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Inside the Media Morgue
final deadline/ Seacoastnh.com artHISTORY MATTERS

The recent demise of Accent Magazine and the Atlantic News suggest only one obvious lesson. Never start a publication that begins with the letter "A". But seriously folks, the Seacoast is littered with the remains of newspapers and magazines that have fallen by the wayside. (Read More)

I will miss writing my historic house column on the back page of Accent. And I will miss the enthusiastic writing of Atlantic News reporter Mark Chag Jr., who had a great interest in local history. But on the upside, I can add two more items to my growing collection of dead seacoast periodicals.

The simultaneous departure of two dissimilar products, one a glossy home and garden magazine, the other a free newsweekly shopper, may indicate a softening advertising market in a downward economy. Or we might blame the Internet that continues to chop away at the print media industry like a great white shark with a tapeworm.

My theory, as a Portsmouth writer for 35 years, is less spectacular. History tells us that the average local publication has a short life span, somewhere between that of a mayfly and a canary. A few outlive dogs and cats, while the turtles and elephants are rare indeed. Despite its cache and reputation, this region has a relatively tiny population with diverse interests. It takes a lot of loyal subscribers to keep on printing.

I mentioned this fact to the future publishers of Portsmouth Magazine about a decade ago when we met in the cluttered office above the downtown news shop on Congress Street. Perhaps I was a tad blunt.

"You could save yourself a lot of pain and frustration," I told them, "by jumping off a tall building now. Profiting from a small publication around here has always been difficult."

The imaginary city

Needless to say, I never got a writing job from that magazine. But I did contribute frequently to an earlier Portsmouth Magazine. A lot of us loved that little free weekly newspaper. It defined the city in the early 80s as scrappy, sometimes clever, and feeling its oats. These were the dawning days of musicals in Prescott Park, trees in Market Square, and jazz at The Press Room. The city was reborn and a lot of people wanted to write and read about it.

Publisher Duke Richards who, I think, came from New Jersey, once called Portsmouth, "The town that thought it was a city". I have used that line often over the years. Portsmouth looks like a city, but functions behind-the-scenes like a colonial village. If you know who to call, you can get anything done. But there are just not enough buyers to support a wide variety of publications.

Portsmouth Magazine was actually born out of an earlier tabloid called Women for Women Weekly. Duke and his wife Candace bought it from Donna Tremblay, who had tapped into the city's emerging feminine side. I have copies of both in my collection.

More cherished are my yellowed copies of Publick Occurrences, the tough-hearted paper out of Newmarket that some say sent Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis packing in 1974 when he tried to build an oil refinery in Durham and a tanker pipeline from the Isles of Shoals. Editor Bob Levine and publisher Phyllis Bennett took on the Manchester Union Leader and Gov. Meldrim Thompson who favored the refinery in a David-and-Goliath duel. It was the bravest thing any local publication has ever done, but when the crisis passed, the paper passed on.

The best of the lost

I am proud to say I wrote a couple of pieces for Publick Occurrences. Ambidextrous artist Bob Nilson illustrated one of them -- a piece about yours truly applying for food stamps. Jay Smith, the late beloved owner of the Press Room and Music Hall philanthropist, was the photographer. My wife and I recently dined with Phyllis Bennett and politician Dudley Dudley. Someone should give them an award. It was Dudley who showed Onassis that although democracy was born in ancient Greece, it’s alive and well in coastal New Hampshire.

Of course, there was Re:Ports, that started as a one-page weekly events calendar and morphed into an alternative culture magazine. There was a time when every refrigerator in the region owned by anyone under 30 had the latest issue of Re:Ports magnetized to the door. The patchwork short-run Xeroxed freebie became so popular, that creators Bill Paarlberg and Phil Augusta were retro-pop icons around town. But they never made money, and eventually, we all have to.

My collection is full of holes, but I’ve got the late Seacoast Sunday and the defunct. Portsmouth Press. I wrote the front-page news feature in the Rockingham Gazette and its inside gossip column for most of the first 200 issues. This was back in the day when Ottaway Industries and Dow Jones were competing with the Thompson newspaper chain. When Ottaway won the battle, my paper was put out to pasture.

Down in the morgue

Here are a few more highlights from my faded folder of ex-publications:

  • NH Profiles
    Arguably the best statewide magazine in NH history, Profiles survived for decades. It evolved from a small-format state-funded tourism publication called Troubadour. Then it moved to the Seacoast in the 80s and promptly died.
  • Shoreliner
    This glossy black-and-white seacoast magazine survived longer than most and looked much like a regional version of NH Profiles. Many of its articles were well researched, well written, and are still useful to historians.
  • Clue Magazine
    Their slogan was "the only tourist magazine that’s sarcastic" -- or something like that. A glossy mix of Yankee humor and ads centered around the more-or-less imaginary town of Tatnic, Maine.
  • Business Digest
    The red Time-magazine-style cover had a professional look, but the articles were largely puff pieces that often featured the advertisers. Don and Alice White, who also ran NH Profiles in its final years, made a solid effort to keep this franchise going in the seacoast, but again, it’s all a numbers game.
  • Rockingham Magazine
    A lovely attempt at a slick Seacoast regional magazine. I submitted an article that I was told would be on the cover of the second issue – but #2 never came out.
  • NH Times
    This state-wide progressive news weekly evolved from The Flea Market, a paper version of Craig’s List before the Internet. You could tell by the superb large photographs and the high quality journalism that it wasn’t going to last. But in its day, NH Times championed many seacoast area causes, including the anti-nuke movement.
  • Seacoast Life
    Slick, colorful, costly, this magazine wanted to be the local version of Yankee or Downeast. Great idea, few subscribers. I sold one piece before it folded.
  • Portsmouth Gazette
    There were at least three publications by this name, including one from the late 1700s, one that croaked after a few issues in the 1980s, and one that advertised its arrival, but never materialized.
  • Penumbra
    This large-format arts and literary magazine appeared on quality paper stock and was impressively designed. I published a poem or two, although contributors were unpaid. It appeared two or three times
  • Portfolio Magazine
    This mid-1990s booklet-sized monthly was part Penumbra, part Re:Ports. The editors, both named Mark, included lots of poetry and artwork and even short fiction wrapped around cultural events -- al on cheap but color newsprint. Again, readers aplenty, but advertisers hard to find in Portsmouth. .
  • The Piscataqua Weekly
    An attractively designed full-sized newspaper that, as far as I can tell, came out on May 22, 1997 and died the same day. The paper’s advisory board read like a Who’s Who of Portsmouth movers and shakers, who apparently moved on to shaking other trees.
  • Hampshire Life
    Designed by a Portsmouth chef and a local printer on State Street, this one never got out of the test kitchen. The printed prospectus is the rarest jewel in my collection, and again, the piece I wrote for them never saw the light of day.

 

Copyright © 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is owner and editor of the popular history web site SeacoastNH.com. His history feature appears every other Monday in the Herald.

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