Why East Bay Newspapers is starting a weekly in Portsmouth

Don’t tell the owners of East Bay Newspapers their industry is dying.

The Bristol-based chain has launched a new free weekly, the Portsmouth Times, in the crowded Aquidneck Island media market. A 40-page first edition was published last Thursday, with an initial print run of 3,000 copies distributed at about 150 locations.

The Times joins EBN’s six other papers: the Barrington Times, the Warren Times-Gazette, the Bristol Phoenix, the East Providence Post, the Sakonnet Times and the Westport Shorelines.

“It’s nice after various years of contraction to be starting something new,” Scott Pickering, EBN’s general manager, told WPRI.com.

Portsmouth isn’t new territory for East Bay Newspapers: the company’s Sakonnet Times has covered the town, along with Little Compton and Tiverton, for 47 years. But Pickering said the company recently decided Portsmouth needed its own paper, though it will share regional stories with the Sakonnet Times.

“We were beginning to see signs that we were losing ground in terms of readers and advertising support,” Pickering said. “We felt we needed a better product. … We felt like we need to be really good if we want to compete.”

Portsmouth residents don’t lack for local news outlets: the town is covered by the daily Newport Daily News, the weekly Newport This Week and one of AOL’s Patch sites. “It’s a great place to be, but it’s also the most competition any of our papers faces,” Pickering said.

Pickering said the company is looking to build the Portsmouth Times’ circulation to 4,000 under the leadership of editor Jim McGaw, who was transferred from another position. (McGaw’s old job is being filled, so one job is being added.)

East Bay’s move comes as billionaire investor Warren Buffett is making headlines for his optimism about the future of local news.

“Newspapers continue to reign supreme … in the delivery of local news,” Buffett wrote in his annual shareholder letter. “If you want to know what’s going on in your town – whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football – there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job.”

“I believe that papers delivering comprehensive and reliable information to tightly-bound communities and having a sensible Internet strategy will remain viable for a long time,” Buffett added.

Pickering agreed. “There’s a risk in anything – adding more staff, a larger print bill, internal operations to support it, resources,” he said. “But … this isn’t a blind leap of faith. We think that it can work, and it feels good, absolutely, to be going in a different direction.”

John McDaid, the veteran Portsmouth blogger who writes Hard Deadlines, praised the Times’ first edition. “I picked mine up yesterday at Clements, and it’s got great local coverage,” he wrote Friday. “This is a welcome addition to the local media landscape.”

The Portsmouth Times joins EBN’s East Providence Post as the company’s only two free newspapers. Pickering said the Post’s transition from paid to free two years ago “basically quadrupled the circulation.” The company still offers all its stories free online but charges for the electronic editions of its papers.

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