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The Press Herald, Sun Journal marriage and a glimpse at the journey to their present destination

13 mins read
Paul H. Mills

A few decades ago before the advent of The Daily Bulldog, Ed Morin and this columnist were in competition to make sure the families in the neighborhoods in Farmington where we both lived were delivered the printed news. In Morin’s case this meant a paper route for the Lewiston Daily Sun; for me: it was delivering the Portland Press Herald. Few households subscribed to both but almost all were customers of one of them, this in one of many Maine communities where the rivalry of two of Maine’s leading dailies then collided.

The recent announcement that Camden’s Reade Brower, owner of the Press Herald, is buying the Sun – now known as the Sun-Journal – along with a chain of weeklies and the Franklin Journal semi weekly which it also owns – has been an occasion to think back on such times. It has also been one to ponder a bit of history for both sets of publications.

The origins of the flagship papers in each chain were largely rooted in political allegiances. As First Amendment Center President Ken Paulsen once observed, “You did not start a newspaper to make a buck. You started a newspaper to make a point.”

Though Sun Journal’s earliest antecedent, the Evening Journal, was initially, in 1847, a nonpartisan weekly literary publication, by 1861, the year it became a daily it was a staunch GOP supporter of President Lincoln’s Civil War causes. This was under the leadership of the Nelson Dingley, a future Maine governor and who would eventually – while still maintaining ties to the Journal – go on to become one of the most powerful members of Congress, Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Through most of the Evening Journal’s history its chief local competitor in the Androscoggin, Franklin-Oxford region was the Daily Sun. (Both papers in Lewiston itself, however, were often eclipsed by the tri-weekly French language Le Messager.) The 1893 founding of the Daily Sun was spurred by the need its founder Henry Wing saw for a Democratic alternative to the Republican leaning Evening Journal, Wing’s first issue proclaiming it as “the only Democratic daily paper published in central Maine.”

After the 1898 sale of the paper by Wing to George Wood – uncle to Costello family forebear Louis Costello – the Daily Sun was no longer Democratic. It along with the two Bangor papers was for many years in the first quarter of the 20th century among the only three dailies among the dozen then published in Maine that were unaffiliated with either party.

Though by 1926 the Evening Journal was taken over by the Sun’s Costello, the two continued as separate and in some ways competitive publications, a concept Brower hopes to preserve between the Lewiston and Portland papers. It was not until 1989 that the present single “morning” Lewiston daily emerged. (In the digital age which soon followed, such an identity for any publication might of course seem a bit anachronistic even though the hard copy edition is still a mainstay for many.)

It’s the fourth generation of the Costello family that is now selling not only the Sun Journal but also a successful chain of some 16 weekly papers it has either acquired or developed over the last 30 years.

The same 1860’s Civil War impulses that launched a Republican era for the Evening Journal did the same for Portland’s Daily Press, a forerunner to today’s Press Herald. Its founders in 1862 felt that the city’s three other dailies were not giving President Lincoln the support he deserved. The subsequent list of some of its owners by the end of the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th included such GOP luminaries as six-term mayor James Baxter and U.S. Senator Frederick Hale.

The Daily Press’s Democratic rival in Portland was the Eastern Argus. But like the fortunes of the Maine political party it supported, the Argus ran aground in 1921, the year James Baxter’s son, Percival, became the state’s governor. Because the two remaining dailies, the Daily Press and the Evening Express had such a stranglehold on advertising rates, local merchants were quickly aroused. They wasted no time in filling this void by establishing the Portland Herald. But the Herald owners soon learned what the Argus had already known: Portland could no longer be a three paper town. Both its owners and the Daily Press’s Senator Hale then each sought to be rescued by an up-state benefactor. His name: Guy P. Gannett, heir to both a patent medicine and magazine fortune.

