I used to work for the company that Village Soup acquired in 2008. It was called Courier Publications in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when I worked for the Lincoln County Weekly and then the Ellsworth Weekly, two small weekly papers the chain started in the 1990s to compete against older, more-established weeklies in the towns of Damariscotta and Ellsworth. Those Courier papers did well from a reporting standpoint, winning many awards, but did not do so well financially. Ownership pulled the plug on them in the early 2000s.
At one point the mostly coastal Courier chain consisted of nine weekly papers in Maine. In addition to those mentioned above, they included the flagship three-times-a-week Courier Gazette in Rockland, the Camden Herald, the Republican Journal in Belfast, the Bar Harbor Times, the Capital Weekly in Augusta, the York Weekly and the York County Coast Star. Later on, after the company sold the York County papers, it also owned the Waldo Independent in Belfast.
But as of yesterday, it was down to four papers that employed a total of 56 people. Village Soup owner Richard Anderson closed down the Waldo Independent when he acquired the Courier chain in 2008 and, the same year, he merged the two Knox County weeklies in Camden and Rockland into the Herald Gazette. The Belfast and Knox County papers originated in the 1800s and the Bar Harbor Times in 1914. The Capital Weekly had been founded by Courier around the same time it started publishing new weeklies in other Maine towns in the 1990s.
What happened to these newspapers has happened to many. They were sold in the 1990s, at a time when profits were high and the Internet had yet to take a significant bite out of the print publishing world. The new owner ran them for a while, made some changes to increase profits, and then put them up for sale again, seeking to recoup his investment and make some more on top of that. The process began again, and turned out to be a death spiral.
Each time the chain was sold, the new owner took on some debt that proved tough to pay off, as the Blethen family can attest about their purchase in the late 1990s of daily newspapers in Portland, Augusta and Waterville. The Internet expanded, attracting more users, and newspaper revenue fell but debt payments stayed the same. Cuts were made in operating costs in an effort to keep the publications profitable. Staff changeover was relatively high.
Between 1997, when I got my first newspaper job with the Ellsworth Weekly, and yesterday, the Courier/Village Soup papers had four different owners, one of whom was based in Texas and another of which was based in South Carolina. Many Maine papers, including the Bangor Daily News (where I have worked since 2001), have had only one for the past several decades or even longer. Stable ownership has been a relative benefit to these papers, which have had relatively little debt to pay off compared to others that have been repeatedly sold. Low debt, and often more modest expectations for profitability has helped these papers withstand the impact of declining revenues and online competition.
Anderson and his family have taken their fair share of criticism for how they managed their publications, especially those in Bar Harbor, Belfast and Camden/Rockland, and in my opinion not all of it has been unwarranted. Many local businesses have said they got great service from Village Soup staff, but in the end that service could not offset the declining readership of the papers. Raw information with little to no context, such as arrest logs or deed transfers, seemed to become more prominently published in the papers while staff-produced stories generally became lighter and less compelling. The quality of the papers’ content and context declined.
But the biggest factor in the demise of these papers may not be how Anderson and his family managed them. It could be that they were repeatedly sold in a poorly-timed succession of owners who were focused more on a profitable resale than on providing a valuable service to the wider communities (not just local businesses) that they covered. For Courier Publications, that chain of falling dominoes was set in motion before Anderson took it over.