GORHAM, Maine — First-year University of Southern Maine student Dakota Eddy trudged around campus on Valentine’s Day, walking by fellow students staring at their phones.
Eddy toted a reusable shopping bag full of old-fashioned newspapers, stopping at each dorm, lecture hall and public lobby, dropping off copies of The Free Press, USM’s student newspaper since 1972. Eddy is the paper’s community editor. Like nearly every member of its staff, she also helps deliver the publication.
Each copy she delivered is a minor miracle. Faced with the pandemic, graduations and the wider labor shortage, Free Press editors decided they didn’t have enough staff to keep their website and social media accounts up to date while still printing the paper.
They had a big decision to make.
That’s when the 20-something, digital-age editors running the show chose to let the website, Facebook and Twitter go dark and concentrate on print, running against a long-term trend that has accelerated during the last few years. The University of Maine’s student newspaper dropped print for good last year.
“With the amount of struggle, blood, sweat and tears that goes into every issue, it feels gratifying to hold something in our hands,” Arts and Culture Editor Ben Reed said.
The Free Press has been a totally student-funded and published publication since its inception. It is not affiliated with any academic department and USM doesn’t have a journalism program.
At the start of the academic year last fall, Reed and Kelley Ledsworth, now the editor in chief, were the only two Free Press staffers left. Graduation had taken nearly everyone else the previous spring. A third person, slated to be an editor, studied abroad instead.
Reed and Ledsworth put out the year’s first issue on their own. Swamped and overwhelmed, they decided to worry about the website later. Over the course of the fall semester, other students joined them, and they now have a more-or-less full contingent.
Out in the field this week, Free Press photographer Will Fudge shot pictures at a Mardi Gras Cajun cook-off run by the campus radio station, WMPG. Fudge likened the draw of the print paper to the retro-cool of vinyl records.
“It has its place,” he said. “But we should also probably start thinking about TikTok and Youtube videos at some point.”
As of this week, the Free Press website and social media accounts were still frozen in time. Nothing has been updated since last April. Ledsworth said it’s in the works and someone is being trained to do it but it’s still not much of a priority.
She’s still in love with newsprint.
“In this digital world, we would probably get a lot more people reading the paper if we did just do it online,” Ledsworth said. “But everything else is online. This is a real thing.”
To produce the real thing, every three weeks or so the staff meets for a brainstorming session upstairs inside the former house on Bedford Street in Portland The Free Press has called home for decades.
Standing in front of a whiteboard in a former sunroom, Ledsworth takes notes and leads the conversation. Story and photo ideas get tossed out, shaped and assigned as a group.
At the end of the boisterous process, the staff scatters with Ledsworth and Reed reminding them about deadlines and the correct Google folder where they are to file their pieces.
On production days, which are always the Friday before a Monday issue comes out, everyone meets again to lay out the pages and proofread stories and cutlines. Ledsworth sits in front of a computer with three screens, two of which are dark. One has so many notes taped to it, she couldn’t see anything on it if she tried.
There’s food, a lot of joking around and serious conversations about journalism.
By early Friday evening, the new issue is ready and sent off to the printer. On Monday, staffers like Eddy take their assigned allotment and head out to deliver.
It’s a pain but Eddy, who also has a full slate of classes, thinks it’s worth the effort.
“It’s better than trying to show someone what you did on your phone,” she said. “And besides, who wants to do a crossword puzzle online?”