The drive to keep the free press alive

As you read this, I’m probably delivering the April issue of The Bollard, driving around southern Maine in my ’98 Saturn coupe, its shocks straining under the weight of several thousand copies. Once a month, on a Thursday, the printer’s truck driver drops two towering, shrink-wrapped pallets of papers on the street in front of my apartment. Our circulation these days is 20,000. It takes me about four days to finish the first run.

I follow a meandering route from Portland up to Bath and back, then down to Biddeford and out to Bridgton, with forays into Westbrook and Gorham. Having done this for nearly six years now, I can drive almost 200 miles making fewer than half a dozen left turns. The delivery route is gerrymandered to include as many coffeehouses, corner stores, sandwich shops, pizza joints, public libraries and pubs as possible — over 350 stops in all.

I’ve had some help over the years, ad reps who’d cover a city or a town or two. Our northern distribution is done by the good folks at the BDN, who’ll be adding communities Down East beginning this month, and the Lewiston/Auburn/Waterville run is done through the guy who stocks the Shaw’s. But most of the delivery is still the duty of yours truly. Even if I could afford to pay someone to take it over, I’d still want to do it myself.

Compared to the stress of the preceding deadline weekend, delivery weekend is relaxing. I get to see some familiar faces, like the friendly guy who works at the pizzeria in Westbrook and the other friendly guy who works at the pizzeria down the street from that one. I catch up with a few characters I’ve gotten to know over the years, like the great poet and activist Gary Lawless of Gulf of Maine Books, in Brunswick, and Saco Mayor Mark Johnson, proprietor of Vic and Whit’s, who invariably turns to That’s My Dump! and tells me about the age and architecture of the rundown property we’ve profiled.

Sometimes almost magical things happen, like the day an impromptu barbershop quartet sang in the entryway of Brackett’s Market in Bath. Or the time I was listening to a They Might Be Giants cassette and “They’ll Need a Crane” played just as I was driving by a crane over the causeway in Naples.

Truth be told, I’m also a bit neurotic about our circulation. I’m obsessed with ensuring the issues are highly visible and easy to pick up. In places with racks containing numerous free publications, there’s an informal, occasionally ruthless competition to secure the best spot, and being a monthly among several weeklies puts The Bollard at a disadvantage. I’m not neurotic enough to return every week and rearrange papers (not everywhere, anyway), but it’s enraging to show up a month later and find a nearly full stack of last month’s issues because some bozo put a competitor’s paper over mine or the stack was moved to a bottom rack where no one is willing to bend.

The most gratifying feeling is to find exactly one issue left. Then you know you’ve nailed it — no one walked over hoping to find your paper and was disappointed (and no one threw the whole stack in the trash).

With a few exceptions (the supermarkets, some Dunkin’ Donuts), all our distribution locations are locally owned, independent businesses. Fast food franchises and chains like Applebee’s generally don’t devote any valuable floor or shelf space to publications like mine. By contrast, Chinese restaurants almost always do — my pet theory is that the crushing censorship in China gives immigrant restaurateurs here a greater appreciation for the free press.

There’s a parasitic quality to this type of distribution. Free papers attach themselves to popular retail businesses in hopes their customers become our readers. We’re like ticks lying in wait by the front door, hoping to be picked up so we can infect another host and spread our ideas. What other type of business is allowed to put its products inside someone else’s business with no money changing hands?

I really appreciate the establishments that make room for free papers. They help support a form of journalism that may very well be doomed as new generations ditch print for pixels. As Al Diamon reports in our April issue, the venerable free weekly Boston Phoenix folded last month after seeing its circulation drop by nearly a third last year. When I see competing papers fall by the wayside, I’m grateful for the shelf space but unnerved by the writing on the wall.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.