Enduring success

To the Editor:

My stepfather, Joseph Alsop, a nationally syndicated columnist for half a century, used to say that journalism is a trade, not a profession. (And incidentally, he always advised me to avoid it.) My own years as a small town newspaper publisher tend to support this view. I always avoided journalism school graduates. For reporting slots, I hired people with curiosity about life, common sense and reliability.

In the very early 1980s, Earl Brechlin applied for a job in the print shop of The Bar Harbor Times, which my partner Dick Saltonstall and I had just bought from the Shea family. My initial contact with Earl was his flowery embossed stationery, something that reminded me of the Gilded Age. As the paper’s general manager, I reviewed job applications and it struck me: Who is this guy trying to impress? Seriously.

In fact, Earl did not last long in the print shop. Earl says today that it was Saltonstall who encouraged him to switch from the letter press to becoming a cub reporter. Certainly, Dick preferred the role of being writer to being a businessman, and he adored exploring nature and the island. Dick saw before I did that Earl had the instincts of a good journalist and a talented member of the fourth estate.

Indeed, it took me almost 36 years to appreciate how prescient Dick was about Earl Brechlin. While I spent the next two decades running The Camden Herald, I noticed with increasing awe how Earl grew in his job, assuming greater responsibilities at the Times and becoming a leading figure in the Maine Press Association. He clearly loved his newfound vocation, had found his roots on the island and rose from cub reporter to editor through hard work, curiosity about life and down-to-earth common sense.

Not all reporters, however, are endowed with the kind of entrepreneurial qualifications that Earl proved a decade or so later. About 15 years ago, Earl was ordered by the out-of-state chain that owned the Times and other local weekly papers to fire three people even as the company was showing an impressive 18 percent in profits. Earl informed them without delay that he would be handing in his resignation instead.

Alan Baker, owner of The Ellsworth American, quickly recruited him to launch a competing paper, the Mount Desert Islander, and the rest is history. The Bar Harbor Times subsequently went out of business.

But this story is not as simple or easy as it looks. Being a small-town editor is a grueling, extremely stressful job, with unforgiving deadlines looming over you each week and a flood of demands from various interest groups in the community with only a limited ability to meet them. My own partner, Dick Saltonstall, died of a heart attack next to his desk on a deadline night.

After two decades as a publisher, I was more than happy to sell my newspaper in the late ‘90s. Frankly, the public has no clue how much goes into producing a newspaper, much of it dependent on team work and the capacity to accept criticism or worse. Earl remembers coming out of a meeting once to find nails driven through the four tires of his car.

So how did Earl survive at the top of this slippery trade for so long? Here are a couple of ideas, conceived admittedly from a certain distance, behind this mystery.

First, Earl appears to have focused realistically on the mundane but challenging logistics of publishing a paper and avoided getting swept away by the passionate intensities of the day or rhetoric or interpersonal squabbles. He was not ruled by his ego as much as a sense of moderation and decency. Second, Earl’s apparent ability to keep things in perspective was probably empowered by his nonjournalistic hobbies, like building his collection of postcards, his eBay activities, his model railroad and writing books and teaching. Third, as Earl himself reminded me last week, “I really loved this place, and I wanted to see all its pieces.”

From the kid who started off messing around with lead type in the back shop of The Bar Harbor Times in an age that feels a hundred years ago, Earl Brechlin has grown and impressively endured in a vocation loaded with pitfalls and land mines. He has done so with a kind of unpretentious modesty that is perhaps one of the key qualities behind this remarkable success.

William Patten

Mount Desert

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