My Weekly Fix

Here Back East

By Lenny Ackerman

My Weekly Fix

I had been marinating over the theme of this column, wanting to write about some aspect of newspaper publishing. It took Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal to provide the inspiration with her recent article about The North Shore Leader, a local weekly from Long Island, New York.  This small, hometown paper with “students and retirees on its staff” broke national news, exposing the fraud of George Santos, a recently elected representative for the Third Congressional District of New York.  It was an explosive David and Goliath story with world-class investigative work behind it.  I immediately subscribed to The Leader and, as a longtime reader and supporter of several weekly newspapers, was moved to write a few words in support of them.  Toward this end, I decided to do interviews with two publishers of local weeklies:  Carl Butz of The Mountain Messenger and Gavin Menu, co-publisher with his wife Kathryn of The Sag Harbor Express. Though on opposite coasts—California and New York—there are similarities: both newspapers have storied histories and have been in print since the mid-19th century, and both publishers face many of the same business challenges. The purpose of my interviews was to gather some insight into the motivation behind the incredible effort and energies necessary to produce and print a newspaper 52 times a year.  I learned that they do it on tight budgets and against constant headwinds: the crushing effect of digital on print media, the spiraling costs of labor, paper, and distribution as well as the declining readership of local papers in general.  According to research done by the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, “Since 2004, the United States has lost one-fourth – 2,100 – of its newspapers. This includes more than 70 dailies and more than 2,000 weeklies or nondailies.” Both Carl Butz and Gavin Menu are energetic and enterprising journalist-publishers with singular drive, which is to provide information to their communities with a focus on lifestyle, local news and events, schools and investigative news—and despite the challenges, they are optimistic about the future of their papers.

In addition to The Leader, The Mountain Messenger and The Sag Harbor Express, I also receive the weekly The Houlton-Pioneer Times from Maine, and The East Hampton Star.  My dailies are The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Palm Beach Post. I also subscribe digitally to The Washington Post which I tried in print but by the time it was delivered to my mailbox in Palm Beach the news was stale.  Interestingly, Gavin informs me that his subscribers prefer the print edition of his paper, as do the majority of The Messenger’s readers. I concur.  I actually enjoy having ink on my fingertips after finishing a newspaper, as well as the ability to fold it over and cut out articles for future reference.  The Houlton-Pioneer Times is the local paper in northern Aroostook, where my fishing camp is located.  This week I learned of the ice fishing conditions and about the closure of several movie theaters in the area.  The Sag Harbor Express is watching over the local Zoning Board agenda and The East Hampton Star is keeping tabs on the closing of the Town airport.  My view is that the future of some weeklies is in the not-for-profit realm similar to public television and radio.  They stand a better chance of survival with support from private foundations and government grants.  We all need to be informed of what is happening in our own backyard, whether it is the local politics in The East Hampton Star, the impact of climate change on the oceanfront by The Palm Beach Post, or even the new seasonal restaurant openings in The Sag Harbor Express.  And it is always interesting to read the opinions and views of other people in your community.  These local and weekly newspapers play an important role in our greater national conversation.  Freedom of the press is, now more than ever, a special right and not just a privilege.

How About a Podcast?

I have been thinking about technology in the digital age and how it has affected the way I work, as well as its impact on communication – newspapers specifically–compared to what things were like just a few years ago.   Today I have the means to practice law from anywhere.  Not only from Maine but this year so far I have worked remotely from Florida, Dallas, Downieville, Reno, Wyoming and New York City. I have been video conferencing with my office for years using Skype and GoTo meetings, but Covid was the catalyst to a new and revolutionary workspace environment.  The advent of Zoom, an enhanced version of the video conference technology, combined with the years-long isolation period, has had a lasting impact on how business is conducted now in these post Covid times.  I do not necessarily need the in-person setting to do my job and can make a legal case through Zoom as if I were in the courtroom.  Of course, I am not able to make the direct one-on-one eye contact I usually try to do but I make up for it with other powers of persuasion.  Our local hearings have been held remotely since 2020 and are just now returning to in-person events as well as hybrid proceedings, allowing for both in-person and Zoom for those unable to attend, particularly the disabled.  For our office meetings with outside experts and clients, I prefer zoom to conference calls so that I can make certain I have everyone’s attention.  It also enables me to share drawings, plans and surveys on the screen. The pressure to have everyone physically in the same room no longer exists. 

The digital age has brought about improvements in the office, but it has impacted the newspaper industry dramatically.  So many local print newspapers have folded and the larger ones face cuts and struggle on.  I have thought about how the Mountain Messenger can survive and grow in this environment.  Carl Butz and I met in Downieville in June and discussed ways to add digital subscribers as well as increase circulation to areas around Downieville that are no longer served by a local paper.  We have many ideas but would like to hear from you, the readers of the Mountain Messenger – those of you who subscribe, or pick it up at the local newsstand, or find it online.  We would like to do a podcast discussing some ideas and ask those of you who are willing, to join in with your suggestions and comments.   There will be plenty of advance notice of the podcast date in the paper as well as on the website.  Carl and I trust many of you will respond and we thank you in advance for helping to grow the Mountain Messenger.