ELLSWORTH — On Jan. 23, 1991, the second season of the sitcom “Seinfeld” premiered on NBC. It aired a week late due to the launch of Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf on Jan. 16.
Americans learned the cost of a first-class stamp would soon rise from 25 cents to 29 cents, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 2,619.06, up slightly over previous day.
In Ellsworth, Alan Baker became owner of The Ellsworth American.
He succeeded James Russell Wiggins and has been at the helm of Hancock County’s hometown newspaper ever since, leading it and its sister paper, the Mount Desert Islander, to state, regional and national recognition and honors.
Baker sees his 25th anniversary as the paper’s owner as a personal milestone rather than one for the newspaper and is quick, as he often is, to put the matter into perspective.
“Frankly, William H. Titus was the owner for 32 years,” he said, from 1913 to 1945. “So I’m only the second longest.”
He sees himself as much a steward of the paper as he does its owner, overseeing a publication that began 165 years ago. Titus, Wiggins and Baker collectively have owned the paper for almost half that time — 82 years — and Baker said that has been a key to its success.
“Continuity of ownership is extremely important,” he said. “It’s reflected in the character of our business, that we’re not flip-flopping around from one idea to the next.”
Baker’s love for newspapers is lifelong. He remembers sitting at the table as a child while his mother and grandfather discussed that day’s Bangor Daily News over coffee. As a student at Bowdoin, he would go to the library and read several papers a day.
“I grew up on newspapers,” he said. Among the places he worked before coming to The American was the Philadelphia Inquirer.
When he came back to Maine in the early 1980s, he served in the Legislature and there met Ruth Foster. She told him Wiggins was trying to convince her to buy the paper, but Baker was interested in buying it himself.
“You don’t want to do that,” he recalls Foster telling him.
“I don’t want anything more,” he replied.
Baker approached Wiggins, who initially was not interested in selling to him. The two men kept talking, though. Two days later, Wiggins invited Baker to lunch and asked him to come manage the paper with an option to eventually purchase the business.
Baker joined The American on Oct. 15, 1986 as its general manager, became publisher in 1989 and then assumed ownership in 1991.
General Manager Terry Carlisle started her career at The American in 1978 and credited Baker with bringing “a whole new level of professionalism and business sense” to the company when he arrived.
“In my opinion, he saved the paper,” she said.
She said Baker immersed himself in all facets of the paper’s operations.
“He worked in the mailroom,” she said. “He made sales calls. He delivered papers.”
Carlisle said one of the first new ideas Baker introduced after joining the American was Out & About, a monthly summer guide to Downeast Maine now in its 30th year.
Baker said he saw local papers in Maine were not involved in promoting tourism, and that creating a publication to highlight what this part of Maine — including Washington County — has to offer “seemed like a logical thing.”
Carlisle said the special section has “consistently been profitable and popular.”
On a personal note, Carlisle said she considers Baker a mentor and that he has mentored many others during their time at the paper as well.
“To me, he’s been sort of like a dad,” she said.
Others outside the paper — even competitors — have admiration for Baker. Don Houghton, editor and publisher of The Bucksport Enterprise, praised Baker in a recent editorial for his “verve, dedication and integrity” and said The American under his ownership is a “hardy, hearty and pleasurable companion along the road of Maine newspapering.”
Tonda Rush is the director of public policy at the National Newspaper Association in Falls Church, Va. She said Baker served on the organization’s board of directors a decade ago “and we have missed his wonderfully pragmatic take on our issues ever since.”
She credited Baker for bringing a “depth of experience and insight to any enterprise” he is involved in. She said he sees the importance of relating national, regional and statewide news to a local audience, and said that if there were leaders like him “at every newspaper in America, we would be a better country.”
During Baker’s time at The American, many things have changed: other businesses have come and gone, the city has grown and technology (from fax machines to Facebook) has changed the way the paper operates. Carlisle said his vision for, leadership of and engagement with the paper remains consistent, however, and she sums him up with a single word.
“He’s really remarkable,” she said. “He doesn’t like to hear that, but he’s remarkable.”