December 4, 2020

When Lincoln Millstein retired as senior assistant to CEO Steven Swartz of Hearst in 2018, he faced a familiar dilemma for those leaving high-powered executive positions: What next?

Millstein found an answer serendipitously this spring, deciding to become a hyperlocal blogger covering three small towns in Maine. That takes him “back to my roots,” Millstein told me, the sort of reporting he did starting out at the Middletown bureau of The Hartford Courant in the mid-1970s.

“I write every week and work every day,” he said. And he finds himself amazed that, in just more than six months, The Quietside Journal has gained 17,000 readers in small communities on Mount Desert Island on the bayside opposite Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park.

Typical recent Quietside stories treated a successful wrap-up to lobster season, an understaffed ambulance service and the heightened winter danger for deer collisions.

That is a change of scale and pace, to put it mildly, from Millstein’s executive career with stops in the early digital operations of The Boston Globe and The New York Times, moving on to oversight of digital news at Hearst newspapers to work as an adviser and troubleshooter for Swartz.

“I like it when a piece I wrote gets lots of traffic,” Millstein told me. “That’s the gratification.” Plus, “if I screw up, (readers) will let me know about it — in person or by phone.”

During his years working at Hearst headquarters in midtown Manhattan, Millstein commuted from Greenwich, Connecticut. He and his wife long had a summer “camp,” as Down Easters call their lakeside cottages, upgraded in recent years in anticipation of time on their hands post-retirement.

A trip up there in late March ended up extending for the rest of 2020 thanks to the pandemic.

“Small businesses were freaking out trying to decide whether to open this year,“ Millstein said. “I started picking up a lot of information. The journalist in me felt this was information of interest to the community. That’s how The Quietside Journal got its start.”

He works a narrow niche by design. The Mount Desert Islander is an excellent newspaper, he told me, and The Maine Monitor — like The Connecticut Mirror and VTDigger, two other New England investigative sites — has ambitious accountability coverage in hand.

He aims instead at granular small-town events, issues and lore.

Millstein wrote to me in hopes that other retired journalists would consider highly localized blogs — a way to keep busy, deploy their skills and create “a civic-minded instrument” for localities as small as his — a subset of Mount Desert’s 10,000 full-time residents that grow to 25,000 in the summer.

Maybe they could affiliate and seek foundation support.

Chris Krewson, executive director of Local Independent Online News Publishers, and Sue Cross, his counterpart at Institute for Nonprofit News, each said they have many members with five or fewer employees. A husband and wife, hoping to grow a site for a bigger footprint, may be more typical than what Millstein is trying, they said.

For Millstein, his “sole proprietor” business model is simple — there is none. No advertising, no subscriptions, at least for now, just a commitment of time. While most retirees will not be coming off a top salary career like his, Millstein thinks there are many who are underoccupied and could contribute to pick up some of the coverage that has gone missing as local newspapers contract.

With his background, getting the site set up on WordPress was easy, as has been promoting The Quietside’s stories on social media. And the muscle memory of producing the stories themselves came back quickly.

Millstein’s style is light and personal. The deer collision story lead, for instance, was:

SOMESVILLE, Nov. 18, 2020 – To snowbird readers of QSJ who are ensconced in their Florida condos, Arizona casitas or California beach houses, there is no venison for you!

That’s because there is very little chance of you hitting a deer with your vehicle.

His choice of a headshot struck me as an impish commentary on going native. That’s a face screen to protect against flies, one of the downsides to summer in Maine, and quite the contrast to Millstein’s corporate uniform of a suit and bow tie.

Lincoln Millstein (Courtesy)

Now 70, his break from his earlier career has not been complete. “Nobody really retires from Hearst,” he said. As has been reported, Swartz called his number to assess promoting Troy Young to president of Hearst’s magazine division. Young is a digital change agent who lost credibility after making lewd and inappropriate comments to female coworkers.

I have known Millstein, or at least known of him, since I was running a group of business magazines and he was a business reporter and later business editor of the Globe. (I sounded him out on possibly moving to Florida and got a polite no thanks).

He struck me as both highly competent and a bit of a maverick — as evidenced by a 2017 essay that questioned whether the newspaper industry had gone astray by chasing digital clicks while cutting back print and on-the-ground reporting.

The current venture is consistent with that conclusion. “I started getting feedback that was very appreciative right away,” Millstein said. “Everybody returns my calls.”

What might seem microscopic news even in a city the size of Portland or Bangor looms big in Bass Harbor, Southwest Harbor and Somesville. Institutions like the library, for instance, really matter.

His biggest story, Millstein said, has been a local take on federal Payroll Protection Program money — “which employers on the island received more than $150,000 in payroll protection loans which got a big reaction from readers many of whom still thank me for digging that data out. It had some nonprofits like the hospital and College of the Atlantic and some well-heeled businesses which raised eyebrows.”

Another piece examined whether local boards were running out of volunteers to the point that they often couldn’t raise a quorum for meetings.

“In these small rural communities, there is an identity they don’t want to lose,” he said. Even a one-person newsroom can help keep that alive.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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