CBW’s Early Days Recalled

"It was glorious," co-founder says

“Everyone in town knew with absolute certainty that they could edit Casco Bay Weekly better than I could,” says CBW co-founder Monte Paulsen. “And it was glorious.”

“We would deliver the paper on Wednesday nights and Thursday mornings — a lot of the staff would do it ourselves,” recalls Paulsen’s then-partner, Gary Santaniello. Watching people pick it up, hearing their comments ? “That was our paycheck.”

The glory and the paychecks ended Nov. 21, when CBW, founded in 1988, was closed by Dodge Morgan, its owner since 1990. Morgan told the Portland Press Herald the paper had been losing about $5,000 a week lately and had lost more than $2 million since he bought it.

In March, CBW’s owner fired most of the paper’s editorial staff in a dispute about cutting the editorial budget from $215,000 to $135,000, but even that reduction wasn’t enough to keep the paper afloat.

Publisher Lael Morgan and Editor Sharon Bass cite competition since 1999 from the Portland Phoenix for the bulk of the paper’s losses. The Phoenix, with its Boston base and ability to offer tie-in ads from the company’s radio network, was able to take advertisers away from CBW, Lael Morgan told AAN News in March..

Is the Phoenix planning any editorial changes, now that it’s alone in the market?

“I don’t believe so,” says Clif Garboden, senior managing editor of the Phoenix Media Communications Group in Boston. “I was up there on Friday, and that’s not what we discussed.”

Portland Phoenix Managing Editor Sam Pfeifle says the paper will keep its statewide focus. “We’re going to just keep doing our thing,” he says.

Bass, however, also blames CBW’s haphazard management for the Portland, Maine, publication’s demise. “There was no management,” she says. “I had a skeletal staff. I had green people. But I really loved the work.”

So did Paulsen, the first editor, and Santaniello, its initial publisher. “An instrument of community understanding,” boasted the early masthead.

“We recognized the need for another voice,” says Paulsen. “But the moment we opened up, all these amazing people appeared. Casco Bay became the public space in which the alternative to the traditional Maine culture spoke to itself.”

“They came out of the gate pretty strong,” says Andy Newman, now editor of Pittsburgh City Paper, who began writing for CBW six months after it opened its office in a two-bedroom tenement apartment. Photographer Tonee Harbert was able to give CBW “a strong documentary quality,” he recalls, even though his darkroom was the staff bathroom. The paper’s advocacy journalism, Newman says, which would carry “a whiff of an agenda” today, in 1988 “felt really appropriate, and it really resonated in the city.”

CBW exposed local pols and lawyers profiting as absentee landlords from coastal Maine’s real estate boom and bust. Santaniello remembers his partner also giving crucial exposure to local preservationists.

“We saw real changes in local politics,” says Paulsen, “and the people who got elected told us that they got elected because different people were going to the polls. And that was the paper at its best.”

Santaniello left Golf Digest last year, where he was an editor, and is now teaching college and freelancing in Easton, Conn. Paulsen, co-author of a caving expedition account, “Beyond the Deep,” published this year by Time Warner Books, is an outdoors writer and publisher of alternative monthlies, including Shared Visions in Vancouver, B.C., where he lives today.

Paulsen followed the fortunes of CBW from afar and visited the staff last year.

“The paper was not going in the same direction with the same editorial content [as] when Andy and I were editing it,” he says, “but there’s more than one way to edit a newspaper.”

Unfortunately, he adds, the many changes in direction may have hurt the paper as a business. Dodge Morgan, he says, “never intended to be the hands-on owner” when the partners sold CBW. “His goal … was to transition the paper to employee ownership.” But finances never allowed it.

“The losses and the actuarial tables plod on,” Lael Morgan said in a news release the day the weekly suspended operations, “and we have been unable to woo a replacement financial angel. The conclusion became obvious.”

However, she told AAN News she is still seeking a buyer for the paper.

“I’m just flat out stunned,” says Santaniello about the closing. “Because of the values it started with, I almost thought you couldn’t wreck it. To me, it’s worth saving, not just as a relic but saving and restoring — not to the Gary and Monte days but to the early ’90s when Dodge was able to make it into a real business. Honestly, I’m trying to figure out what I can do to help bring it back.”

Marty Levine is news editor of the Pittsburgh City Paper.