ROCKLAND, Maine — The former employees at Village NetMedia’s office in Rockland were packing their belongings Monday, saying farewells to longtime friends and colleagues and filling out online applications for unemployment benefits.
The sign on the door to the Village Soup offices in Rockland had a closed sign as workers spent their final day in the newspaper office following the announcement Friday evening by owner Richard Anderson that he was ceasing operations immediately of all four weekly newspapers and the online news site. Fifty-six employees lost their jobs.
The papers included the VillageSoup Gazette in Rockland, the Village Soup Journal in Belfast, the Bar Harbor Times in Bar Harbor, and the Capital Weekly in Augusta as well as VillageSoup.com.
David Grima, team leader for the state’s CareerCenter rapid response team, met Monday with the laid-off employees at the Rockland office. Grima said he was able to offer the people some advice based on his own experience. Grima had been editor of the weekly Camden Herald until June 2008 when Village NetMedia purchased the Herald along with other newspapers previously owned by Courier Publications. He lost his job in that acquisition.
“It’s been an enormous help. I’m not just reading out of a book, I’ve experienced it and can tell them that there is life after unemployment,” Grima said.
He provided them information on how to apply for unemployment benefits, which the staff got busy doing on the computers at work before they left for the last time. The laid-off workers should receive their first unemployment checks in three weeks, he said. The maximum amount of unemployment benefits is $366 per week plus $10 per week for every dependent if the other spouse is not working.
The workers also were informed about training opportunities available and how to go about applying for new jobs. He said several people had already expressed interest in getting training to become certified nursing assistants. He said there is a great need for more CNAs in the state.
“Health care is the one occupation that has grown during the recession,” Grima said.
For Dagney Ernest, the arts and entertainment editor for Village NetMedia, it was a somber day. Ernest had started writing reviews for The Courier-Gazette of Rockland in 1985 and came on as a full-time employee on Memorial Day 1996.
“The Courier has been a big part of my life. This has been the only and I expect the last newspaper job I will ever have,” Ernest said.
She said besides the loss of jobs for her friends and co-workers she expressed concern about the loss of historical information and papers with the closure of the papers.
Anderson said that The First bank, based in Damariscotta, owns all the assets of the company including the archives, books and old photographs. He said he doubts they have any interest in keeping them but does not expect they will destroy those records. There are more than 20 years worth of newspapers at the office building, along with microfilm going back to 1846 and a file cabinet of old photographs.
A telephone message was left for The First’s President and CEO Daniel Daigneault. It was not returned by midafternoon Monday.
As workers were carrying their belongings to their cars and trucks in the parking lot, Bonnie Fish of Hope, a longtime reader of The Courier-Gazette and its successors, said she was shocked with the announcement. She said everyone she has run into over the weekend has been talking about the closure of the newspaper.
The Courier-Gazette was founded in 1846, The Republican Journal in 1829, the Bar Harbor Times in 1914, and the Capital Weekly in 1996.
“Where do we put our announcements?” Fish asked, handing over a copy of a series of dances scheduled for the Masonic Hall in Union.
Inside the Village NetMedia offices on Monday, Anderson said he had been negotiating with a group of investors for four to six weeks to help keep the company operating, but that even though both The First and the investors were coming close, they could not reach an agreement and Friday afternoon he made the decision to cease operations. He said there was simply not enough money to meet the next payroll and he would not ask people to work and then not be paid.
Anderson said he feels terrible about the outcome and its effect on so many people. He said he was even more frustrated because he felt that the change in the format of the papers on Dec. 1 — to focus more on analysis and in-depth stories not seen before online — was well received by readers and advertisers. He said circulation had begun to rebound.
Anderson started his online community center in 1997 and expanded to open two newspapers — the Knox Couty Times in Rockland in 2003 and Waldo County Citizen in 2004 in Belfast. He closed those papers upon acquiring The Courier-Gazette, The Camden Herald, the Bar Harbor Times and The Capital Weekly in July 2008. He also closed the Waldo Independent upon its purchase in 2008.
The Village NetMedia founder said he paid a reasonable price for the papers in 2008, although he declined to say how much.
“Nobody did anything wrong,” he said.
He said there were seven newspapers in the Rockland to Belfast market and even in the good economic times when he made the purchase, the local population and advertisers could not support that many newspapers.
He said the economic recession resulted in the loss of 45 percent of real estate and automobile advertising for the company. He said the papers were not able to recover adequately from this new financial reality.
“The [media] industry is struggling worldwide. The entire industry is trying to figure out how to sustain professional journalism,” Anderson said.
He said he expects some other company or group will move into the market but said it needs to be quick to get the news staff before they get other jobs. He said he expects newspaper companies in Bangor or Lewiston will look to move into the market.
The only asset left from Village NetMedia is the former printing plant on Gordon Drive in Rockland as well as the possessions within the 301 Park St. headquarters in Rockland, which is valued by the city of Rockland at $401,200. The printing plant was closed July 5, 2011. The Park Street building was sold for $500,000 on Jan. 13 to Knox County, which plans to expand its public safety offices to the building.