondary support,” he said. “We’re looking to test out the model and change the conversation of how much loss and how are we going to stanch the loss to create new models that really propel local communities and democracy forward in the 2020s.”

Doctor is looking to fill some of the news vacuum described in a recently published Boston Magazine piece, Chris Faraone, editor and co-publisher of DigBoston, wrote about the demise of journalism in Boston suburbs, even as larger news outlets like the Times and Post flourish. “Maybe you’re on Twitter, or you catch the nightly news, and have a pretty good take on the hot-button topics of the day: climate change, gun violence, impeachment, tariffs,” Faraone wrote. “You can even rattle off the names of at least the top half of the Democratic presidential field. But, for the sake of argument, do you think you could explain over cocktails what your local government has been up to lately? Or even who (and no cheating here) is charged with running your little part of the world?”

On Martha’s Vineyard, The Times is looking to continue its commitment to covering the news, the boards, and the issues that matter to the Island’s six towns.

As publishers, our jobs are to protect and expand The MV Times’ unique culture and quality,” Oberfest said. “We believe that Islanders value the voice of The Times on all our platforms, and will welcome the opportunity to share in this financial realignment with us.”

69 COMMENTS

  1. WAPO and NYT growing by leaps and bounds…wonder what will happen to them in 5 years when President Trump is no longer in office

    • Tq– I thought both of those publications were “failing”. Particularly, the new york times. Your president has for the last 3 years consistently referred to to them as “the failing New York Times”. And still does —
      And now, since it is obvious to even the most determined deniers of fact, you give trump credit for their success. What can a reasonable person do but laugh at such claptrap ?
      And to answer your question, WAPO and NYT will continue to thrive, as they report real news. I would not recommend buying stock in fox “news” after jan 2021.

      • Donx3…read the article…it states they’re thriving BECAUSE of President Trump…all the negative news libs love to read…anyway, I do wish you and your family a Happy and Safe Thanksgiving…be thankful and thank God (or in your case, some flying monster) for all you have and for just one day, put away all your hate and bitterness toward the President.

        • TQ– my my, someone thinks the WAPO and NY Times are thriving because people want real news about a corrupt president. Nice spin — But trump still refers to the NYT’s as “failing”. He’s either wrong, or he’s wrong, or perhaps, he’s just wrong. He and his supporters do have a tendency to give him credit for everything positive, and blame Hillary or Obama for everything negative.
          I trust this publication and have respect for the integrity of the editor and the staff. If I did not, I wouldn’t pony up $40 to read it. I suspect that is true of the readers of the papers mentioned above also.
          And thank you for your thoughts about the holiday season. Fortunately , trump has saved us from a liberal conspiracy to rename thanksgiving, and since he has single handedly won the war against Christmas, I can now wish you , with all sincerity, a merry Christmas. (note I even used a capital “C” )
          And “may the Appendage be with you” also. Ramen

    • I’m guessing that since “TQ” thinks Donald Drumpf has FIVE more years left, his name was an attempt at spelling “IQ”. Best wishes to the MV Times with this necessary change.

  2. We will continue to support the MV Times so that we can continue to have a community based newspaper. Besides, what will the complainers do without it??

    • Thank you. We appreciate the support. As a news outlet, we hope to give readers something to talk about — positive, negative and everything in between. Enjoy your Thanksgiving.

      • George — you realize you are quoting an OK Boomer anthem to advertise a story that is about raising prices and generating income — ironic. Same for whomever made this post. I think she must have meant it ironically. I support the new subscription model by the way. But making a cute headline using a hippie anthem about freedom and revolution and all the pablum of the 60s generation when in fact you are talking about profit-loss scenarios comes across to those who get the picture as more creepy crap from the generation that gave us the financial crisis, KKK warning, student debt, etc etc. Yes, the ACTUAL times changed. Not for the better. THE Martha’s Vineyard Times — IS changing for the better. Don’t be confused just to sell papers. That song meant something — a failed generation sang it with bleeding hearts.

        • I thought the headline and Gail’s comment were funny. Not sure how we got from there to the Klan. Since we’re quoting memes, that escalated quickly.

        • Younger generation has always been disdainful of the generation that came just before, the one that changed their poopy diapers. The Boomers thought the Greatest Generation were a bunch of old, capitalist, war-mongering fogeys who just didn’t get it. Don’t trust anyone over 30, they said. And the Greatest Generation tried as hard as they could to wipe clean any ethnic and foreign cultural vestiages of their immigrant parents that might still be making the offspring not appear white-bread-American. Boomers gave us the end of Viet Nam War, (incomplete) desegregation, and a political activism adopted by today’s youngest generation, to name only a few gifts from Boomers. Plus, they changed your diapers, lol.

