Maine's last, true-blue alternative journalist Chris Busby edits and publishes his own monthly magazine, The Bollard. He also writes some of its stories, sells all the advertising and delivers the nearly 50-page newsprint publication in his Toyota Prius, from from Biddeford to Rockland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Leaning against a graffitied, downtown brick wall on Monday, Chris Busby blew vape steam through both nostrils, scoffing at a proposed statewide ban on flavored tobacco products.

“Nanny state,” Busby, 52, said, shaking his head in disbelief.

Last year, the journalist wrote a 2,800-word screed against such a prohibition, publishing it in his own monthly magazine-style newspaper, The Bollard. Busby said opposing flavored tobacco was an easy layup for lawmakers looking to polish their reputations without trying too hard.

“Politicians get to look like they give a damn about public health when every other piece of available evidence proves beyond a doubt that they don’t care at all,” he wrote.

Recent polls, however, reveal a majority of Americans are actually in favor of doing away with all tobacco products. That sentiment leaves Busby in an unpopular minority on the issue.

But that’s OK with him. Railing against popular opinion, publishing outsider stories and weird art has been Busby’s way of life for 25 years.

Chris Busby has been a Portland journalism fixture since the late 1990s, when he got his start at the Casco Bay Weekly newspaper. Busby has published The Bollard since 2005. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Since the late 1990s, he’s been a constant presence on Maine’s alternative journalism scene, first as a reporter and now as publisher of The Bollard. During the past 25 years other edgy papers, lefty websites and hipster blogs have come and gone. But Busby has remained.

Now, he’s Maine’s last full-time alt-news journalist.

Throughout his career, Busby has courted controversy while never shying away from a fight. He is also a confident believer in advocacy-based, fully-slanted journalism. Busby regularly goes to press with pieces penned by violent incarcerated felons as well as rambling first-person tales of unhoused life on Portland’s streets and pencil-drawn, perplexing cartoons that run on, pages at a time, without explanation.

Recently, in his own muckraking reporting, Busby has accused a one-time school board member of impregnating a 16-year-old runaway, staked out a hotel lobby to reveal a mayor’s marital infidelity and helped bring down the chief of the State House police department, exposing the cop’s social media posts supporting far-right conspiracy theories.

But throughout this long career of poking the powerful and bruising official noses, Busby has often relied on unnamed sources, word on the street and unproven accusations, leaving Busby’s more mainstream journalism counterparts shaking their heads and questioning his ethics.

And that’s OK with him, too.

“I couldn’t care less. It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t need their approval,” Busby said. “I care what the readers think.”

Busby came to Maine from upstate New York via Boston at the tail end of the last century. By 1998, he was a reporter at Portland’s then-flagship alt newspaper, the Casco Bay Weekly, working for veteran newsman Al Diamon.

When the weekly fired its entire staff in 2002, Busby went back to New York for a year, then returned to Portland, reporting about city government for the Forecaster, a mainstream weekly tabloid.

All the while, he dreamed of starting his own alt newspaper. In summer 2005, Busby did, naming it The Bollard after the sturdy posts used to tie up ships on the waterfront.

After a brief pandemic-era flirtation with turning his paper into a worker-owned collective, Busby is once again running the paper solo, editing submitted columns, writing cover stories, and selling advertising.

Busby even delivers all 16,500 copies of the now-monthly paper himself, dealing them out of the trunk of a Toyota Prius, from Biddeford, to Bridgton and up the coast to Rockland.

We sat down with Busby this week to talk about his career and personal vision of alt journalism.

BDN: I just want to start out by saying that you were the first person to ever interview me about my music career. That was 25 years ago, in December 1998. I remember you recorded the conversation on a cassette tape.

Busby: Wow. The first? I definitely remember that story. Those days were a lot of fun. So yeah, that was really how I got my feet wet with alternative journalism.

A December 1998 interview by Chris Busby in Portland’s Casco Bay Weekly featured current Bangor Daily News journalist Troy R. Bennett. Now, 25 years later, the roles have been reversed, with Busby doing the talking. Courtesy of the Portland Public Library archives Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

BDN: What does the term “alternative journalism” even mean?

Busby: I’m only going to publish things that would not otherwise be published in the mainstream press. Sometimes that has to do with the fact that the content is edgy and makes people uncomfortable. Mainstream media doesn’t want to touch those stories. Generally, our main editorial guideline is that it has to be about Maine and it has to be created by someone who lives here, pretty much full time.

