When the largest daily newspaper in Maine decided it was going to stop publishing regional book reviews, it caused an uproar among local writers — one local writer in particular.
Stephen King, the best-selling author from Bangor, Me., complained on Twitter that the newspaper was taking away the publicity that local writers depend on “to buy bread and milk” and called on his more than five million followers to take action.
“Retweet this if you’re from Maine (or even if you’re not),” he tweeted on Friday. “Tell the paper DON’T DO THIS.”
The newspaper, The Portland Press Herald, promptly responded with a challenge: If Mr. King could get his followers to buy 100 digital subscriptions, it would bring back the local reviews.
The exchange took off on social media as The Press Herald led a campaign to get readers to subscribe. “We’d be willing to bet a retweet by @StephenKing would get us over the threshold,” the newspaper tweeted on Saturday morning.
“Sales pitch? Blackmail?” Mr. King wrote back. “Either way, 71 people have subscribed so far. Are there 29 more Twitterheads out there who want to ante up? Just asking.”
Subscriptions came pouring in from across the country.
By Sunday, The Press Herald had doubled its goal, with about 200 new subscriptions in less than 48 hours, Lisa DeSisto, chief executive of MaineToday Media, which publishes The Press Herald, said on Sunday. The newspaper pledged to continue the reviews of books about Maine or by Maine authors.
“It’s a Stephen King story with a happy ending,” Ms. DeSisto said, echoing a sentiment expressed on social media after the widely shared tweet by Mr. King, who is known for his horror writing.
But the exchange also highlighted the financial pressures facing local newspapers, which have been hit hard by cuts.
The number of newspaper journalists across the country dropped by nearly half from 2008 to 2017, according to the Pew Research Center. Last week, The Dallas Morning News laid off 20 journalists, and The East Bay Express, an alternative weekly newspaper in the Bay Area that gained national acclaim for its 2016 exposé of a police sex scandal, laid off almost its entire editorial staff.
As The Press Herald assessed its finances for 2019, an editor sent a notice to freelance writers who wrote the regional book reviews, informing them that the newspaper could no longer fund their work. “Like many newspapers, we had to make some tough decisions on what we could continue to support,” Ms. DeSisto said.
But local writers immediately — and vocally — lamented the decision.
“Local coverage in the largest circulation newspaper in the state is crucial to them and their publishers,” said Joshua Bodwell, executive director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. His organization started a petition asking the newspaper to reconsider its decision and also contacted Mr. King, who could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
Members of the staff at The Press Herald spotted Mr. King’s Twitter post within minutes, Ms. DeSisto said, and quickly put together a promotional deal that offered a 12-week subscription for just $15. The promotion codes — “King” and “Carrie” — were an ode to the author and his breakthrough horror novel.
“This deal is scary good,” Ms. DeSisto wrote on Twitter.
While some criticized the newspaper for offering to reinstate the book reviews only in exchange for subscriptions — “The word ‘blackmail’ was used,” Mr. Bodwell said — Ms. DeSisto credited her employees for asking the community to pay for the journalism they want.
“Look, we didn’t want to cut it either,” she said. “We needed to be more direct about the challenges we’re having and we needed their support.”
Mr. Bodwell said he was glad the subscription challenge would support the book reviews for now, but he called for more community collaboration going forward. Since last week, he too had raised money — enough to buy ads in the newspaper that would pay for local book reviews for about a year, he said.
“We tried to positively rally the community around the cause,” he said. “The newspaper listened. The newspaper responded. That’s kind of a perfect outcome.”
For champions of local journalism, it didn’t hurt that one of Maine’s most famous authors weighed in.
“It’s encouraging many Mainers & others have subscribed to help save local book reviews. But, seriously, folks, the chief reason to read your local newspaper is you need local news,” Steve Collins, a reporter for The Sun Journal, a newspaper in Lewiston, Me., tweeted.
“Imagine a Maine where you know nothing about anything that goes on,” he said. “That’s a real horror story.”