By the time the former owner of Village NetMedia met with employees from Knox and Waldo county’s community newspapers to explain the reasons for the company’s sudden closure, wheels were already in motion to bring the weeklies back to local newsstands under their original names.

In an email message to staff March 9, VillageSoup founder and former owner Richard Anderson of Camden announced that all of the company’s publications had ceased operations as of 5 p.m. On the following Monday morning, March 12, Anderson faced a group of employees at the company’s Rockland headquarters at 301 Park St. to explain the situation, answer questions and allow David Grima of the Rockland CareerCenter to help employees navigate the process of applying for unemployment.

The closure affected 56 VillageSoup employees including sales staff, reporters, editors, graphic designers, office support staff and circulation employees.

Anderson acknowledged in the email that the company had faced financial strain due to industry changes, the struggling economy and the company’s investment in new products. During the meeting March 12, he said he had hoped to work with the bank and investors to continue operations, but negotiations had failed by 3 p.m. March 9.

By then, Reade Brower, founder and president of The Free Press, had already begun talking to his own employees about the need to step in and fill the void in local news left by the closure of the local papers.

“It was clear to me that the community needed its papers and the papers needed their communities, so we agreed to get together Saturday with both the lending institution and current Free Press management to see if we could find a way to make this work,” Brower said. “I knew this was the right thing to do and that returning the papers to their roots was part of my duty and my destiny.”

On the afternoon of March 12, Brower signed a letter of intent to purchase the assets of Village NetMedia. That evening he met with Regional Editor/Sports Director Ken Waltz and Associate Editor Daniel Dunkle of VillageSoup to discuss plans for building a new management team, hiring a staff and establishing a new company that would bring back the local weekly newspapers under their longtime historical names: The Courier-Gazette in Rockland, The Camden Herald in Camden, and The Republican Journal in Belfast.

The Camden Herald had been closed and the historic names of the other papers had been changed under Anderson’s leadership.

It was decided that the VillageSoup brand would be retained and the popular websites would continue to provide local news. However, Brower’s vision was to change from providing free news on the Internet to asking readers to pay an annual fee for the service.

Brower explained that providing news for free was not a sustainable business model. He noted it costs a great deal of money to pay professionals to gather news. Even the news online costs something to create, so members of the community, who enjoy reading the news, need to be willing to pay for the service.

While some employees from The Free Press helped in an advisory capacity at first, Brower created a separate company to manage the new newspapers: Courier Publications LLC.

The management team was hired for the new company. Waltz was hired to manage sports and provide support for news staff. Dunkle was hired as editor for the news side of the three weekly newspapers. David Libby, a longtime Courier-Gazette salesperson and recent employee of The Bangor Daily News, was hired to head the company’s advertising arm. Christine Dunkle was hired to head the graphic production team. Bryan Gess was hired as operations manager, providing direction for the circulation department, information technology support, and other departments.

Over the course of the next two weeks, this team, often meeting in Waltz’s home, hired more than 30 employees to fill out the staff of the three newspapers. Most of these employees were former VillageSoup staffers.

“We didn’t even have time to process the demise of VillageSoup before we were back at work and working hard,” Daniel Dunkle said.

Not all of the former employees returned. While Brower was bringing back newspapers in Knox and Waldo counties, he decided not to re-open The Bar Harbor Times or the Capital Weekly, both formerly owned by VillageSoup. The Bar Harbor Times, once the paper of record for Mount Desert Island, had seen a number of staff cuts over the past few companies that owned it, and faced strong competition from The Mount Desert Islander, owned by the Ellsworth American. The Capital Weekly, started in the Augusta market in 1996, had not developed a lasting foothold in an extremely competitive market.

In addition, some upper management positions among the former VillageSoup staff were no longer needed in the smaller, new company.

One of the first challenges faced by the new Courier Publications was where to locate its Rockland office. Anderson, through RMA Properties, had sold the VillageSoup building at 301 Park St. earlier in the year to the Knox County government for use as part of the county’s public safety campus. The building is a neighbor to the sheriff’s office and jail.

Despite the sale, Knox County commissioners had agreed to allow VillageSoup to remain in the property, as long as the publishing company paid for all utilities and maintained the building.

The new management team was now told that they had to be out of the building by March 31, or the building would end up changing from a nonprofit county building to a taxable office property and would be subject to more than $9,000 in property taxes.

With plans to have newspapers on the street by April 5, the team began to scout available office spaces in Rockland.

New offices were rented on the fourth floor of the Breakwater Marketplace at 91 Camden St. (Route 1), next to URock and above the CareerCenter.

On March 26, the new Courier Publications opened for business, and the management team unveiled its vision for the company to new and former VillageSoup employees.

“We’re going back to the basics,” said Dunkle. “We see community newspapers as fulfilling a variety of vital roles: we are the watchdogs for local government, a community bulletin board for local events, a place to find fair, objective reporting on life and policy in the Midcoast. Our editorial pages will serve as a forum for debate on important issues, and we welcome letters and guest columns from the community.”

Work began on gathering news in the community, selling ads, re-designing the newspapers and getting all of the various news feeds, subscription lists, and computer and phone systems up and running.

One of the frequently asked questions from the community during the process of starting this company up has been what will be done about this or that bill to the former VillageSoup company. Brower has purchased the company’s assets, but not its debts.

However, the company has decided to honor all of its existing subscriptions.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Brower said.

The Republican Journal was founded in 1829. The Courier-Gazette dates back to 1846 (starting as the Limerock Gazette) and The Camden Herald goes back to 1869.

“As a result of a lot of hard work by a small, dedicated staff under a tight deadline, the community has not only their papers, but a piece of their history back,” Dunkle said. “In 13 years of doing this, I’ve never seen the morale so high in a newsroom. The attitude is, ‘This is what we do, and we’re up to the challenge.'”

Contact and subscriptions

The Camden Herald is in the process of relocating to 5 Bay View St. in Camden, on Sharp’s Wharf.

News items, obituaries, press releases and letters can be sent to any of the papers by email via news@villagesoup.com.

The office number is 207-594-4401 for the Courier-Gazette and Camden Herald, and the fax number is 594-1679.

The Republican Journal will continue to be located at 161 High St., Belfast, ME 04915, by phone at 338-3333 and fax at 338-5498.

If you had a subscription with VillageSoup’s papers before, it will be honored. Readers who want full access to our news and sports coverage online will need to pay a small fee — less than 8 cents a day.

The newsstand price will be lowered from $1.50 to $1. To have the newspaper mailed directly to your home if you live in Knox, Lincoln or Waldo counties, it will cost $49.95 per year (more for out of state), with an additional $9.95 to include access to Knox or Waldo VillageSoup online.

Internet-only access will be available for $29.95 per year and access to individual articles will be 99 cents. We are also exploring weekly and quarterly online subscription rates.