Reporting to you for 120 years

Posted June 17, 2009, at 9:33 p.m.

Few businesses that last 120 years, whether they are manufacturers, retailers or daily newspapers, can survive without adapting to changing technology.

Consider what you are reading right now.

Some of you are holding traditional newsprint, a product once black and white and text-heavy but now complemented with photographs and other graphic elements in vivid color. You might fold the pages into a sharp crease and scan for headlines that pique your interest. You might set it down and save the rest for later, or clip out a particular item to share with friends or family.

An ever-increasing number of you are probably reading this on your computer screen, scrolling and clicking away, perhaps at a more frenzied pace that befits your lifestyle. Instead of clipping an article, you might bookmark it in your Web browser or send a copy instantly via e-mail.

Online distribution of the BDN is an option that didn’t even exist less than a dozen years ago. It’s barely a blip on the 120-year history of the Bangor Daily News and yet, the company’s future almost certainly depends on it.

“The pace of change in the last few years has been very rapid and difficult to keep up with,” Richard J. Warren, the BDN’s fourth-generation publisher, said in a recent interview. “I think newspapers are going to be here, in a form, for a long time, but I also believe we need to think more about content as the focus and maybe de-livery as not as important as it once was.”

In other words, methods of distributing the product may continue to evolve, but the product itself will remain constant.

“People have an appetite for news, especially local news. It doesn’t matter how they get it,” said Mike Lange, executive director of the Maine Press Association. “And the Bangor Daily News has been providing local news as well as anyone for a long time.”

Click HERE for an interactive history timeline.

A brief history

The Bangor Daily News first rolled off the printing press on June 18, 1889. Thomas J. Stewart, a former shipping magnate and congressional candidate from New York, founded the paper and modeled it after the New York Herald, a well-known tabloid at the time.

Just one year later, Stewart died and his inexperienced sons took over. They ran the newspaper for about five years, when it appeared headed for an early demise.

That’s when J. Norman Towle, Warren’s great-grandfather, stepped in. Towle bought the BDN in 1895 and turned the struggling tabloid into a respected, hustling newsgathering operation.

Fast-forward four generations and countless historically significant moments later and the newspaper remains what it always has been: the publisher of the first draft of the area’s history.

Gerry Palmer, mayor of Bangor and a lifelong resident, grew up reading the BDN and even delivered the paper as a boy.

“A daily newspaper is and always will be essential to a city of Bangor’s size,” he said. “But, for me, it’s really a credit to the paper that it’s still locally owned.”

Warren, who is in his 25th year as publisher, didn’t work at the BDN growing up, not even on a paper route, because his parents didn’t want him to take a job away from someone else.

Newspapers found him anyway. While attending Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., Warren took a part-time reporting job at the Hartford Courant and stayed with the paper two and a half years after graduating.

“I had a ball,” he said. “I got to see a little bit of every department and really fell in love with newspapers.”

Warren moved back to Maine in 1971 and officially entered the family business. He succeeded his father as publisher in 1984, not long after the company’s first transition into the computer age.

The history of the Bangor Daily News might best be captured through the stories of those who called the company home. Kent Ward, a former employee who held nearly every editorial position at the paper and who still contributes an opinion column once a week, said working at a newspaper was the only thing he ever wanted to do.

“I couldn’t have picked a better place,” the 77-year-old Limestone native said. “But things have changed. I’m sure glad I worked for the paper when I did.”

News by a keystroke

Newsrooms of the early and mid-20th century, the Bangor Daily News included, featured a constant clack of typewriters, an abundance of coffee and a smoky haze.

Today, the coffee still flows freely, but smokers have to take it outside.

The biggest evolution, though, has been computers.

Ward said he remembers working in the Rockland bureau in the 1970s and flagging down truck drivers to deliver rolls of film to the Bangor office. Now, photographs can be sent instantly from a laptop and a wireless Internet signal.

Producing newspaper pages every day is still a laborious task, but it’s nothing like it used to be. No more hot lead metal typesetting. Instead, computers create pages that are printed in giant negatives. Taken one step further, a page on the Bangor Daily News Web site can be created rather easily and, more importantly, it can be continuously updated.

