'A newspaper has to have a personality'
November 3, 2014
Alan Baker’s success: practicing carpe diem every day
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
Alan Baker is having fun. He’s up in Ellsworth, ME, publishing two of the best community newspapers in the country. His stable of columnists include a retired CIA agent who writes about foreign affairs, a former state senate appropriations committee chairwoman who writes about state affairs, and a managing editor who writes hilariously about cheap wine.
Right now, Baker is in the middle of a great caper, publishing a serialized novel penned weekly by a handful of local writers. It is a real whodunit that keeps his readers hanging from week to week as they wait to find out who committed the “Murder at the Black House.”
“The murder mystery is a hoot, and it is the talk of the town,” Baker said, laughing on the phone last month. “We’re at Chapter 15, and the climax is near.”
Baker is a man who loves his newspapers, especially the angles and the quirky parts.
“You have to have fun with it,” he said. “A newspaper has to have a personality. It has to stand for something. We are in the entertainment business as much as the information business.”
Baker rose up through the ranks in corporate America’s golden age, and he did it the old fashioned way, climbing the ladder one rung at a time. He brings his old-school newspaperman’s sensibility to media’s new age as he tackles today’s modern challenges using the philosophy and workmanship that took him to the top of the chain in a Fortune 500 company.
For the last 24 years, Baker has served as president and owner of the Ellsworth American, but he had to climb a ladder to reach that pinnacle, too.
And that was OK with him.
It’s his comfort zone.
When Baker took over the Ellsworth American, he had already enjoyed the kind of career many people dream about. Growing up in a small Maine town, he went off to seek his fortune in big cities after graduating from Bowdoin College in 1951. He sold ads for General Electric Co. in Schenectady, N.Y., and Paterson, N.J. He managed Hopkins Co. in Philadelphia, PA. And went on to work as assistant to the business manager at the Philadelphia Inquirer and later as advertising sales manager at the Philadelphia Daily News.
By 1976, he was executive vice president and vice chair of the board of directors of Macmillan Inc. of New York City and London, England, a Fortune 500 company.
Then he walked away.
“I had enough of corporate life,” he said. “So I resigned.”
Baker was in his late 40s and had never taken any time off.
For about a year and a half he traveled. To Europe. The Caribbean. Around the U.S.
Then he headed back home to Maine to do some things he had always wanted to do—own a small business and get involved in politics.
He started National Media Services in Orrington, ME, in 1980 and ran it until 1986. In 1984, he served a two-year term in the Maine State Legislature.
He also set his sights on the Ellsworth American, an old, storied weekly newspaper, which he had long admired. At its helm was owner James Russell Wiggins, a former Washington Post editor who had bought the newspaper in 1966 and seemed in no hurry to sell it—to Baker or anyone else.
Baker was nearing 50 when Wiggins entertained his offer to buy the newspaper. But before he took over, he went to work for Wiggins as general manager.
Today he laughs at the memory.
“I was the understudy for 4½ years before buying the newspaper,” he said. “I was a protégé at the tender age of 50.”
When Baker was promoted to publisher and took over ownership, Wiggins continued working there, writing weekly editorials for no pay. He also wrote weekly poems and stayed on the job until he finally retired at 96. He died Oct. 19, 1990.
Wiggins was one of the most well known and highly regarded newspapermen in the U.S. at the time. In addition to serving as Washington Post editor, he was a United Nations Ambassador in the Johnson administration.
“He was one of the most famous editors in the country,” Baker marveled. “And he worked for me for free, in exchange for an office and a secretary.”
Today, the Ellsworth American still carries Wiggins’ poems on its editorial page. The newspaper also publishes the national debt on the front page every week, another carryover from the Wiggins era that Baker loves.
The Ellsworth American grows its own crop of staff and promotes from within. Clerks have a chance to enter management. Summer interns have a chance to become editors.
“We build our own staff throughout the whole paper,” Baker said. “We know how to recognize talent and move them along.”
Even after a successful corporate career, Baker found he still had a few lessons to learn from a business as small as his weekly newspaper.
“This is absolutely a total team effort,” he said. “There are no stars and everyone is entirely dependent on one another.”
He has also learned to appreciate his newspaper’s independence.
“We operate independently without economic pressure from any single source,” he said. “We are in a relatively rural area, and there is no single large employer dominating the market or advertiser putting pressure on us.”
For years, Baker had kept his eyes focused on Mt. Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park and the resort town of Bar Harbor. He tried hard to use his Ellsworth American newspaper to tap into that market. After all, the island was just 20 miles away. He couldn’t quite make the reach.
Eventually, he noticed that the nearly century old Bar Harbor Times, which had changed hands several times, was struggling.
So he got down to business, hired Bar Harbor Times Editor Earl Brechlin, and launched the Mt. Desert Islander Nov. 1, 2001.
The Bar Harbor Times folded on March 9, 2012, leaving the Mt. Desert Islander the only paper in town.
“Chance favors the prepared mind,” Baker quoted the famous scientist Louis Pasteur. “That’s my favorite saying. You know, you must be ready to seize an opportunity when it presents itself.”
He has lived that motto for the past 40 years, and it shows in his career path.
It is an understatement for Baker to say the newspaper industry has undergone vast changes during his lifetime. Although many publishers would point to technology as the reason for upheaval, in Baker’s view, the changes have come about through the changing attitudes of the advertisers newspapers relied on to keep the industry moving, though certainly, the Internet and technology have played a major role in that shift.
When Baker was with the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1960 to 1965, its Sunday edition was one of the largest in the country, with well over 1 million circulation.
“We had five department stores in town, and each one would buy eight full pages of advertising every Sunday,” he said. “We started each Sunday paper with 40 pages of advertising before we sold a single ad to anyone else.”
