End of a ‘good news’ newspaper: Suncook Valley Sun is shutting after a half century

  • The front page of the final edition of the ‘Suncook Valley Sun’ due out March 27 is a letter to the community. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Ross Morse, publisher of the Suncook Valley Sun, in his office in downtown Pittsfield on Friday, March 15, 2019. The last issue of the paper will be on March 27th. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ross Morse, publisher of the Suncook Valley Sun, in his office in downtown Pittsfield on Friday, March 15, 2019. The last issue of the paper will be on March 27th. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ross Morse, publisher of the Suncook Valley Sun, in his office in downtown Pittsfield on Friday, March 15, 2019. The last issue of the paper will be on March 27th. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Suncook Valley Sun publisher Ross Morse is shutting down the Pittsfield office after the paper’s final issue on March 27. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Brenda Courchene, owner of Mike’s Meat Shoppe, talked about the demise of the Suncook Valley Sun at her store in Pittsfield.

  • Brenda Courchene, ownerof Mike’s Meat Shoppe - talked about the demise of the Suncook Valley Sun at her store in Pittsfield. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/17/2019 9:15:10 PM

There’s nothing a small business loves more than a very loyal customer, and you can’t get much more loyal than Brenda Courchene, one of the faithful readers of the Suncook Valley Sun, a weekly paper published in Pittsfield for more than half a century.

“My mom moved to Maine and she would ask me to bring up the Suncook Sun when I went there because she missed it,” said Courchene, co-owner of Mike’s Meat Shoppe in Pittsfield. “It’s got the local stuff, what the churches had going on, what’s happening in towns around us.”

Courchene is just as loyal as her mother. “My folks have always been in the area. I grew up here and we always had the Suncook Sun,” she said. “And we advertise in it. All of us retail stores do our advertising in there.”

Tom Chase is another fan.

“The Suncook Valley Sun has been a part of my life since moving to Northwood 36 years ago,” he wrote in an email to the Monitor. “It helped me become integrated in my new home town. … I  used it last year to find firewood for the winter.”

That kind of tale is heart-warming for the Morse family, which has published the Sun since 1985, particularly the part about ads – but unfortunately, it’s not enough. The brutal economics of print publication in the internet age has finally caught up with the paper, which will put out its last edition March 27.

“There wasn’t one significant moment or client that set it in motion,” said Ross Morse, publisher and last employee of the paper. “It’s a gradual ebb of the advertising revenue being reduced. At first you put on a Band-Aid to correct it, then you find yourself using more and more of them. … It just got too much.”

Lots of papers closing 

The Suncook Valley Sun is hardly alone. The Associated Press reported this week that as many as 1,400 newspapers of all sizes have closed throughout the country, victims of the internet in many ways. Print readers have shifted to the internet and even though many newspapers have grabbed readers online – articles in the Monitor often have more readers now than articles did before the internet came along – the money hasn’t followed as many advertisers moved to Facebook, Google and other online services. As an extra whammy, the shift to online retailing has cut back on local stores that were the heart of the advertising base for papers.

“Pittsfield at the time had two clothing stores and three supermarkets that advertised, and most of that stuff has gone,” said Arthur Morse. “The big advertiser used to be auto dealerships. We used to get 2, 3 full pages from Grappone, Banks, the Dodge place – they just vanished completely. We used to have 4, 5, 6 pages of classifieds – now we’re down to less than one.”

The story can be seen in the number of pages in the edition, a figure that is largely dictated by the number of ads. “When we first had the paper, very seldom were we below 36 pages at that time – sometimes we’d go up to 52,” Arthur Morse said. More recently the paper has been down to two dozen pages or fewer.

The Suncook Valley Sun is a free paper that is mailed to all homes in the six towns around Pittsfield. The owners have cut back on circulation in an attempt to control costs; it was once mailed to 11,000 addresses but over the years some towns have been dropped and other cuts made, such as not mailing to post office boxes in the theory that they are mainly used by businesses. The last paper will be sent to about 8,000 addresses.

A ‘good-news’ paper 

The Suncook Valley Sun never had reporters. It has thrived as a forum for community news, with columns about gardening, school happenings, Pittsfield Players performances and fire department fund-raising dinners, as well as heartfelt local obituaries and a feisty letters section.

“We always thought of it as a good-news newspaper,” said Arthur Morse. “Each town we served had a correspondent who sent us the good news, who had a birthday, who was visiting, that sort of thing.”

The Sun worked hard to stay above the fray of local politics even as it informed people of those issues, and even when the Morse family got involved. 

“All of that was between the readership, never us here at the paper telling them,” said Arthur Morse. “I was a selectman, chairman of the school board, but if I wanted to say something at that time – my wife was the editor – I had to write a letter to the editor to get it into the paper.”

Arthur Morse and his late wife, Elsie, bought the paper in 1985 even though they had no newspaper experience whatsoever. They were both elementary school teachers at the old Walker school in Concord who decided they wanted to try something different.

“The only saving grace is my wife was an English major in college,” Arthur Morse said. The Robertsons helped with the transition and they were off and running.

The paper had been run out of the previous owner’s basement but it succeeded enough that the Morses bought a duplex on Broadway in downtown Pittsfield and moved in. At its heydey, the paper had seven employees.

Fun and frustrating

Ross Morse, who graduated from Pittsfield High School just after his parents bought the paper, has been publisher for 16 years. Elsie Morse passed away six years ago.

Ross Morse says the work has been fun and rewarding, providing interaction with the community that bigger papers rarely see.

“The advertisers in the Sun are neighbors. They own their own landscaping company, paint company,” he said. 

But it has also been frustrating to cope with the downturn.

“One of the big turns was the recession, starting in 2008. Local advertisers really took a hit as well and it was the advertising that ended up being hit the most,” he said. “I don’t know that the cutback really ever went away. There wasn’t a rebound once the housing market came back.”

Morse announced the paper’s closing in the March 13 edition, giving advertisers two weeks to find a new outlet, but news had begun to leak out because he shut down the web site and Facebook page. Online lamentation was quick to follow in places like the “Epsom Local News and Events” page on Facebook, where readers expressed dismay.

“How will I know what’s on sale at Danis?” wrote one person. Danis Supermarket on Water Street regularly runs a big ad on the back page of the Suncook Sun.

Daily newspapers like the Monitor or Foster’s Daily Democrat cover the area to an extent but don’t have the newsprint space or newsroom resources for the detail of a weekly like the Suncook Valley Sun. Tom Chase noted that some people have started an online group called forumhome.org to host discussions and news about some of the areas covered by the newspaper. “But in a state with many older folks – and probably even more so out here in the boonies – an online ‘newspaper’ is not the Sun,” he wrote.

As for Morse, 51, he said he isn’t sure about his post-newspaper plans but he’ll stay in the community; the family has an 8th grader and a 10th grader in local schools. And despite the sadness, he said, there’s satisfaction, too. 

“This has been a success,” he said. “Looking back, there’s been a lot of good that’s come out of here. A lot of good.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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