BIDDEFORD, Maine — The mayor worries for his city because the local newspaper, the Journal Tribune, ended its 135-year run Saturday. The superintendent of the schools isn’t sure how he will tell the community what’s happening inside its classrooms. The head of the local food pantry is in mourning; he turned to the paper when his organization was about to be kicked out of its building.
The three city leaders are distressed. That said, none of them was subscribing to the paper when it published its last issue.
That paradox is at the heart of the Journal Tribune’s closure, and it also helps to illustrate the troubles that have beset the nearly 2,000 papers nationwide that have closed in the past 15 years. Local newspapers have long been seen as the everyday workhorses of a functioning democracy, but in some cities, such as Biddeford, they had been decimated years before they finally closed, referred to as “ghost newspapers” by researchers at the University of North Carolina. According to a 2018 study, a third of the papers that died in the last decade had been chronically ill for years, drastically cutting reporters and content long before the presses stopped for good.
“Like the frog in slowly boiling water, few people in the community noticed anything different at first,” the researchers wrote.
The announcement in Biddeford that Saturday would be the paper’s final day was met with heartbreak from some readers. But others greeted the news with a mixture of resignation and nostalgia about what the paper had been, decades earlier.
“I remember the paper always being central to our lives in terms of information,” said Mayor Alan Casavant, a lifelong resident of Biddeford. Casavant’s parents subscribed; he read the comics as a child and worked his way up to the political stories by high school. When he was elected to the City Council straight out of college, there were typically three local reporters, from multiple papers, at every council meeting, he said. Afterward, they would crowd around to ask follow-up questions. But these days, Casavant gets his news elsewhere.
“I had a subscription to the Journal that expired maybe a year or so ago,” Casavant said. The mayor pointed to the vicious cycle that has trapped many local papers: declining revenue means papers have to cut staff and budgets, which means fewer original stories, which means readers don’t want to pay, which means budgets have to shrink even further.
“The truth is, the paper has been on its deathbed for years now,” said Mo Mehlsak, a business reporter and editor at the Journal from 1984 to 2004.
The same ailments that have afflicted hundreds of newspapers nationwide came for the Journal Tribune, too: massive cuts in print advertising, with Google and Facebook soaking up the majority of digital ad spending; declining interest among local readers, who can easily subscribe to national papers or browse free news and social media online; and corporate owners relentlessly consolidating small papers.
The Journal Tribune was part of a network of media companies — Masthead Maine — owned by Reade Brower. Brower, who made his fortune with a direct-mail company, owns every daily newspaper in the state aside from the Bangor Daily News, as well as more than two dozen weekly papers.
The Journal Tribune’s print circulation had fallen to around 2,000, though the paper covered the cities of Biddeford and Saco, with a joint population of about 40,000. It’s not clear what the paper’s peak circulation was, though Sandy Marsters, who worked at the paper in various roles between 1980 and 1995, including as managing editor, said staffers from the time recall that it was as high as 15,000 in 1990. Although the online version of the paper had reached a record of slightly more than 350,000 total page views in July, there wasn’t much money to be made that way.
“Despite efforts to reduce expenses and grow revenue, we have not been able to make the Journal Tribune profitable,” Masthead Maine chief executive Lisa DeSisto this month. Six staff members will be laid off; several others will join other Brower-owned papers.
Part of the problem is that area residents aren’t paying for, or even reading, the paper.
Emilee Burgess, a 29-year-old floral designer who grew up in Saco, remembered the thrill of seeing her picture on the front page of the Journal Tribune as a child. But these days, she gets news from Apple on her iPhone, filtering for “New England” for local stories. Burgess was working one recent afternoon on her laptop at Elements, a chic coffee shop on Main Street that does not sell the Journal Tribune.
“Is this a big deal?” Burgess wondered aloud. “Who’s going to cover local news?”
Down the street at Three-D’s Variety store, Louise Cosgrove stood behind the cash register, counting out change and checking IDs as customers bought beer and lottery tickets.
