CUTLER, Maine — In the middle of the shed converted to an office, there is the ping-pong table. On the ping-pong table, which takes up most of the space in the room, there are the proofs spread out neatly — page upon page of letter-sized paper, each one a small reproduction of a page from this week’s Downeast Coastal Press.
On opposite walls, facing out, sit Fred and Nancy Hastings, editors and publishers, busy at computers, and in one corner sits their part-time proofreader, Lee McBride. Printers, shelves, and other office furnishings take up space along the walls.
It is Monday, and the Hastings have a newspaper to get out. It goes to their printer in Ellsworth later that day.
The Hastings have been at this for more than 26 years, churning out their community newspaper 51 weeks every year. Enough is enough, they have decided. They will cease publication some time before Thanksgiving.
The couple announced their decision in an editorial in the edition of Sept. 2-8 under the headline, “It’s Time to Retire.” He is 68, and she is 59.
“It is time for the publishers of The Downeast Coastal Press to step away from the imperative of the weekly deadline to pursue other endeavors that the commitment prevents,” they wrote to readers.
The front page of the same issue carried reports, among others, about a recent visit by Maine Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher to the region and the announcement by University of Maine-Machias president Cynthia Huggins that she will retire in December.
The quote of the week, a regular feature on page one, was from Roque Bluffs correspondent Carol Dowley: “Blackberries are plumping out nicely in the hot summer weather, and cooked with local apples growing in abundance along the roadsides, they make a wonderful compote.”
The newspaper includes items from correspondents in various towns — stories that may include reports on a meeting of the local Board of Selectmen, mention of an event such a VFW dance or benefit supper, or homespun ruminations.
Readers and advertisers have been “surprised and saddened” to learn of their decision, Fred Hastings said Monday. The newspaper has a lot of elderly subscribers, he noted, and their response has been, “What are we going to do without you?”
The couple embarked in the newspaper business with no previous experience in journalism or publishing.
In the mid-80s Fred Hastings “felt the urge for entrepreneurship” while teaching at the University of Maine-Machias. His urge combined with the beginning of desktop publishing — using desktop computers and software to create documents, including newspapers.
Hastings knew from his teaching experience that 80 percent of new businesses fail. The couple mulled a number of ideas for a year. “We studied the market,” he said.
It was a fortuitous blend of time, place and circumstances, according to Fred Hastings. Those factors included the budding desktop publishing technology, as well as the rural nature of the communities they aspired to serve. “We saw opportunities,” he said.
Unlike other newspapers that may be based around a municipal or metropolitan hub — such as Ellsworth, which supports a weekly newspaper, and even the small town of Machias, which also supports one — the Hastings did not envision their newspaper as built around a population center. They took a regional approach, “stringing together fishing villages,” as he put it.
“It seemed like it would work,” he added.
They brought some interests and skills to the endeavor: he had majored in English in college and was interested in journalism, and she was into photography as a hobby.
Fortunately, it took little capital. They bought a computer — it’s now with others in a storage room, the display screen about 6 inches square — and started the newspaper in a spare bedroom. They both began working full time in their business, which required 100-hour weeks at first. Nancy Hastings previously had taught at nearby Washington Academy in East Machias.
The first issue, 20 pages published in July 1988, took three months to produce. “It was a huge amount of work,” recalled Fred Hastings.
That coming winter, “It solidified on our living room floor,” recalled Nancy Hastings.
“We learned as we went, for sure,” she added.
The newspaper has been well received over the years. Every issue outsold the previous one — a trend that continued until the Great Recession in 2008. Although the newspaper now has a circulation of just under 3,000, the couple did not try to market their business for sale. If anyone is interested, they should “just start a newspaper,” Fred said. The business has few assets, he noted, the primary ones being him and Nancy.
The Hastings met while working for IBM in New York City. He was from Augusta and she was from Long Island. They lived in Manhattan, but they were disenchanted with it. “We knew the city wasn’t what we wanted,” he said.
They packed their belongings into a U-Haul truck and drove to Maine in 1982. They spent the summer in the Damariscotta area. Fred Hastings responded to a newspaper advertisement for a teaching position at the University of Maine-Machias, and they drove Down East for his job interview.
Although he was from Maine, Fred Hastings had never been to Washington County. The couple debated whether he should accept an offer from the university. As they briefly explored the area, he told her, “This is the real Maine.”
“We’ve loved living here all this time,” he said.
The hours have become more manageable since they launched the startup. Now the Hastings manage to string together a few days off if they please, although Saturday through Monday they are usually at work in their office. However, they only cease publication one week out of the year, at Christmas. The weekly work schedule and the publication schedule made it difficult over the years to take off for any extended period of time. In their retirement they plan to use the opportunity to visit friends and family elsewhere.
The newspaper was late only once, she recalled — when she was giving birth to their son. “I think there were a lot of errors in that issue,” Nancy Hastings said.