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From AJR,   October/November 2007  issue

Covering “the Center of the Known Universe”   

In Bucksport, Maine, nearly everybody reads the Enterprise.


By Ted Gup
     

It's said that newspapers are dying, circulation is plummeting, ads are fleeing to the Internet and the young couldn't care less about them. Well, maybe, but not here, not in Bucksport, a quiet mill town in Downeast Maine. The Bucksport Enterprise isn't just surviving, it's thriving. Circulation has doubled in five years, from 1,100 to 2,300 (not bad for a town of 4,961), and the slender little paper has made itself not only modestly profitable but also indispensable to this community of mill workers, tradesmen and shopkeepers. It and other small-town papers like it might just be the envy of all those despairing big-city scribes.

"We're on a roll," crows Editor, Publisher and floor sweep Don Houghton, a 65-year-old veteran of newspapers in Providence and Louisville who purchased the paper six years ago. Born just up the road in the relative metropolis of Bangor, he moved out of state within a month and grew up in a Boston suburb, a blemish Bucksport's charitable citizenry has graciously looked past.

Of course, there are some folks who decline to subscribe to the Enterprise – not because they don't want to read it, but because they'd sooner buy the weekly when it comes out on Thursday than wait for the mail to deliver it a day later. It's not unheard of for an impatient reader to call the newspaper and ask precisely where the paper is – whether the approaching carrier is on the right or the left side of the street.

With a staff of two – Houghton and Sandy Holmes, a former teacher of accounting and computer skills – and a hand from freelancers, the Enterprise is located on Main Street in a neat white frame house with a steeply ascending staircase. The only sign is one on the front door that, when the door is open – as it nearly always is – can't be seen. The editor lives at the top of the stairs.

The police blotter is a favorite feature. Editor Houghton says one reason is that the women of Bucksport read it to learn the ages of other women. It's said those arrested for DWI pray that they make it across the Penobscot County line, not to escape the law but to escape the notice of the all-seeing Enterprise.

Here's where you can learn who was slapped with a $100 fine for fishing without a license or $150 for violating the "smelt rule" (whatever that is), and discover that a child's toy tractor has gone missing. Recently the editor wisely declined to run the theft of a flag. Turns out a neighbor noticed it was getting dark and took the flag down for safekeeping.

In Boston, Los Angeles or Washington, it's unusual for most people to make the news. In Bucksport, citizens can't go five years without an appearance – either for making honor roll, backing into a neighbor's mailbox, retiring or being honored as most improved player on the softball team. Families returning from the hospital with a newborn sometimes call the paper and ask it to run a photo of five generations – fretting that if they wait even a day, the opportunity may be lost forever.

The paper doesn't have any highfalutin motto, but it does claim to be "A Wicked Good Read." That word "wicked" didn't sit well with one of the more puritanical locals, who made no secret of his displeasure.

Not long ago the director of the local funeral parlor was miffed not to be invited to advertise in the summer guide. It wasn't that Houghton wanted to exclude him; it's just that he couldn't imagine how the undertaker would profit from an ad between Allen's Wild Maine Blueberries and the Bittersweet Gift Shop.

Still, you can't blame the undertaker. The Enterprise is, after all, The Paper of Record, no less than the New York Times. Last year, according to Houghton, a middle schooler proudly shot his first deer, a local rite of passage. But when the boy boasted to his friends, they dismissed the claim. "No, you didn't," they told him. The boy persisted, describing how his father had helped drag the deer from the woods. "No, you didn't," classmates answered. "It wasn't in the Enterprise." A short time later his feat was confirmed in the Enterprise and all was right with the world.

Ed Wood, who owns Wood's Seafood, speaks of the Enterprise as of a welcome neighbor. "I'm glad to see it," he says; he reserves his weekly copy at the local bookstore. Four years ago he shared his good fortune with the paper when he found that he was in possession of a rare blue lobster. His only disappointment was when he picked up the Enterprise and discovered his dazzling crustacean was pictured in black and white. "My goodness! Why did they do that!" he laments, still smarting from the slight. Still, the curious gathered for a glimpse of Ed's wondrous creature.

Skip the Enterprise, and you'll never know what you've missed. "I read it front to back," says Jackie Hunt, the deputy town clerk (and ambulance billing clerk, motor vehicle agent and so much more). She speaks for many when she says, "I can't imagine it not being here."

Recently, I read of the cat at the local bookstore; the library's crumbling façade; an art exhibit by inmates at the county jail; and a potluck supper of the Gay Guyz Group. Under a heading marked "Animal Calls," I learned of a report of a "small white goat running loose in the Federal Street area" and of a loon recovered on Silver Lake with a hook in its mouth.

Like other small-town editors, Houghton has a penchant for mischief. He's tempted to declare beside the masthead, "There are 68 mistakes in this paper. Can you find them?" But he worries that someone would unearth 69 errors and that he would never hear the end of it. While big-city editors fret about readers ignoring them, Houghton must run a gauntlet of nitpickers every week. "Reporting from what we like to call 'Bucksport, Maine: The Center of the Known Universe,'" Houghton recently declared in a supplement.

For many journalists, papers like the Enterprise represent a humble first step in journalism; for others, it is the culmination of a career. Just up Route 1 in Ellsworth, the late Russ Wiggins capped off a career as managing editor of the Washington Post and as ambassador to the United Nations with a long and distinguished tenure as editor of the Ellsworth American. I know for a fact that he considered it his most important position.

So while gloom and doom grip the newspaper industry, the tiny Bucksport Enterprise chugs along, fielding calls from readers asking which side of the street the carrier is on. "This paper gives the town a voice," says the Enterprise's Sandy Holmes. "Otherwise, it's like a silent movie."

Gup (tedgup@att.net) is the author of "Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life" (see Books, page 72) and is the Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism at Case Western Reserve University. He is a summer resident of Bucksport.