Picture the town of Harpswell, population around 5,000. It’s essentially three fingers of land that extend into Casco Bay south of Brunswick, with dead-end side roads spidering off two state highways that run north to Route 1. It has no town center to speak of, no concentrated business district, no real nucleus where folks can cross paths every few days and tap into the pulse of the community.

So imagine the angst people there felt just over a year ago when the Harpswell Anchor, the town’s monthly newspaper, shut down after 22 years under the stewardship of editor Bob Anderson. Already isolated by the COVID-19 pandemic, many soon found themselves longing for the printed lifeline they didn’t realize was so important until, just like that, it was gone.

“It got to be November, December and people started to say, ‘Whatever happened to the Anchor?’” recalled Doug Warren, a retired Boston Globe editor who grew up in Brunswick and moved to Harpswell in 2013. “And people on the boards of various things like the land trust and the fire department suddenly realized there was no place to get your information out, tell your stories or try to raise money, that kind of stuff.”

So, Warren and a handful of others did something about it. At a time when newspapers large and small are disappearing in droves, they resurrected their own. Or, as some of them like to put it, they “raised the Anchor.”

“What a treasure this publication is!” wrote Sheila Menair of Great Island in a letter to the editor this month. “News and local stories delivered in a manner to inform and engage us to be a more interactive community. I enjoy reading the paper and find the website a wealth of information and resources.”

The November issue of the new-and-improved Harpswell Anchor will be its sixth. And by all indications, the 24-page tabloid isn’t just surviving. It’s thriving.

“I’ve raised money for a lot of places like Harvard and MIT and the Boston Athenaeum and you know, it’s not ever been this rewarding,” Janice Thompson, the paper’s director of development and operations, said last week in an interview on her back porch along Harpswell Neck Road.

The effort began in earnest late last winter, when Thompson, Warren and a handful of other community members started brainstorming about how to not just bring the paper back, but make it sustainable. They immediately settled on a strategy now taking root in small towns (and some larger cities) all over the country: Make it a nonprofit organization, not a commercial enterprise.

Drawing on the resources and expertise of the Institute for Nonprofit News, which supports some 300 independent news organizations nationwide, they devised a business plan, took steps to achieve nonprofit status and, critically important, pared their “founders group” into a 10-member board of directors – all either year-round or seasonal Harpswell residents.

It’s an impressive group: Connie Sage Connor, a retired editor with the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia; Erin O’Mara, currently the president of The Nation magazine in Washington, D.C.; board President Greg Bestick, who spent a career as a Hollywood executive before retiring last year as president of the Paradigm Talent Agency. Other board members include a telecommunications attorney, an accountant, an environmentalist, a Harvard University Ph.D. in public health …

Spearheaded by Thompson, a longtime professional fundraiser, the volunteer board first raised money through grants, donations and “sponsorships” from local businesses that in many ways mimic advertisements with one notable exception – they’re tax-deductible.

In June, they put out their first edition under the direction of retired journalist Warren, who now serves as the board’s vice president. At the same time, they went looking for an editor.

Enter J.W. Oliver, at the time editor of the Lincoln County News and the Maine Press Association’s 2018 Journalist of the Year.

A 37-year-old native of South Bristol and graduate of the University of Maine at Farmington, Oliver was looking for something different after his 11 years at the Lincoln County News – the last five as editor overseeing a newsroom staff of eight.

Increasingly frustrated that the administrative side of his job steered him away from the writing and reporting he so loved, Oliver came across an ad on the Maine Association of Nonprofits job board seeking a “talented, hard-working and innovative” editor for a small-town newspaper that at the time was barely on its feet.

“I was intrigued by the nonprofit model and by the chance to sort of make this a demonstration project, a pilot project for Maine because no one’s doing exactly what we’re doing,” Oliver said between sips of fresh lemonade on Thompson’s back porch – the closest, at least for now, the Anchor has to a newsroom.

Backstopped by administrative assistant Sam Allen, a fifth-generation local who recently graduated from the University of Southern Maine, Oliver works from his home in Bristol, Thompson’s home or, more often than not, from his car.

Unlike his predecessor at the old Anchor, he covers the local selectmen, whom he finds “very open, transparent and welcoming,” as well as Topsham-based School Administrative District 75, which includes Harpswell. He’s currently butting heads with school administrators there over his request for a copy of a recent survey on students’ sexual activities and substance use. “I haven’t got it yet,” he said. “But I’ll keep trying.”

In addition to his local government reporting, Oliver’s clip file so far includes an in-depth remembrance of a woman who died following a shark attack off Bailey’s Island in 2020, and an analysis of the strife in Haiti through the eyes of a former U.S. ambassador there who now lives on Orr’s Island.

He’s edited pieces from a phalanx of volunteer contributors on everything from the “umbrella lady” down at the local transfer station, to the closing of the popular Morse’s Cribstone Grill on Bailey’s Island – so far the most read story online – to the buying frenzy that’s supercharging Harpswell’s housing market.

Oh yes, and once a month, Oliver drives down to the Masthead Maine Press printing facility in South Portland, where he loads the bundles of the just-off-the-presses Anchor into his car and ferries them back to Harpswell for distribution to mailboxes and small businesses throughout the sprawling town. Over the summer, the number of copies peaked at around 7,000.

“I keep telling people on the one hand, I don’t have a boss anymore,” Oliver said. “On the other hand, I have 10 bosses.”

Chimed in Thompson, “I think this is one of the most proofread papers in America.”

Flanked by Warren and Thompson, Oliver met with those bosses via Zoom Thursday afternoon for a regular monthly board meeting. Over an hour, in addition to hearing from Oliver about what’s planned for next month, they talked about their in-the-black finances – no easy feat on a $200,000 annual budget, and their boardwide efforts to reach out to local businesses and fellow nonprofits. They agreed to hold a planning retreat next month to look ahead to 2022. They beamed at their new membership in the Maine Press Association. They even took peeks at their new marketing swag, which includes bumper stickers, rack cards and an array of T-shirts.

In short, the experiment is working. The news, the features, the calendar listings, the “non-profit corner” for other organizations to strut their stuff, now course through the community each month like a much-needed antidote to last winter’s desolation.

In a telephone interview after the board meeting, president Bestick said this is a good-news story not just for Harpswell, but for the many other Maine communities, particularly along the coast, that have the time, talent and treasure to take back the void now filled largely by social media.

“On a meta level, what we finally seem to be figuring out is that Facebook causes emotional indigestion. It’s really not a good thing in many iterations,” Bestick said.

Having a small-town paper, he added, underpins “the idea that local journalism and community journalism is really not just nice, but essential to the health of a community.”

Not to mention its sense of pride.

“Harpswell,” proclaims one of those new T shirts. “Where the Anchor drops.”

FOOTNOTE: A follow-up to my Friday column about objections to an email sent to City Hall by Robyn Bailey, interim principal at Portland’s Lincoln Middle School: In the column, I mentioned Bailey’s criticism of tweets by Shay Stewart-Bouley, a member of the Portland Charter Commission, that Bailey considered inappropriate. I did not reach out to Stewart-Bouley about those concerns prior to the column’s publication. I should have and regret not having done so.


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