          • They also left future generations with a 23 trillion dollar bill and no way to pay for it.

  3. Too bad. This new business model will sink the paper. In the internet age, someone will fill the void. With fewer subscribers and a fraction of the prior ‘circulation’ the ad revenue will dry up. I’d never click on an internet ad due to prior experiences with malware so unless your embed the ads, it will decline further. When the ‘other paper’ cut the Tuesday edition out and left the price the same, i let that one expire too. Also they leaned way too far left and would not post comments that differed from their narrative. We all have to adapt to change but I think this was a move in the wrong direction. Time will tell. Good luck (ps the Cape Cod times is not a model to emulated, and Gannet is good at doing one thing-losing subscribers by duplicating their editorial left wing slant using the same columnists OUT of the regions that subscribers paid for )

      • My CCT reference was the 5 article limit. That paper was DOA years ago. Just like the standard times of new bedford. Suggest you consider a lower price internet only subscription like the wall street journal does. You would then be able to keep a portion of your subscription base in order to keep advertising revenue. If i was an advertiser expecting a verified circulation that tanked, I’d expect proportionately lower ad rates as well. If there is nobody to read the ads, the ads will disappear and advertisers will simply move to another model, such as google adwords.

    • I’ll respectfully disagree as someone who spent a good chunk of his career at Cape Cod Times. The problem is it was GateHouse that implemented the paywall and then cut staff. It only stands to reason local news coverage suffered. That’s not what we’re doing. Our change is to continue providing the same level of robust local coverage Vineyarders have counted out since 1984. Thanks for your feedback.

  4. George, I have digital only subscriptions to the Boston Globe, New York Times, and Washington Post. Will there be a digital only option for the Times? I’d gladly pay 80 cents a week for a digital only subscription and save a few trees.

    • Yes, there will be and good news for you you’ll be paying slightly less than you’re glad to pay. You can purchase a subscription for $40 per year and that will give you unlimited access to the website. You can opt out of the print paper. Thank you so much for your support.

      • How do I opt out of receiving the printed copy…your new subscription form that keeps popping up doesn’t seem to allow that…I’ll gladly pay for the digital, but if I get the printed copy, also, I’m cancelling…thanks.

        • I’m working on getting you an answer. Thanks. Keep in mind this doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 2. Did you sign up under this email so I can alert our support team?

        • When you sign up, you’ll receive an email. Respond to that email saying you only want online access. Thank you.

  5. George, Since the Times will be putting up a paywall and hopefully catering to the tastes of its paying audience, may I have faith that you will be more tolerant of those paying for the right to write comments (only in good taste, even if not in line with the publishers’ political orientation) and the political views of those who keep the paper publishing its print edition?

  6. Those of us who have made use of the Times for all these years, as I have, have nothing to complain about. I just subscribed and am happy to support this newspaper that contributes importantly to our community.

    How do I opt out of the print paper? I didn’t see the option when I signed up.

  7. I think this is bad gamble. Many advertisers select your paper knowing it will be delivered to every mail box. With a paid subscription the number of readers might decrease by 30%. Your advertisers may abandon you.

  8. Well I guess the economy isnt so great is it. Newspapers run on advertising. Advertising must be down. It was nice while it lasted.

  9. I’m in with a subscription. When you say there’ll be a mailing label, where do you get the address? Is that a coming attraction? Keep up the fine reporting.

    • When you subscribe for the print paper, we’ll ask for your mailing address. Thanks for asking and your support.

  10. We dont know if the MV Times makes money or is break even or is subsidized by Oberfest. Reducing the print paper will save some variable cost but wont save office and sales and marketing/reporting overhead. If they get 10000 subscribers at 40 dollars per year they get 400k. Many people who use the internet for the MV Times who dont live here will continue to pay for the internet version and while we dont know how many there are, there could be many. That contribution will be significant and will offset the revenue from printed versions. Yes you could use lose some advertising revenue but if you still print say 8000 copies, Advertisers will not abandon and they still get showing in the digital copy. The reduction in variable cost against the increase in revenue from digital and not much loss if any from advertising says the model is a good one. The unknown is how many in the rest of the country and perhaps in other parts of the world who read the MV Times today will pay. I say Oberfest and Brennan think there is many.

