Maine Times Closes Shop

Fate Sealed By Bad Business Model and Loss of Editorial Focus.

It’s no secret that the Maine Times has been on life support for some time now. For the last several years, the former AAN member — and host paper for the association’s 1986 convention — has steadily bled advertisers, revenue and readers.

Earlier this month, the paper’s owners finally decided it was time to go Kevorkian. On Feb. 19 they announced that the Times would cease publishing. While the financiers say they still hold out hope that new capital can be found to resurrect the paper, the Feb. 18 issue was most likely its last.

“We’re vigorously looking for at least one new investor,” says Douglas Rooks, the Times’ editor, publisher and one of its six owners. “If we can find the right person, the paper could be brought back soon. But realistically, we have only a month; otherwise, the paper will disappear.”

Founded in 1968 by John Cole and Peter Cox, the Times — which turned in its AAN membership card last year — was a Maine institution. It cultivated its reputation during the early years with aggressive reporting on controversial issues like overfishing and government corruption.

Although it was one of AAN’s earliest members, the Times never comfortably fit the alternative weekly mold.

“It never had arts and entertainment listings, it had statewide circulation and it covered a huge rural area,” says AAN veteran Monte Paulsen, who was inspired by the Times to launch Casco Bay Weekly (“CBW”) in nearby Portland, Maine. “It also didn’t fit the AAN fold because the paper was paid and it didn’t have any sex ads.

“For many people in Maine, the Times filled a vacuum of statewide news. I’m really, really sad to hear of its passing because it was a great paper for a long time. But I can’t say I’m surprised.”

After losing money its first three years, the Times finally broke even in 1971, according to co-founder Cox. It turned a modest profit over the next 15 years, he adds, with subscriptions peaking at 18,000 in 1976.

Cox eventually sold the weekly in 1985 for $700,000 to a wealthy Massachusetts businessman named Dodge Morgan. For the next 12 years, Morgan poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the paper. In 1993 alone he shelled out $450,000. Despite the investment, Morgan’s term as owner was marked by hardship.

According to Paulsen, a loss of editorial focus and some bad business decisions contributed to the papers’ demise. CBW’s entrance in 1988 also didn’t help as the new weekly stole some of the Times’ advertisers. Furthermore, Cox says the Times “started neglecting its smaller advertisers — the businesses that had helped to build the paper,” and instead concentrated on larger advertisers like banks and utility companies.

In the early ’90s, Morgan bought CBW. Then, in a 1994 move Paulsen calls “a real tragic tactical mistake,” Morgan moved the Times from its headquarters in rural Topsham to CBW’s Portland offices.

“The Times had always been a rural paper and here it was merging operations with a city paper,” says Paulsen. “The two staffs were so different there was a bleeding of the paper, a bleeding of the staff. The move to Portland was certainly detrimental to the Times.”

Adds Cox: “[The move] alienated a lot of the Times’ traditional readers and advertisers.”

Moreover, constant staff turnover dogged the paper throughout the first half of the decade. The unstable work force translated into the loss of an editorial edge.

“They didn’t know who their audience was, what issues their readers were concerned about, what kind of advertisers they should have,” says Cox.

By 1997, Morgan had had enough. He sold the paper to a group of four investors for $205,000. Two more financial backers were brought in last year and the paper’s headquarters were moved again — this time to Hallowell, a small town just outside Augusta, the state capital.

But the paper’s fate was already sealed. Subscriptions had dropped to 12,000 and the number of advertisers continued to dwindle.

“I think Rooks gave it a valiant effort,” says Cox. “But by then, it didn’t matter. The paper was already dying.”

Paulsen adds: “[The six owners] were bootstrapping it. They just didn’t have the resources.”

A quick glance at the Times’ last issue tells the whole story: It’s a thin 24 pages, with only 17 display ads in the whole book.

“I think one of the reasons the Times [shut down],” Paulsen says, “was it couldn’t find a way to solve the problem of who was going to buy statewide advertising. The dailies can do it, but it’s harder for a weekly paper.

“I hope it can be resuscitated; I really do. The Times is good for the state of Maine.”