Coverage of viral Stephen King story overlooks layoffs

Downtown Portland, Maine, at dusk

It was “a Stephen King story with a happy ending”—a sentiment shared by many on Twitter as well as by Lisa DeSisto, chief executive of MaineToday Media and the publisher of the Portland Press Herald. Last week, after the Press Herald announced plans to cut its freelance budget for book reviews, the Maine Writers and Publishers Association gently petitioned the paper “to help correct this unfortunate decision.” The petition had attracted a relatively small number of supporters, but the sentiment took off when King, the famed horror author and Maine resident, shared the news with his 5 million Twitter followers:

The Press Herald responded with a challenge: If King could get 100 followers to buy a subscription, then book reviews would stay. Thousands of the retweets later, the Press Herald had blown past its goal and saved its freelance reviews budget. The effort attracted coverage from outlets including The New York Times, the AP, and numerous other outlets.

The story seemed a bright spot in a week that included massive layoffs at the Dallas Morning News (including veteran books editor Michael Merschel) and reports that the so-called “vulture capitalist” hedge fund behind Digital First Media might acquire control of Gannett. Coverage of the Press Herald, however, overlooked something else happening at the paper’s office at the same time King and others rallied to save the book-reviews budget: layoffs.

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As of Thursday, the Press Herald counted 275 new subscriptions from 26 different states that it traced to King’s effort. Those subscriptions “turned what was otherwise a sad day at our office into something that people felt hopeful about,” DeSisto tells CJR.

In the newsroom, however, staff were less upbeat. “To say that King’s tweet was rubbing salt in the wound would be an understatement, because of his reach and influence on social media,” Randy Billings, who covers Portland’s city hall for the paper, says. Billings describes a “backlash,” in which some readers responded to the book cuts with threats to cancel subscriptions—a move that might have exacerbated the forces behind the cuts. What papers need, says Billings, is more direct financial support—a fact that he felt the ad hoc subscription drive highlighted.  

While those new subscriptions were a kind response from the community, and did save local book review coverage for now, they didn’t save the jobs of those who were laid off Friday.

When Christian MilNeil saw what was happening online after he had been laid off, his first reaction was, “Seriously, Stephen King?” MilNeil had spent seven years working on data journalism for the paper before his position was cut, along with those of five other full-time union employees. (One was immediately rehired to backfill another position.) “What do you expect a newspaper to do?” he says. “A lot of people, a lot of readers, treat newspapers as a public utility that should provide arts coverage and local news coverage, and all of these things that people, frankly, take for granted.”

MilNeil remains a strong supporter of the paper. Like Billings, he is sympathetic to the way the Press Herald underscored that readers need to pay in order to get the kind of coverage they expect. He didn’t mention his layoff publicly until Monday, after the subscription goal had been met. (A few staff members mentioned the layoffs on Friday, but the tweets were not seen widely.) Only then—after the King story had gone viral and attracted national media attention, with no mentions of other cuts—did MilNeil post something on Twitter about having been let go. To some, that additional context made the story suddenly look very different.

“It’s total BS for @PressHerald bosses to do a victory lap on new subscribers when they’re firing people at the same time,” tweeted Mike Shepherd, a political reporter at The Bangor Daily News, Maine’s second-largest paper. Shepherd, who declined to be interviewed for this story, also called for reporters to note the layoffs in their coverage.  

DeSisto says the Times did not ask about additional cuts, and adds that it didn’t make sense to put out a press release announcing that MaineToday was laying off what amounts to 1.5 percent of its workforce. Two of the six people who were cut—MilNeil and graphic artist Pete Gorski—worked in the Press Herald’s 70-person newsroom. “The story was about how we leveraged this tweet to rally support for the community,” DeSisto says.

Those who review books for the Press Herald appeared more concerned with the overall health of the paper rather than the potential loss of a paycheck.

“My first reaction was alarm and sadness—that the PPH had had to make this decision at all, and for the decline of print media in general,” Kate Christensen, the PEN/Faulkner award-winning novelist who lives in Portland and occasionally reviews books for the paper, says. “I wasn’t surprised, since this seems to be the direction things are going, so I assumed it was a financial decision pure and simple—the arts are always vulnerable.”

Reade Brower, who owns the Press Herald along with nearly every newspaper in Maine except for BDN, continues to consolidate the state’s papers under his ownership, having acquired two more regional weeklies just last summer. And while the Press Herald doesn’t have overwhelming obligations to shareholders or other investors, the comparatively small round of layoffs still raises concerns over the future.

“While those new subscriptions were a kind response from the community, and did save local book review coverage for now, they didn’t save the jobs of those who were laid off Friday, or secure any more jobs in the future,” Mary Pols, who left her position as features writer at the paper in January to edit Maine Women Magazine, which is also owned by MaineToday, says. “For that, maybe we need someone with a megaphone as big as Stephen King’s to let people know the whole paper is worth fighting for. It is.”

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Willy Blackmore is a freelance journalist who covers food, culture, and the environment. He lives in Maine.