“I don’t think it’ll be much of an impact,” Cosgrove said of the Journal’s closing. “We’ve had times that we’ve thrown them out” because not enough people bought the papers, she said.
When Biddeford’s daily paper opened in 1884, its publisher had high aspirations for what it might mean for the community. On its inaugural front page, carefully maintained at the local library more than 100 years later, publisher Charles Prescott wrote that the thriving cities of Saco and Biddeford “call for precisely that stimulus and ready help which can be best supplied by a live daily newspaper.”
The paper he introduced was a broadsheet with six columns of dense type; ads hawked the new Biddeford roller skating rink (skates, 10 cents), dry and fancy goods, and oysters at the local grocery. The paper was sold for 2 cents, with the first 2,000 copies distributed free.
“While the city dailies, east and west, furnish a record of the great outside world, they do not supply us with home news, which we most desire, nor in any way fulfill the requirements of a home paper,” Prescott wrote.
By the Journal Tribune’s centennial in 1984, the paper had made a name for itself as a robust training ground for young journalists, a place committed to breaking local news and outstanding photography.
“We were a classroom for journalism,” said Marsters. Reporters wrote about the pressing issues facing the community: a major fire at the gas station, a teenage suicide, inequality in the local schools, state troopers caught in a federal money scam.
The newsroom long sat directly across from City Hall, its placement reflecting its importance to the people of Biddeford, according to Catherine Glynn, a board member of the Biddeford Historical Society.
“It was the eyes and ears of the community for generations,” said Glynn, who is 54 and delivered the paper when she was a child. She estimated that two-thirds of her neighborhood subscribed.
Residents knew the paper was accountable to them. There was a window in the front office of the newsroom, Marsters said, where the obituaries writer sat. Subscribers often visited to share their opinions.
“A lot of people would come up to that window, and would want to talk to either the reporter who had written the story to straighten him out, or to me,” Marsters said.
That community spirit remained in 2001, when Meg Heckman, now a professor of journalism at Northeastern University, joined the paper fresh out of college.
“There were a lot of really long, contentious, dramatic City Council meetings,” Heckman recalled. The meetings always began with a public comment period.
“It would not be uncommon for multiple people to get up there with a copy of the paper in their hands and to wave it around as an example of everything that was right. Or an example of everything that was wrong,” Heckman said.
Just as the local residents couldn’t control exactly what the reporters wrote, neither could the city’s leaders. Casavant recalled when a fellow City Council member tried to plant a favorable story.
“The next day, I remember walking into City Hall, and he was literally jumping up and down on the Journal Tribune paper, because he could not believe what the story was,” Casavant said, chuckling. As a politician, “You get stories that aren’t the way you like them.” But, he added, that was the point. “There’s a check and balance there.”
Even with cuts to staff and advertising and readership, the current reporters at the Journal Tribune have continued to publish hundreds of stories. Ed Pierce, the paper’s executive editor, spoke about the enormous amount of work staff put in in recent years to make up for fewer resources. In July, Pierce said, he wrote 19 stories in six days.
In the past few weeks, the front page included stories about a pilot hurt in a plane crash at a local airport; the expansion of a pedestrian bridge on a hiking trail in Saco; a new fire engine in Kennebunk; and, of course, the shuttering of the paper itself (above the fold: “Journal Tribune to end 135-year run on Oct. 12”).
“It gets in your blood, and you just want to be able to tell great, compelling stories,” Pierce said in his office recently. A whiteboard on the wall marked the days the paper had left. “That’s why we stuck it out through thick and thin.”
Even as the Journal waned, people still depended on it. When Don Bisson, the director of the food pantry, learned in 2017 that his building’s landlord was more than doubling the organization’s rent, he had no idea what to do. He needed to tell the community; he needed help. And so he did what anyone might do in a town that still has a local paper: He drove to the office of the editor and knocked on the door.