BDN: A lot of The Bollard’s content consists of personality driven columns, right?

Busby: Yeah. I especially like getting the voices of marginalized people in there, like recently unhoused people or people from the trans or LGBTQ world. One of our longtime columnists is “Tackle Box” Billy Kelley. He doesn’t really use computers. So, for years now, I go down to his place and pick up a sheaf of papers — random scraps of paper, sometimes on things like medical documents or bags — and type them up. No other editor is going to take the time to deal with that. When he’s got something, he’s got something.

BDN: And you pay him for those columns?

Busby: Absolutely, everyone’s paid. But I’m willing to work with some writers that other editors generally wouldn’t because, you know, they present their work in a way that’s just kind of crazy or it takes a ton of editing.

BDN: Even with editing, you’ve published some massive pieces in the past.

Busby: We’ve been serializing Kenny Wayne’s “Transience” memoir for three-and-a-half years.

BDN: How long will that turn out to be in the end?

Busby: In the neighborhood of probably 150,000 words. As you may recall, he wrote that on his flip phone, having to press a button two or three times to get every letter, when he was homeless.

BDN: What about your own reporting? How far is too far, in terms of anonymous sources?

Busby: That’s just a safety issue. I have no problem giving someone anonymity when their personal safety is at stake. It often comes up when people want to blow the whistle on something. It’s the very nature of those stories, granting people anonymity to shield them from retribution. I think we probably use anonymous sources a little more than other traditional print publications do, like Press Herald or the BDN but it’s not as though I’m the only one doing this and I firmly stand behind the need, the rightness, the correctness of granting people anonymity when it’s necessary to expose wrongdoing.

BDN: Have you ever lost advertisers over something you’ve published?

Busby: It’s pretty rare that we lose advertisers but we have lost distribution locations, most famously Shaw’s and Market Basket, which both banned The Bollard.

BDN: What was that over?

Busby: The cover story that they got uptight about was called “Woods Queer.”

BDN: As I recall, that was a story about someone living in the woods during the pandemic.

Busby: It’s an expression. It’s been part of “old Maine” for years, about being in the woods for a long time. Shaw’s was a big chunk of our distribution. That wasn’t fun. I was trying to understand what they found objectionable and, you know, this is a very corporate outfit, they ended up giving me a response that said, “Your content has to be suitable for all ages.” And I was like, ‘What does that mean? I can’t make a 6-year-old cry?’ This is a company that puts the National Enquirer at every checkout, at a child’s eye level.

BDN: Still, you have no plans to change your content?

Busby: I think having a reputation as a publication that’s going to have something edgy or controversial is a good thing. We get the readers and that’s what the advertisers want. They want eyeballs on it. 

BDN: Have you scaled back your online presence?

Busby: Right now we’re only in print. I am going to revive the website at some point, probably in the fairly near future. But I think we really need to stick with our core kind of medium, which is the printed magazine. I want to encourage our readers to take the time to sit down and read something on paper. I see a lot of people trying to limit their online time — and their time on social media and so forth. It’s not only a practical approach, there’s a philosophical message there that says, “Slow down. Think about things. Take a more thoughtful, measured approach to your reading and your thinking.” The magazine format plays into what I feel is a better way to consume media.

The latest issues of The Bollard have features stories about a famous male stripper, Portland’s last punk club and a first person tale of homeless life on Portland’s streets. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

BDN: You really think print is the wave of the future? I guess that’s a genuine, “alt” approach to take, these days.

Busby: I think there is a movement among young people, among teenagers, to get rid of smartphones and the internet. They’re hanging out, reading books or playing chess. I think the shine continues to come off the apple as far as the internet is concerned, because it’s a real mess — with so much manipulation and surveillance. It’s a bad medium in so many respects. So, yeah, there are a lot of benefits to being a print-only publication.

BDN: That sounds dystopian and hopeful at the same time. How long can you keep this up, publishing The Bollard?

Busby: I don’t see any end to it. I’ll just keel over at my keyboard someday. I don’t have a retirement plan. There’s no better kind of career or work for me that I can see. The only way that it would end for me is if I’m physically unable to type — and then maybe I can just dictate it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.