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Maine daily offers readers money-saving tips, with guarantee

Potential savings could net $1,000

By Jerry Harkavy
Associated Press / January 18, 2009
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LEWISTON, Maine - Amid tough economic times that are putting frugality back in fashion, this city's daily newspaper is taking on the mission of helping its readers save money - and it's backing up its words with a money-back guarantee.

Every day for six months, the Sun Journal is featuring a front-page box containing a penny-pinching tip that editors expect will add up to at least $1,000 in potential savings for each reader by the time the series concludes.

The initiative is the brainchild of Executive Editor Rex Rhoades, who is betting that subscribers will reap savings through the end of June that total at least twice the cost of their home-delivered paper.

To subscribers who don't meet that target, Rhoades is guaranteeing to refund the difference between the amount saved and the $97 subscription price, or even pay back the full cost to anyone who failed to save anything at all.

For years, some Sunday newspapers have trumpeted on their front page the amount readers could save by clipping the grocery coupons inside. More recently, as the recession deepened, newspapers and other media have been running more features targeted at trimming household spending, said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Edmonds, who characterized the Sun Journal's concept as original and clever, said he was unaware of other newspapers offering such a guarantee. Still, he predicts that Rhoades doesn't seem to have much to lose.

"I'm not foreseeing people by the hundreds or thousands demanding their money back," he said.

The series developed as the economy tanked and people grew increasingly fearful about losing their jobs. Thinking outside the box, Rhoades sought a fresh approach to what he was sure would be the biggest ongoing story of the year.

"We knew going into 2009 that this was going to get worse, not better, and we asked ourselves what we could do as a newspaper to help people through this crisis," he said.

There also was the fear that when times are bad, one potential way to cut expenses is to cancel the daily newspaper. So Rhoades sought to sell readers on the idea that buying the Sun Journal, which has a circulation of 31,000, can save them money.

The hope, he said, is that the series, titled "Tough People, Smart Money," will convince readers "that we've earned our keep in their household and they would not want to avail themselves of the money-back guarantee."

Thrift has long been second-nature to many folks in the newspaper's circulation area. Lewiston's long dependence on its textile mills and shoe shops has given way to a more diverse economy. Still, the state's second-largest city has pockets of deep poverty - Maine's poorest census district is a block or so from the newspaper office - and some of the outlying areas of the Sun Journal's territory are hardscrabble towns where rural poverty is endemic.

The money-saving tips, which appear daily under a logo featuring the top half of a $100 bill and the series title, are offered by Sun Journal staff members, local businesses and readers, who are invited to e-mail their suggestions.

"It isn't just us helping our readers, it's our readers helping each other," said Managing Editor Judy Meyer. "We've gotten tips every day from readers, and we're just starting out."

One of the more offbeat ideas this past week was for people who dye their own hair to share with a mother, sister or friend who uses the same color to dye because one box will do two heads. That translates to a savings of $4.50 per month.

That was followed by a hint to replace the roller of a window shade, rather than the whole shade, if the spring breaks (at least a $13.05 saving), and a recipe for homemade laundry detergent, which can save $16.90 over six months.

The tips, which Meyer puts together, are only part of the series.

The Sun Journal has assigned its senior reporter, Bonnie Washuk, to a new full-time beat focusing on ways to make it through hard times.

"What makes Bonnie perfect for the project is that she's been through a lot of this herself," Meyer said. In her story introducing readers to her new beat, Washuk recalled scrimping after a divorce to raise three teenagers and put them all through college.

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