Classifieds were booming at the Inquirer, too, with 120 employees selling help wanted ads, real estate ads, and car dealership ads, Baker recalls.
“We published 40 pages of classified ads every Sunday,” he said.
Today, newspapers have shrunk their entire Sunday classified sections into just a few pages. Influential and loyal department stores have given way to the big box discount stores like Costco and Sam’s Club. Online marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay Inc. offer shoppers the convenience of selecting merchandise across the U.S., and even the globe right from the convenience of home computers, smart phones and electronic pads.
In Baker’s view, one thing hasn’t changed—the power of the weekly newspaper.
“We are uniquely positioned to publish news people can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “We publish the school lunch menus, kids’ sports, local success stories, obituaries and news about regular people in our community.”
“We call our brand of reporting ‘refrigerator journalism,’” he said.
Not only is news fresh every week, it comes ready to be clipped and posted on refrigerators near and far.
Baker’s brand of journalism is also personal, and he never hesitates to remind reporters of this.
“We tell the reporters who come to work here that in a small town you will be standing in a supermarket line with other customers who may be relatives of the people you are writing about,” he said. “They will recognize you and when they do, you will need to ask if the story you wrote was fair, and make sure they say ‘yes.’”
He warns his reporters to never take advantage of people for the sake of a story.
Both the Mt. Desert Islander and the Ellsworth American have taken home many journalism and advertising awards, including the coveted National Newspaper Association General Excellence Award. The Ellsworth American was the second place General Excellence winner this year. Baker is in the New England Newspaper Association Hall of Fame and was named the James O. Amos Award-winner by NNA in 2011.
This year, the Mt. Desert Islander won a first place award for public notice advertising in the recent NNA Better Newspaper Advertising Contest. The judge complimented the use of boxes and reverse headings, which made the public notice advertising appear more organized.
Online, the Mt. Desert Islander and the Ellsworth American display their public notice sections prominently on their homepages. Once inside, a reader can easily access links to specific notices or use the search engine to locate any notices of particular interest.
Early in Baker’s tenure at the Ellsworth American, the newspaper charged the open rate for public notice advertising. Baker felt they earned the open rate for all of the work that went into publishing them. Before long, he had decided his public notice advertisers should be treated just like any other advertiser so he set up contract rates.
“We sent direct mail to law offices, towns and county offices with information about our public notice advertising program, and we ran our own ad campaign showcasing how readers can learn about building permits, abandoned property, and local government budgets by reading the public notices,” he said.
His sales staff reminded public notice advertisers how they proofread the ads, and provide proof of publication for no charge, and they guaranteed the ads would run correctly, on the correct dates, error-free, and that the newspaper would promote them.
“We put them on our website for free, and we also participate in the Maine public notice website where all of our state’s newspapers aggregate our public notices on a central website.” Baker said.
“We represent a subtle authority, almost like a father, when we properly publish public notices in our weekly newspaper,” Baker said. “Readers know someone other than the government is looking out for their best interests.”
Baker recently caused some controversy when he took an aggressive approach to increasing his subscription base and doubled his single-copy sales price from $1 to $2. He also created a special section of largely entertainment information for subscribers only.
His strategy is working. Subscriptions increased 10 percent within three months of making the change. All subscribers receive their newspaper through the mail.
Baker also has started an in-house agency with four employees devoted to helping local businesses develop websites and manage their social media.
The Ellsworth American and the Mt. Desert Islander have strong online presence, too.
Baker, at 85, vows he will retire eventually, but he won’t sell the paper to a newspaper group or a chain. He is the 10th publisher of the Ellsworth American, which was established in 1851.
“There have been just two owners in the last 50 years, and as long as I can continue to do the job, I’ll go on,” he said. “Whether it stays in newsprint is anyone’s guess.”
It took Baker nearly 50 years to realize the corporate life was not the life for him, and he did something about it.
He learned there is not a better career than publishing a weekly newspaper.
“When I was 47 years old, I was elected vice chairman of a Fortune 500 company. I ran 19 separate businesses and had 12,000 employees in 23 countries,” he said. “This is better than that.”
Name of publisher: Alan Baker.
Name of newspaper(s): The Ellsworth American and Mt. Desert Islander.
How many years have you owned The Ellsworth American and the Mt. Desert Islander? After working with my predecessor, James Russell Wiggins, for four years, I purchased Ellsworth American Inc. January 1991. We started the Mount Desert Islander November 2001.
What are their circulations? The Ellsworth American is 9,202; the Mt. Desert Islander is 4,792.
What are their frequencies of publication? They are both weeklies.
What is your mission statement or motto? Without newspapers, there is no news.
How many people are employed at your newspapers? The Ellsworth American has 41 full-time and seven part-time; the Mt. Desert Islander has eight full-time.
What is the most rewarding aspect of owning a community newspaper? Community newspapers, properly operated, become the lifeblood of the communities we serve, the community’s eyes and ears, and consciousness. And often, its conscience.
What is your biggest challenge? Our biggest challenge is to maintain and increase our fair share of local eyeball time.
What are your top goals for 2015? Our goal for 2015 is to build the audiences for each paper’s print and online editions, while increasing revenue.
What are your newspapers’ most distinguishing characteristics? Our newspapers are local, local, local.
How do you view your newspapers’ roles in the communities they serve? The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander are respected local institutions, sincerely valued in the communities they serve. As temporary stewards of those institutions, we respect our neighbors and friends, and are proud to be their primary sources for local news.
What is one thing you will never change? Never say never.
Websites: www.ellsworthamerican.com; www.mdislander.com