For the first time in nearly 200 years there will be no locally produced news in Belfast this week. That sorry state should not last long; indeed, promising signs are poking through the ground like early daffodils.
Belfast has a rich history of newspapering, especially recently. In the last 26 years we’ve gone from one profitable paper to two competitive papers to three struggling papers to one-and-a-half papers (the Journal-owned Independent was just a shell of its former self) to one paper. Now there are none, and that’s unacceptable.
That there should be a paper in Waldo County’s shiretown has always made good sense. During the 1990s, then the Journal and Independent were banging away at each other, total revenues were well over $1 million annually and circulation was more than 12,000. Often, the two papers had more than 90 combined pages of news and ads. The two bottom lines weren’t anything to brag about, but if one of them could finally beat the other, what profits there might be!
Well, we were back to one paper until this week and the profits that should go to a monopoly were debts instead. All of us can speculate about how that happened. Rich Anderson blames the discouraging media business and a bad economy. Maybe partially, I’d say, though Reade Brower of the Free Press might disagree. Some might point to the debt Anderson acquired along with the Courier papers. Again, partially, perhaps.
As one who helped launch a successful paper, the Waldo Independent, against imposing competition 26 years ago, I think the failure of Village Soup lies in a misunderstanding of what people expect from community journalism and how to provide that cost effectively.
A reader should pick up, or click on, their local news source because they expect to find things they had no idea were going on. I don’t mean lofty, intellectual things. I mean real stuff — how schools are dealing with discipline, whether the new re-entry center is working out, why athenahealth keeps expanding. That’s for starters. And, of course, the cops and court news, letters to the editor and a calendar of events, too.
The committed reader knows the paper/website takes positions on issues that matter, endorses candidates, is a player in the community debate, even rants occasionally. The person who thinks they will stop subscribing because of one editorial might rave about the next. It’s an engagement process that benefits the reader, the community and the paper’s bottom line
This enterprise has to be lean and swift, too. I used to talk with a former owner of the Journal occasionally and he would tell me we must be losing money because he measured our ad lineage and figured there was no way we were keeping up with him. I looked at him and said one reason we were is that there was no one like him at the Independent. And there wasn’t a treasurer or a human resources director or a paid adviser or an outside board of directors. Everyone at the Independent helped put out the paper each week, hands-on. And we delivered it, too.
To me, community news is fresh, tasty, even a bit piquant. It is best delivered by people who are both exhausted and fired up by doing it. If you’re weary and beaten down and beset by uncertainties, as I’d guess the Village Soup employees were, you might as well forget it.
Out of that malaise, though, something new will soon rise. I, for one, can’t wait.
Jay Davis edited both the Journal and the Independent and was senior reporter for Village Soup before retiring in 2009. He and Tim Hughes published the History of Belfast in the 20th Century in 2002.