A View from the Hill: Bless the risk-takers

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My first job in journalism was as a reporter at the York County Coast Star, a muckraking weekly newspaper in Kennebunk. The crusty editor, Sandy Brook, told me that all his reporters wrote weekly columns in addition to their other duties – writing dozens of stories, a weekly editorial, and even helping to collate the newspaper on publication day.

I did the other stuff, even covering high school sports (about which I knew nothing), but steadfastly refused to write a column, ever, for the five years I was there. I was a kid, I had nothing to say, and I couldn’t stand the narcissistic personal narrative types of columns that my colleagues wrote. Now who was crusty?

I avoided column writing until, as managing editor at the Journal Tribune in Biddeford and later as editor and co-founder of the boating rag Points East, it became necessary to communicate directly with my readers. So I held my nose and did it.

One column at the magazine so infuriated a regular advertiser that he pulled his ads, returning only after we had sold the publication and I was gone.

I actually kind of liked that.

So earlier this fall, when my longtime friend and colleague Mo Mehlsak, now the managing editor of the Portland Phoenix, suggested I write a biweekly column for this newspaper, I feigned indifference, strung him along for a while, had a very nice conversation with Editor Marian McCue – and signed on.

There was little risk for me, and lots of opportunity to weed the garden of local news, meet some new people, and sit back while others did all the hard work.

Of course there is also opportunity for those invested in this newspaper, along with oodles of risk. The last couple of decades have not been kind to newspapers, in case you hadn’t heard. Last year, newspaper circulation reached its lowest level since 1940, according to the Pew Research Center.

Since 2004, one fifth of newspapers, mostly weeklies, have closed, according to the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism. Across the country 7,100 weeklies and dailies remain in print (make that 7,101 with the rise of the Phoenix), but many of those were “ghost newspapers,” shadows of their former selves, stripped of staff and bleeding readers.

The Journal Tribune, where I spent the bulk of my career, closed for good a few weeks ago after a 135-year run. Gone.

With odds like these, it takes guts to launch a new publication like the Portland Phoenix. But the Phoenix is not alone.

Bill Wasserman, who built the North Shore Weeklies chain of about a dozen community newspapers in Massachusetts beginning in 1958, and sold them in 1986, was ticked off when the most recent owners in Japan shut down the Ipswich Chronicle. So ticked that he recently started his own publication, The Ipswich Local News, which, like the Phoenix, is free. Wasserman, in his 90s, consults for the newspaper and sells advertising.

In his Media Nation blog, Northeastern University School of Journalism Associate Professor Dan Kennedy (who once worked at the Boston Phoenix) wrote, “The crisis in local news won’t be solved all at once. Rather, it will be solved community by community as entrepreneurial-minded journalists seek to fill the gaps left behind by corporate-owned chain newspapers.”

Kennedy cited among those trying to buck the trend McCue and Portland Phoenix publisher Karen Wood; Wasserman; Jenn Lord Paluzzi (sounds so regal!) of the Grafton, Mass. (where I spent my childhood) Grafton Common weekly; and Editor Edward Millar and Publisher Teresa Parker, who launched the Provincetown, Mass., Independent last month.

Bless the risk-takers, not just in journalism, but in every place and profession where independence, honesty, decency and the value of community are celebrated. I’m grateful to be a tiny part of it.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist, and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.