Today marks the publication of the last issue of the Downeast Coastal Press, a weekly newspaper based in Washington County, Maine. For many readers of this blog, who are based in Ireland and the UK and are more accustomed to my musings on topics related to my theme of ‘building a church without walls,’ today’s post is something of a departure. But the Downeast Coastal Press is where I got my start as a writer, so I wanted to share some of my experiences with the paper.
The Downeast Coastal Press, which became the largest-selling weekly in Washington County, was edited by Fred and Nancy Hastings. They started the paper 26 years ago and never missed a deadline — except for a one day delay in publication when their son was born. They are now retiring and I wish them all the best.
In the weeks leading up to today’s final issue, various former writers for the Downeast Coastal Press contributed reflections on their time with the paper. This is mine, which was published in last week’s edition.
Remembering my early days with the Downeast Coastal Press by G.A. Ganiel
Newspapers were important in our house. My parents subscribed to the Bangor Daily News, the Machias Valley Observer, and soon after it first appeared in the shops, the Downeast Coastal Press. By the time I was nine or ten years old I was passionate about playing and watching sports, so I scoured the sports sections of those papers for stories about our local teams.
But by and large, I searched in vain for stories about the teams at Narraguagus High School and the local elementary schools, including my own Harrington Hawks. There were rarely big stories about Downeast teams in the Bangor Daily, except during tournament time, and the Observer’s coverage didn’t venture that far beyond Machias. One exception to this was when the Narraguagus baseball team won the 1986 State Championship. That made the papers!
I was only 12 years old when I sent a couple of stories I had written about my local teams to the Observer. They duly appeared, word-for-word, on the sports page – but with no by-line or acknowledgement. Not long thereafter, my parents brought the first Downeast Coastal into the house so I decided I would send a story there.
I had worked out how to write a sports story by copying the style of the writers in the Bangor Daily like Joni Averill, Joe McLaughlin, Larry Mahoney and Pete Warner, and by reading Sports Illustrated cover-to-cover every week. That meant leading with the most exciting or important action, and painting a picture throughout so that the reader could almost feel like they had been there. I did not know how to type yet, so I painstakingly put the penmanship lessons I had learned from my elementary school teacher Bernard Ward to work.
I was delighted when my first story appeared in the Downeast Coastal – with my by-line: G.A. Ganiel. I was even more delighted, and surprised, when the editors sent me a free copy of the paper and pay check for my trouble. I began writing every week and carried on till I graduated from Narraguagus.
My mother likes to tell a story about how one day while I was in school at Harrington Elementary, one of the Downeast Coastal’s editors, Fred Hastings, rang with a query about one of my stories, and also thanked her for sending them in. It seems he was quite taken aback when she informed him that her 12-year-old daughter was responsible.
Of course, people local to MSAD #37 had already figured out who was writing the stories, and looking back now, it is amazing the encouragement the adults gave me to keep on writing. Everyone, it seemed, liked reading about the people they knew in the Downeast Coastal – even some of the high school kids who might have previously never dreamed of talking to a 12-year-old. The support emboldened me, even up to the point that I asked Fred and Nancy to write me a letter so I could get a press pass to cover the high school basketball tournament at the Bangor Auditorium. I got some strange looks when I arrived at the press table for the first time.
Although I must have written hundreds of stories over those years between the ages of 12 and 18, a few stand out in my memory.
One of the first stories I wrote was a feature about Narraguagus cross country runners Steve and Judy Berry, a brother and sister who were getting impressive results, making the Downeast Athletic Conference all-star teams and making an impact at the Eastern regional level, too. Steve and Judy lived on the same street as me so that is why I went to watch my first cross country meets, wrote the story, and got interested in the sport that eventually got me an athletic scholarship to university and an activity I could enjoy for the rest of my life.
Another story I wrote after Jonesport-Beals defeated Hyde in the 1993 State Class D boys’ basketball championship: “The Essence of Hyde Versus Jonesport-Beals.” A journalist from southern Maine had written some disparaging remarks about Jonesport-Beals after the game, and seemed to me to accuse the people of Jonesport-Beals of racism while simultaneously attacking the Downeast way of life. My story was a response to that, pointing out the writer’s prejudices and downright errors. I remember the writer mocked the Royals’ warm-up routine, claiming it was disorganized. She had obviously only watched the game on television and didn’t realise the Royals always started with an organized warm-up which then ended with free shooting – like many other high school basketball teams, including the one I played on.
I suppose it was always tricky writing reports of the basketball games and cross country meets I competed in myself, but I was the local writer for western Washington County at the time so I felt it had to be done. At least I could never be accused of not being there in person!
I think the most popular stories I ever wrote were my “Blueberry Raker’s Journal,” a weekly series I put together one summer.
I am not sure now what gave me the idea for the series, but it drew on my own work on the barrens with descriptions of the conditions of the berries, stories about the people I raked with, and reflections on the physical pain of bending over all day to scoop up that precious blue cargo. Because so many people Downeast have the common experience of having raked blueberries, I think the journal resonated with their own memories or current experience, and many people told me how much they enjoyed it. A quote from one of my journal entries was later included in Frank van Riper’s excellent book of photography, Downeast Maine: A World Apart.
I loved working for the Downeast Coastal and always assumed that my career would be as a journalist. I have ended up as an Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at the Belfast, Northern Ireland, campus of Trinity College Dublin. But the work of an academic is not so far from the work of a journalist. My research is in the sociology of religion, which often involves observing and interviewing people and asking them to tell you their story – which otherwise mightn’t be recorded or heard.
For so many years the Downeast Coastal provided a platform where the stories of people Downeast could be told – their achievements celebrated and their experiences shared. Life in Washington County won’t be the same without it.