Belfast, Maine -- It's hard to believe, sitting here at a cottage window, that the world is having its daily crisis, that billions are being lost, that oil prices are yet higher, and it is all the subject of important -- no, pressing -- chatter on the Internet.
Here, life just goes on, paced by blooming lupines, the scent of freshly mowed grass and the distant sound of seagulls. From our windows I see the quaint little cottages of Bayside in one direction and a brisk sweep down Penobscot Bay in another. It occurs to me, however, that Maine weather is a bit like the stock market -- moments of crystalline exuberance followed by days, weeks, or maybe forever, of unrelenting fog.
It would be really easy for me to trot out yet another story of real estate misery. From Boothbay Harbor to Stockton Springs,
But I will spare you that story. There is also a more positive, if subtle, message here. It is this. Some people would have us focus on loss. We in media-land excel at that.
But if we focus on loss, we'll miss seeing the things that are not lost, but restored. We'll also miss the things that are reinvented, rather than restored. Here are two examples, both from this little stretch of Midcoast Maine.
On Thursday, June 19, the Republican Journal, the weekly paper of Belfast, announced that it and five other weekly newspapers in the Midcoast area were being purchased by Village Net Media Inc., an affiliate of www.villagesoup.com. The goal will be to weave together the Internet platform of Village Soup with the print circulation of small newspapers that can trace their history back well over a century. The Belfast Republican Journal, for instance, began publication in 1829.
This is the technology version of your basic man-bites-dog story.
Small newspapers have been threatened with extinction before. In the late '60s small newspapers were dying because of costs, primarily the incredible burden of setting hot type. Then Boston inventor William Garth invented a small and inexpensive photo-typesetting machine. A small newspaper could switch to photo-typesetting for an investment of about $5,000 in one of the machines Mr. Garth's company, Compugraphic, manufactured. Later, linking computers to photo-typesetters eliminated redundant key-boarding and improved the economics of small papers still more.
Through the '70s and '80s there was much media hand-wringing over the decline of newspaper circulations. The decline, however, was limited to major metropolitan papers because small weeklies and dailies were enjoying healthy circulation increases.
Will Village Soup-like changes slow or stop the current decline of traditional newspapers? I don't know. Recently, major newspaper stocks like The Washington Post, New York Times and Gannett were off 26 percent, 38 percent and 59 percent, respectively, over the last 12 months. The stock market is predicting a quick death.
This may be a lousy time to own the shares of legacy newspaper companies, but it's a great time for communication between human beings. Never has so much been possible, so easily. Reinvention trumps loss.
Three days later, a Belfast boat builder, French and Webb, launched three magnificently restored Buzzards Bay 30s from the town boat ramp, amidst the cheers of nearly a thousand people. These lovely N.G. Herreshoff designs were first built in 1910. They represent artful skills that are rapidly being lost. But master boat builders like French and Webb are keeping those skills alive.
Few can afford these works of art -- my brother and I joked that our shared 1980 J30 sloop probably cost less than the last round of varnish work done on any one of these boats -- but it is still a thrill to see the best of an era, to see both exquisite workmanship and appreciation for what has gone before.
As for the stock market, I don't mean to sound cavalier but, well, it's only money. It only dimly represents what we can do.
ON THE WEBVillage Soup Web site
Bangor News story on Buzzards Bay 30 launch:
French & Webb site
Sunday, July 10, 2005: "What I Learned on My Summer Vacation" (7/10/05)
"A Floating Retirement" (3/18/04)