How Harpswell Got Its News Back

After funding issues ceased production in 2020, residents hatched a plan to resurrect the Harpswell Anchor.

spilled ink in the shape of Harpswell, Maine
Mike O'Leary (Illustration); Inkwell (Shutterstock)
By Edgar Allen Beem
From our January 2023 issue

The Harpswell Anchor, a handsome little 32-page monthly tabloid newspaper, got its start in 1998, when lobsterman Bob Anderson found himself looking for a career change. Already a writer, Anderson assembled a crew of contributors and volunteers, contracted with Lewiston’s Sun Press printer, and learned on the job to become an editor and publisher, running the Anchor for 22 years. On the occasion of the paper’s 20th anniversary, Anderson recalled to one of his own reporters that Harpswell’s scattered villages had seemed to him out of touch with one another — launching the paper, he said, “was an attempt to bring the town together.”

And in 2020, when declining ad revenue and the pandemic prompted Anderson to cease publication, folks around the scattered coves, peninsulas, and islands that constitute Harpswell felt the loss.

Then, in 2021, a group of Harpswellians — mostly summer folk who’ve retired to the area — hatched a plan to bring back the Anchor, this time as a nonprofit. The idea came from Janice Thompson, a veteran fundraiser who’s helped guide capital campaigns for organizations like the Boston Athenæum, MIT, and the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust. Her rationale was simple: “You can’t run a newspaper on advertising anymore,” she declares. So to help form a revenue plan, she and the nascent Anchor board turned to the California-based Institute for Nonprofit News, which helps support more than 400 member newsrooms across the country.

The Anchor isn’t Maine’s first publication in the INN network. Members include the Maine Monitor, the digital, statewide investigative news service of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, and Amjambo Africa!, a free multilingual monthly serving Maine’s immigrant communities. Nor is the Anchor Maine’s first nonprofit local paper, a distinction belonging to the weekly Town Line, published in South China and serving 27 communities across central Maine. Founded as a for-profit in 1989, the Town Line went nonprofit in 1999, after a brief closure.

But while the Town Line focuses primarily on good news, community happenings, columns, and light service journalism — which local restaurants were offering takeout or seating during the pandemic, for instance — the revived Anchor set out to run original reporting on issues shaping Harpswell. The paper launched in June of 2021, with Thompson as a part-time development and operations director (her Harpswell Neck home is its de facto office) and a board stacked with media-industry vets, including Connie Sage Connor, who spent more than 20 years reporting for the Virginian-Pilot, in Norfolk, Virginia, and Doug Warren, an editor at the Portland Press Herald and Miami Herald before a long hitch at the Boston Globe. Right away, the paper brought on J.W. Oliver, the former editor of Newcastle’s Lincoln County News and the rare journalist from a community weekly to be recognized as the Maine Press Association’s Journalist of the Year, an award Oliver received in 2018. The South Bristol native’s experience with local government and public-affairs reporting represents a shift for the Harpswell paper.

“That’s something the old Anchor didn’t have and purposefully shied away from,” Warren explains. The paper, he says, seemed to take pains not to upset anyone in the community. Thompson gives the example of the great white shark attack that killed a Bailey Island summer resident in Mackerel Cove, in July 2020. The old Anchor made no mention of Maine’s first-ever documented shark fatality, except to run a memorial profile of the victim, Julie Dimperio Holowach, a year after the attack. “That was international news,” Thompson says, “and the local paper didn’t cover it.”

Oliver is mindful of his readers’ desire — made clear in a pre-launch survey — for an objective, nonpartisan news source. The Anchor has yet to publish an editorial or endorsement, and some of its most significant recent stories, Oliver says, have aimed to diffuse contentious rhetoric with facts. In summer 2021, for example, some members of the local school board raised alarm over what they described as an instance of school staff inappropriately collecting information on students’ sexual activity. Oliver’s reporting relied on a Freedom of Access Act request to reveal that the denounced questionnaire was simply a wellness “self-assessment,” with no answers submitted or recorded. His piece earned the Anchor a Maine Press Association Award last fall.

So far, the Anchor’s approach seems to be resonating. Board members anted up $42,000 to get the paper off the ground in 2021, but the paper has since met its first year’s annual budget, with a split of just under 50 percent ad sales and just over 50 percent donations and grants. In a town of 4,800, Thompson says, some 800 individuals and 160 businesses have donated to support the paper, which is mailed free to 3,800 households (plus 300 or so out-of-state subscribers — and some 4,500 copies are distributed at area businesses).

The Anchor isn’t likely to be Maine’s last nonprofit community paper. Local newsrooms currently represent more than half the growth in nonprofit news orgs, says a recent INN report, a shift from five years ago. And Maine has local-news vacuums — Oliver points to York County, which hasn’t had a daily paper since Biddeford–Saco’s Journal Tribune folded in 2019. “This model is replicable in other communities,” Anchor board president Greg Bestick says. “If you get people on the coast, there is a lot of money there.”

“Local news is one of those things we have long taken for granted until suddenly it’s gone,” says Anchor supporter Bill Nemitz. The prominent and recently retired Press Herald columnist gave the keynote at the Anchor’s one-year anniversary celebration last summer. “My hat will forever be off to the people of Harpswell for resurrecting their paper, contributing content for it and, the hardest part, making it all financially viable,” Nemitz says. “The new Anchor is more than just a monthly publication — it’s the thread that holds the community fabric together.”