There were two items on my calendar for November 20, 2019: An appointment at Tire Warehouse, and “Phoenix launch.”
As in Portland Phoenix, this newspaper. That week’s issue carried a column entitled “Bless the risk-takers,” meaning those, like the publisher of The Phoenix, who were committed to keeping quality local journalism alive. It was accompanied by a nice sketch of a guy with a balding oval head and flat smile.
Every two weeks since then I’ve been privileged to fill this space with a few hundred words that I hoped would be somehow helpful to you, and that were always helpful to me as I explored some new discovery, some unusual experience, some thought, some dream, some emotion, of which there has been plenty over the last few years.
The other day I decided for no clear reason that it was time to retire the column. So that’s what I’m doing today, with deep appreciation for those who gave me this space and those of you who took the time to read it.
In that first column in 2019 I wrote about how during most of a career in newspaper journalism I had steadfastly refused to write a column, even when told to do so. “I had nothing to say,” I wrote then, “and I couldn’t stand the narcissistic personal narrative types of columns that my colleagues wrote.”
When I became editor of a small magazine in 1998, I finally gave in and broke my column strike. Pretty soon I had so incensed an advertiser that he pulled all his advertising.
So I balked in 2019 when I was asked to write a regular column for The Phoenix. But I had the time, I love to write, I treasure journalism, and I am easily flattered, so I acquiesced.
I had only one condition: I did not want to be paid what had been offered by the publisher. I didn’t want to be paid at all. Starting a newspaper in 2019 was a high-risk venture, to say the least. Perhaps my donation would help in some small way to give the Phoenix a fighting chance.
I pointed out in that 2019 column that since 2004 one in five U.S. newspapers, mostly weeklies, had closed.
“With odds like these,” I wrote, “it takes guts to launch a new publication like the Portland Phoenix.” At that point, we were blissfully unaware that the world would lock down just a few months later, only deepening the challenge.
A headline in The Guardian in April of 2020 proclaimed, “US newspapers face ‘extinction level’ crisis as Covid-19 hits hard.”
Oh, and during the same time period American democracy, and democracies around the world, came under armed attack.
It’s during times like these that we need quality journalism more than ever, particularly on the local level, where, unfortunately, it is most challenging to operate a successful news business.
But the news just gets worse for local journalism.
In a report released by the Medill School of Journalism in June, “The State of Local News 2022,” researchers said, “Newspapers are continuing to vanish at a rapid rate. An average of more than two a week are disappearing.” At this point, since 2005, the U.S. has “lost more than a fourth of its newspapers (2,500) and is on track to lose a third by 2025,” according to the report.
So what? Consider this: “In communities without a credible source of local news,” the report warns, “voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at checkout.”
In Portland, unlike many small U.S. cities, local journalism, while it has certainly suffered, has managed to hang on. But it is far from out of danger.
All of us who care about freedom and democracy need to support local journalism in any way we can.
That’s why I told the publisher I didn’t want to be paid for this column. It was a small thing. But it was something.
Thanks for listening now and over the years. I hope to be back here from time to time. Stay safe.
Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.
We are saddened to report that this is the last column — for now — from our longtime contributor, Sandy Marsters. His thoughtful and eclectic ruminations have graced our Viewpoint pages since the beginning of the new Portland Phoenix.
We are grateful for this contribution, and hope that he will drop by to contribute his thoughts from time to time.
— Marian McCue