It took a personal audience with the nation’s president, Warren Harding, arranged by Hale himself, to convince Gannett to enter the Portland newspaper market. After touting the profitability of the Ohio in which he had long held an ownership interest, Harding urged the Augusta-based Gannett to enter the field himself.

This he did, not only by buying out Hale’s Daily Press but also the merchants’ beleaguered Herald. Thus was born the Portland Press Herald, which for nearly a century now has been the leading paper in Maine’s largest city.

Nineteen twenty-one not only marked the downfall of a Democratic newspaper in Portland but also of what had been the leading Democratic media outlet in central Maine. This occurred through another Gannett acquisition, the sale to him of Waterville’s Morning Sentinel.

The capstone of Gannett’s Portland newspaper acquisitions was his purchase in 1925 of the Republican leaning Evening Express and its weekend affiliate, the Sunday Telegram. The price of over $1 million, was six times what he had paid for both the Press and Herald combined, a reflection of the Express’s circulation advantage as being for many years the city’s most popular paper. (Like its Lewiston evening counterpart, the Express’s popularity faded as the century wore on, ending its own run as a separate paper in 1991.)

Though Gannett was at this time a member of the GOP’s national committee and had recently served as a Republican state senator from Kennebec County, he adopted what purported to be a nonpartisan news coverage policy and somewhat subdued editorial practices. Though it’s often been debated whether in practice Gannett’s papers in fact pursued such an approach it is clear that neither the Portland nor the Kennebec County papers in the early 1920s he acquired were as ardently partisan as most of their predecessors. Editorials, which had once been a familiar front page characteristic of the Sentinel, and many other Maine papers, were now relegated several pages deep. It’s been a trait of most Maine dailies ever since. (A Press Herald exception to this occurred in 1967 when on the morning of a city-wide recall election it vigorously denounced a campaign to remove five school board members. Voters heeded its advice and retained the board in office. )

Gannett rounded out the 1920s decade with his 1929 purchase of Augusta’s Kennebec Journal. Though it had early Republican roots – among its editors in the 1850s was future national GOP potentate James G. Blaine – it was in the years leading up to Gannett’s acquisition largely non partisan.

The next decade saw the Gannett family diversify their media holdings into broadcasting by piloting WGAN radio onto Maine airwaves in 1938. This was followed by launching Channel 13 TV the same year the “Guy’s” death in 1954.

Despite the expansion into broadcasting the Gannett empire navigated some turbulent waters – including a four-week labor union strike in 1953 – but did manage to maintain its grip on much of the Maine media market well into a third generation. The “Guy’s” granddaughter, Madeleine Corson, wound up leading the family’s exodus from the Maine media world with a sale of the newspapers to the Blethen family owned Seattle Times in 1998 – nearly the same time as WGME TV, the mainstay of its broadcasting outlets was sold to Sinclair Broadcasting.

The Portland-Waterville-Augusta newspaper chain the Gannetts put together nearly a century ago after undergoing two more ownership changes since the Blethen acquisition, was in 2015 acquired by Brower.

His group of papers, which also includes several in his home base of the Rockland-Camden area, is an unusual instance of locally based ownership, similar combinations in most other states being held by large multi-state chains or passive investment groups.

The Franklin County based Daily Bulldog, one of the only exclusively on-line newspapers in Maine, founded by the Hanstein family just over 10 years ago, is of course another instance of a media outlet that has remained locally owned and controlled.

Today, Ed Morin, my 1960’s daily newspaper route rival is a news producer for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. Though Morin back in the 1960s might well have had the prescience to foresee that the Daily Sun he then delivered and the Press Herald that I distributed would one day be under common ownership, most Mainers then would have considered such a combination as improbable as if the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox had made the same announcement.

Today, of course I wonder if that’s what will happen next! If Reade Brower is the midwife of such a future combination he would likely attempt to make sure that the two teams would still be playing against each other for the American League pennant just as he is today molding plans to sustain competition between his recently expanded teams of newspapers.

Time will tell.

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