    • I think you will be hard pressed to get a significant portion of the off islanders that Own or rent and care about island happenings. I am in that category. There are many other sources of information that are free. I’m afraid this is The beginning of the end. I hope I am wrong.

      • I am an off-Islander who just subscribed. My family comes in late July and stays until early Sept. We don’t own property but have rented the same house for several years. We have good friends on the Island and consider it our second home. We like staying connected throughout the year by reading the Times and happily pay to stay in touch with our “soul place.”

  11. I disagree with EdMedi. I live off-island, but own out there and look forward to the MV Times to tell me what is going on. I will pay for the subscription. TY

  12. George, your free copies were always promptly delivered to the local Island PO boxes on Thursdays, so any events for the weekend were noted in advance so plans could be made. I would be interested in what sort of time frame off-island papers would be delivered. My neighbor who is a seasonal resident reads your paper when on-island, but not home off island. Her complaint with the gazette delivery (off island ) was that it was never delivered in a timely fashion, and sometimes 3 issues would show up the same time, 2-3 weeks late. Its not the publisher’s fault, but it seemed to be traced to the ‘then’ bulk mail center in Providence RI and then another sorting facility on the cape. The answer from the bureaucrats at the USPS was that newspapers were not first class mail and they sorted/delivered when they felt like it due to the rate. So depending on where your publishing plant is…. what is the expectation of delivery to off-island subscribers? IF any readers here do receive the paper now off-island, what day do you receive the thursday paper?

    • Here’s an answer to your question about off-Island newspaper delivery from one of our in-house experts: “As many people know, our papers are printed off-Island. They were all trucked to the ferry on Thursday mornings, and we would mail our off-Island subscriptions from Vineyard Haven on Thursday afternoons. After January, our printer’s truck will make a stop at the Wareham post office and drop off the off-Island papers, and they will be sent from there. Yes, they will be second-class periodical mail, but our postal sources and printer tell us this should not result in any significant delay, given the one-day head start from off-Island. We certainly do not anticipate backlogs of several papers being mailed at once. They will go out promptly from Wareham, first thing in the morning on Thursdays. If anyone does have any issue receiving a paper, they should let us know immediately at mvtsubscriptions@mvtimes.com or 508-693-6110.”

  13. I received the paper today and it was a full three sections full of paid advertising. Plus an insert! I don’t understand how there isn’t money being made with this many ads being sold.

  14. Lemmings.Line up and follow.Subscribe now! Don’t think.Read the MV Times.Don’t think.Read it in the Times.

  15. The Vineyard would not be the same without the Times! I immediately subscribed but my mailing address was not asked for., however I am sure that detail will be worked on. Thanks for continuing to keep MV a special place

    • Thanks for your kind words. We are aware of that and it will be taken care of soon. We appreciate your support.

  16. All of the trolls are mad they will have to pay to post all of their negative comments. I am sure there are plenty of people willing to pay for local and well crafted reporting and I am one of them.

  17. As an advertiser for many years I’ve had extraordinary results for my business. I also advertise, less successfully, in the Gazette. I attribute it to the fact that the Times gets readers because it is free, while readers must pay for the Gazette. Sure there will be some who will pay, but many will not pay. You are causing me to examine other advertising resources. Won’t be long before either I say bye-bye or you say bye-bye to the island. A very disappointing turn of events.

  18. Maybe I should go off on a tangent about how horrible our current great president is before I leave my actual comment – which doesn’t even relate to the article or comment at hand ? But many feel the compulsion to do! Yeah…….. trolls?

  19. For many papers, this has become a vicious loop:

    1) The paper needs more money so it charges more.
    3) Readership drops, because “people willing to pay” are a smaller group than before, and some of them will decide to pay another paper. $40 is certainly cheap, but so is the Gazette ($41), the NYT ($52 for basic online), etc. Overall readership always drops significantly when papers begin to charge.
    4) This drop in readership makes the value of an ad go down–perhaps a bit, perhaps a lot. So unless the paper begins to charge less for ads–which rarely happens these days–then they’re selling a less-valuable product for the same cost. As a result, advertisers will, on average, take out fewer ads.
    5) The drop in ad sales makes the paper need more money.
    6) Back to #1.

    Some papers survive it; many don’t. I hope the Times is a survivor.

  20. Very clever. I hope you’re right. I’m not alone remembering the Grapevine coming on the scene. Was his name Gerry? I’m pretty sure. He was a character. He gave the Gazette fits. It was around the end of old Henry’s days as editor. Those were the days…

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