Editor’s Notebook: This news whole is greater than its parts

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In October 1986, a small group of Falmouth residents decided to fill what they called a “local news void” left by the Portland Press Herald. They launched the Falmouth Forecaster.

They probably never imagined their “hey gang, let’s publish a newspaper” effort would grow to four weekly editions, plus the American Journal and Lakes Region Weekly, with about 80,000 readers a week throughout Cumberland County.

They probably also never imagined their shoestring enterprise would eventually become part of the same organization that publishes the Press Herald.

Neither did anyone now at The Forecaster.

On Aug. 1, our parent Sun Media Group will cease to exist; we’ll become part of SJ Acquisition, a company formed by Reade Brower, the owner of MaineToday Media (Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel, Coastal Journal). The new company is headed by Lisa DeSisto, who is also president and CEO of MaineToday Media.

It’s an understatement to say the July 17 announcement took everyone at The Forecaster by surprise. A company-wide email that afternoon gave us about 20 minutes notice of a conference call, in which members of the Costello family announced the sale and introduced DeSisto and Brower at our mother ship, the Sun Journal in Lewiston. About an hour later, DeSisto was in our Falmouth office, meeting employees, answering questions, and asking questions.

I’ve been at The Forecaster for 13 years, and a professional journalist for 40. I’ve been through this before (and so has The Forecaster). I’ve also learned to take almost anything anyone tells me with a healthy dose of skepticism; questioning is, after all, the journalist’s primary tool.

At a previous job I heard new owners publicly promise newsroom integrity and independence. They even told us they believed in the time-worn – and usually misunderstood – old quote about our purpose being to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” It was only later, in private discussions, that they made it clear keeping advertisers satisfied mattered more to them than serving the readers.

So I hope my new bosses will excuse my admission that I was slightly suspicious when they promised it will be business as usual at The Forecaster and our sister publications after Aug. 1.

But now that I’ve had a chance to think about this sale, my skepticism has been replaced by cautious optimism.

In its nearly 31-year history, The Forecaster has changed ownership four times; each time the transaction made the paper better. The first was in July 1987, when Jane LeShane, Craig Hall, Mark Rajotte and Will Lund took over from the Falmouth volunteers who started the paper as a nonprofit in 1986. It was sold to Marian McCue in 1990; she sold to the Costello family in 2003, and now they have sold to Brower.

Each time, the seller picked a buyer trusted to continue the paper’s tradition of journalism that respects and reflects the communities it covers.

Under every generation of ownership – and particularly under McCue and the Costello family, who grew the paper, its coverage area and its influence – The Forecaster has been committed to independent reporting of local news and sports, in a manner that belies the notion a free weekly must take a back seat to any other news organization.

We compete in print and online against daily newspapers, TV stations and other weeklies. We have succeeded thanks to aggressive, talented reporters and editors; hard-working people who sell ads and run our office; the dedicated folks who provide computer support, run the press and deliver our papers; and publishers and owners who value what we do.

So I liked what I heard from DeSisto last week. Naturally, she couldn’t say much. But what she did say was encouraging, and should encourage our readers, too.

She said she’s a fan of The Forecaster (what’s not to like, considering the number of Press Herald reporters who have started their careers here?). She also said she expects The Forecaster to occasionally collaborate on stories with the Press Herald, and to continue to compete against it, like a not-too-distant “cousin.”

We also hope to benefit from MaineToday Media’s expertise and economies of scale, especially on the digital side of the business: more vibrant, easier-to-navigate websites, more opportunities for advertisers, and a more active social media presence.

Most importantly, DeSisto told us there are no changes planned or expected in our staff. That’s good news for us, and for our readers.

Some readers may see irony in a deal that brings us together, if only as “cousins,” with the news organization that left the gap in local coverage that The Forecaster was born to fill.

But The Forecaster has evolved over the last three decades, and so has the Press Herald. Both are better today than they were in 1986, in part because of the competition between us. I’m confident the competition will continue, and our new whole will be greater than the sum of its parts.

Mo Mehlsak is executive editor of The Forecaster, American Journal and Lakes Region Weekly. He can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 107 or mmehlsak@theforecaster.net. You can also follow Mo on Twitter: @mmehlsak.

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Editor of The Forecaster; prior reporting/editing gigs at Automotive Age magazine, Daily News of Los Angeles, Biddeford Journal Tribune; Syracuse U. Orange-bleeder; lifelong NY Yankees fan, longtime resident of Red Sox Nation.