Camden’s most vital voice is silenced

Posted Nov. 21, 2008, at 5:16 p.m.

The year was 1869.

It was only four years since Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. U.S. Grant was in Obama’s house, The Suez Canal was opened and the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in Utah. Rutgers and Princeton held the first collegiate football game. Rutgers won, 6-4, although Princeton was favored.

There is nothing new under the sun. Goldman Sachs was created and the first Wall Street panic was marked by closing half the banks in New York. Thomas Alva Edison created the mechanical stock ticker to keep track of the mayhem. Both Campbell’s soup and Heinz ketchup went into production.

It was the year that William H. Berry established the Camden Herald.

The horrible newspaper news continues. First the Christian Science Monitor drops its paper edition in favor of the Internet. Now the Camden Herald, 139 years old, is closing its doors.

It will be hard to imagine Camden without its Herald. Since 1869, it has recorded the area’s birth and deaths, graduations and marriages, murders and robberies, along with such mundane matters as lawn sales and club meetings.

When I rolled into town around 1971, the Herald was on Bay View Street and had a classic linotype machine in the front window. It looked like a movie set.

Although I had worked for a daily newspaper in Gloucester, Mass., I was turned down for a reporter’s job by the estimable Mike Brown, the editor who was about to gain fame in his epic battle against the poultry plants when he moved to Belfast a few years later.

I am one of the few people in Maine who likes Mike, and he told me years and years later, “I was a damned if I was going to hire some long-haired hippie, driving a BMW with a McGovern sticker on it.”

Fair enough.

Instead I got 30 years of steady paychecks from the Bangor Daily News.

It was hard to keep track of the editors of the Camden Herald. Everyone in town tried it. Even Kenny Bailey, the Fence Viewer.

I thought the classic and classy Jane Day fit the town and paper the best. She turned out a classy paper every week and won lasting fame (with Sandra Haimala) for running a front-page picture of the selectmen. On the bottom of the page was a Neal Parent photo of sheep huddled together in a barn.

Somehow, the cutlines for the pictures were transposed, identifying the selectmen (now Select Board) as “lost, huddling together from the storm,” or words to that effect. I have poured gallons of drinks for the late Day and Haimala, and neither would ever admit it was done on purpose.

Editor Day had the good taste to hire Parent, a refugee from Cape Cod, to work in the production department. As I heard the story, Day handed Parent a camera one day and told him to go take a picture for Page 1.

He did it and did it for years, making the Camden schooner fleet as recognizable to many Camden residents as their own children. Newspaper photographers come and go. But there are few artists among their number. Parent and Leo Chabot, who labored for the BDN, have earned that designation.

Parent now sells his photos at a tony studio in Belfast. Some have commented that he is selling the same pictures that he took for the Herald, 30 years ago. He swears that some of them are new.

For a while, the Herald was owned by a New York corporation which counted Walter Cronkite among its members. Cronkite attended a company party aboard the old John Wannamaker tugboat in Camden Harbor. The new owners were so delighted that they paid for an open bar for employees and half the town. Cronkite said later, “That was the first time I went to a New Year’s Eve party in August.”

I have not seen every weekly in Maine. But Camden was always a unique town with its influx of flatlanders mixing with the locals. It was a mill town, but dressed in a ball gown, its fabulous harbor. The Camden Herald did as good a job as any in reflecting the quality and character of its town. It is now another bitter casualty in the newspaper business.

Speaking of bitter, listen to the deposed editor, David Grima.

“The Herald was created in 1869, the same year the Elm Street School next door to our office was built. I swear I never thought the school would last longer than the Herald, but I was wrong.

“I worked there almost 10 years, the last four as editor, and had a wonderful time. We were a truly independent voice, even if we were owned by out-of-staters. If you want to be loved, join a therapy group or get a puppy. But if what you’ve got in your hands is an honest-to-God local newspaper, then for pity’s sake use it as a newspaper should be used, and do the job your readers and advertisers pay you to do.

“A proper newspaper is not primarily intended to be nice. It has to have bite and bark. It has to be largely fearless, too, and definitely unpredictable. Readers need to pick it up at the newsstand each week not knowing quite what to expect but eager to find out. In other words, a good local paper ought to resemble a beautiful half-wild animal far more than it resembles a tame house pet.

“I am truly sorry that it has been decided that Camden no longer deserves its own newspaper. It could always afford it, and it has supported it for 139 years. The real Herald did not disappear last week, it disappeared in June 2008. I sure miss it, but at least it is now out of its agony,” Grima said.

139 years. As old as Heinz Ketchup.

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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