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One Paper on the Rebound

TO survive in today's hostile economic environment, newspapers have to change with the times, analysts say. They have to work harder to deliver a product that appeals to their readers.

One newspaper that has taken this lesson to heart is the Press Herald in Portland, Maine. This mid-sized morning newspaper was hard hit by the recession. It went into the red, and its Portland-based sister publication, the Evening Express, was shut down. Thirty workers, out of a total of 161, were laid off.

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The Press Herald, which is owned by a small, local company, responded to economic adversity with a major redesign called "Editorial Directions." The features of this redesign are similar to those undertaken by the Los Angeles Times and other innovative newspapers.

* The layout and typography were altered to make the newspaper easier to read. Color was added to the front page. The Press Herald has since won two awards from the Society of Newspaper Design.

* A "layering" strategy was adopted to better serve readers. Brief summaries were added at the beginning of stories to make them more accessible to "browsing" readers. For another layer of readers, there are typical newspaper articles, about 10 to 15 column inches in length. And for a third layer, the in-depth readers, the Press Herald runs lengthy investigative series.

* Renewed emphasis was put on high-quality journalism - the "heart and soul of a newspaper," according to Executive Editor Lou Ureneck. Local reporters were given more latitude to write analytical and interpretative articles. One of the results was an award-winning series that led to changes in Maine's troubled workers-compensation system.

The Press Herald is still not profitable. But it is no longer running a deficit. And company president James B. Shaffer expects it to become profitable again soon. "Things would have been much worse [financially] were it not for the customer-focused journalistic innovations implemented by Lou [Ureneck]," he says.

Other signs are even more hopeful for the Press Herald. Weekday circulation, now at 72,000, is starting to rebound from the closing of the Evening Express. Sunday circulation, now at 145,000, has increased by several thousand.

And the Press Herald was recently named New England Newspaper of the Year by the New England Newspaper Association.

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"We're a leaner company and a better newspaper," says Mr. Ureneck. "We're doing something that others can learn from. Every newspaper has to find its own answers, but we've found a formula that works in Portland."

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