“What has become of the Star?” demanded an anonymous Kennebunkport patron to the new owner of the paper. She was outraged that someone “from away” would have the audacity to editorialize about her local government, and in a liberal voice, to boot.
After Alexander B. Brook bought the Kennebunk Star from Willis and Perley Watson in 1958 more subscribers than not had serious misgivings but they continued to read the paper. Whether they looked for something new to be insulted by or to see what bodacious changes would be made by the new owner, Sandy Brook and his editor, John Cole, rarely disappointed.
In his 1993 autobiography “The Hard Way,” Sandy wrote that before he and Cole came to the Kennebunks, nobody outside Town Hall knew how things were being run. The newspapermen wrote about what they thought the public needed to know without regard to ruffled feathers. The more Brook opined, the more pages he added to the weekly paper. As his readership grew, so too did his expenses. New printing equipment was purchased and coverage was expanded southward through Wells Ogunquit York and Kittery, on borrowed money. In 1965 the name of the paper was changed to York County Coast Star to reflect the expansion.
The paper was born in Biddeford as the “The Daily Evening Star.” It was first published by Marcus Watson and his son Clarence in 1876 when younger son Willis Lester Watson had just reached the age of majority. After the paper was in publication for a year Lester purchased it and reduced it to a weekly, re-naming it The Eastern Star. The following January he moved the whole operation to Kennebunk. Even though young Lester wasn’t Kennebunk born, citizens welcomed him. They hadn’t had their own paper in almost 45 years. The newcomer declared to his readers that his newspaper was to be independent in politics. He did not intend to take sides in local matters.
Before the telephone -much less the internet- local newspapers had a monopoly on information dissemination. Watson borrowed world news and pithy poems from other papers. He dutifully printed all notices exactly as they were submitted and rarely deemed it prudent to write an editorial in the four-page weekly. Watson carved himself an insider’s niche in Kennebunk by changing nothing for 44 years.
In anticipation of making his sons Willis, Perley and Carl partners in the business, Watson renamed the paper The Kennebunk Star in 1921. This alarming change was not unanimously applauded by his readers. In 1924, Lester’s sons became partners in the newly incorporated Star Print, Inc. When he died in 1941 at 87 years old, Lester Watson held the national record of greatest number of consecutive years as a publisher of the same paper.
Willis, who was also town clerk, took over as president/business manager of Star Print, Inc. and Perley became secretary/treasurer. The brothers were careful to retain their father’s four page, mind-your-own-business, formula.
The Watson’s printing equipment was antique and the family enterprise had never bothered much with financial record-keeping. The net annual income of $2,600, as reported to buyer Alexander B. Brook, turned out to be an exaggeration. Though he gave it his all, the new publisher was never able to operate the newspaper in the black. After fighting the good fight for almost 20 years, he sold it to Joseph L. Allbritton, owner of the Washington Post.
The New York Times Company bought the paper in 1982 and they sold to Journal Transcript Newspapers Inc. in 1995. Seacoast Media publisher, John Tabor, wanted to buy the York County Coast Star in 1999 but Journal Transcript Newspapers Inc. sold to American Consolidated Media. Tabor finally acquired the paper in 2001 and has been its publisher ever since. Seacoast Media is a subsidiary of Dow Jones Local Media, which itself is a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
To this day, nobody who remembers Sandy Brook’s proprietorship of the Star is neutral. Some are still exasperated by his editorial boldness. More celebrate his integrity and wish he had never sold the paper. It’s clear that Brook was in it for the love of journalism. That’s a hard act to follow, especially since the industry has changed so much. Sandy himself wrote in 1993, “Weekly owner-editor-publishers are an obsolescing breed.”
Current Star editor, Kelly Morgan recently discussed the challenges facing modern newspapers. “The York County Coast Star, like most papers, has to deal with changes in the economy and changes in the way people get their news. The whole industry is struggling but weekly papers that cover local news are holding on.” When asked about the preponderance of Portsmouth, NH area ads in the Maine paper the Editor replied, “We are trying to address that issue. We need to balance retaining a local focus with selling enough advertising to cover our costs.”
Publisher John Tabor admits that like everyone else, Seacoast Media had to tighten its belt when the economy tanked. “True, we have fewer employees now and a less visible location in Kennebunk but the York County Coast Star makes a profit every month of the year, possibly for the first time in its history. We will revisit the location issue after the economy recovers,” he said. “I’m in it to own it.”
Tabor, who remembers Sandy Brook’s Star as the best weekly paper in New England, plans to remain nimble. “We have to constantly reinvent ourselves in this kind of an economy,” the publisher explained. “But, our goal is to provide a well-informed editorial page and watch over the environment. That’s what Sandy did. That’s what the people expect.”