Todd Benoit, the BDN’s director of new media, essentially is in charge of the paper’s continual evolution. To put that in perspective, his job didn’t exist until about two years ago.

“What we’re finding through research is that people are coming to our Web site often for breaking news content,” he said recently. “But the print product still has more graphic impact and emotional quality that cannot be replicated online. I think we’ll continue to work to differentiate those two elements.”

Warren said he’s encouraged by the increasing popularity of the Bangor Daily News online, but added, “We’re still learning the Web.”

Mark Woodward, executive editor of the BDN since 1997, described the challenges facing all types of media as akin to building a plane while flying it.

“There is no guide for this,” he said.

While print circulation has declined in recent years, the Web version continues to grow steadily. The BDN’s current circulation is about 52,000 daily and 60,000 weekend. The BDN Web site now attracts more than 5 million page views per month.

In many ways, the BDN has weathered an economic storm and industry shift that has crippled other newspapers of its size across the country.

“Because of the challenges and certainly in spite of them, our newspaper has repeatedly risen to the occasion,” Woodward said.

Even with a smaller staff, the BDN still covers a geographic area that stretches across eight counties. Earlier this year, the Bangor Daily News even launched a weekly publication, the Midcoast Beacon in Knox and Waldo counties, to complement the Weekly, a free publication that is circulated to 40,000 homes in the Greater Bangor area.

Through it all, the BDN has managed to remain an independent, family-owned company since the late 19th century, something few newspapers its size can boast.

“We’ve had people in the past interested in acquiring the paper,” Warren said. “But there’s an advantage to the company and to the community of having local ownership.”

Into the future

The Bangor Daily News presses were rolling during the Great Fire of 1911 that wiped out nearly all of the city’s downtown. The paper broke news of legendary gangster Al Brady’s death by gunshot on a city street in 1937, coverage Mayor Palmer called one of the BDN’s finest moments because it distinguished the paper from its competition. Two years later, it chronicled then-12-year-old Donn Fendler and his nine days lost near Mount Katahdin. More recently, the Ice Storm of 1998, which crippled utilities across the state, nearly shut down operations at the paper — nearly.

History continues to be written on these pages. Earlier this year, the newspaper chronicled a piece of legislation that would allow gay couples the right to marry in Maine.

Candy Guerette, director of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, said the newspaper’s link to the past continues to stand out.

“Throughout the years, the paper has, in a sense, created the history,” she said. “Think about some of the things it has covered throughout the years. I wonder how you capture all that history with new technology.”

That’s a question Benoit and others are working to answer.

“We want to keep offering consumers, and advertisers, more and more choices,” he said, recognizing that advertisers are still the biggest source of revenue for news organizations.

Although the future of the newspaper industry is up for debate, Lange at the Maine Press Association said he’s optimistic even in difficult times.

“If every newspaper in Maine were to disappear and go to online only, you would still need people,” he said. “Maybe not press operators, but a computer can never do it alone.”

Warren, who has never been the kind of publisher to seek out publicity or praise for himself, didn’t hesitate when asked what he was most proud of during his 25 years as publisher.

“All of you people,” he said, referring to the BDN’s employees. “Being a newspaper publisher is probably as interesting and enjoyable a job as you could find. I’ve worked with some terrifically talented and bright people here.”

Added Woodward: “Just in the last few years, we’ve been named best paper in Maine, best medium-sized daily in New England and best news Web site in New England. That’s a testament to our staff and their ability to engage our readers.”

Warren, who is 64, said the question of the newspaper’s future is open. His daughter is a lawyer in Boston and would be the next in line to take over as publisher of the Bangor Daily News, if she chooses.

“But as my family didn’t with me, I would never put any undue pressure on her,” Warren said. “If that doesn’t materialize, we’ll just have to figure out what’s next.”

erussell@bangordailynews.net

990-8167

SEE COMMENTS →

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business

Similar Articles

More in State