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Life and Times
Peter Cox’s Journalism Matters
BY SAM PFEIFLE

IN 1975, WHAT the Boston Phoenix was to Boston, Maine Times was to Maine. Although its final incarnation came to an end last year, the pioneering alt-weekly deserves credit — along with the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Village Voice, and, of course, the Boston Phoenix — for helping to establish the genre. Where others experimented with gonzo reporting, subjective voice, and social-movement beats, Maine Times broke new ground with its environmental journalism at a time when modern "green" consciousness was in its infancy. The scrappy upstart, established in 1968, took Maine’s leaders to task — for the first time — for allowing Maine’s natural resources to be despoiled and consumed by industry, and in so doing, it served as a model for similarly inclined publishers and writers across the country. Over its last 15 years, however, Maine Times faded, owing mostly to poor business decisions by a series of new owners who lacked publishing backgrounds, until it eventually devolved into a glossy magazine full of piffle that shared nothing with the original publication but the name.

The paper owes much of its early success to publisher Peter Cox, who died last year, and whose posthumous memoir, Journalism Matters (Tilbury), tells that history with the passion the veteran alternative journalist brought to his craft. Overshadowed by his flamboyant early partner, John Cole, Cox had a proud yet humble commitment that nonetheless ran deep. And that made the pain of watching the paper morph, after he sold it in the mid ’80s, all the more cruel.

Beginning with an overlong piece on his father, Oscar — focusing on his role in shaping lend-lease legislation that tilted the Allies toward victory during World War II, and the fact that he hid his Jewish heritage, even from his son — Cox dedicates a great deal of Matters to his upbringing and education, which introduce us to a personality under construction. At Yale, for instance, he "read the Greek tragedies where I became familiar with the sin of hubris or overarching and therefore destructive pride." Later, after a run-in with a superior during his stint with the National Guard, Cox notes, "I still hadn’t learned to control my arrogance."

That changed as Cox worked his way up through the journalistic ranks. First as editor of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, then while working for the Bath Daily Times, Cox developed an admirable idealism about local-newspaper journalism and its service to the community. He was fiercely independent, would not bend his integrity, and remained open and honest — always accountable to his readers. Soon after the Bath Daily Times merged with John Cole’s Brunswick Record (to become part of the new Brunswick Times-Record, which survives to this day), Cox had refined his civic theory of journalism further, thanks, in part, to Cole’s influence. He came to the conclusion that "it was a newspaper’s responsibility to give its readers the information they needed to make sound decisions." When Cox and Cole partnered to found Maine Times, in 1968, they made this philosophy — markedly different from that of the dailies, which saw themselves as mere recorders of history in real time — the new paper’s foundation, and Cox carried it through after Cole’s departure, in 1978.

Cox shaped Maine Times to serve a like-minded readership rather than a geography-based one. He assumed that his readers would not be passive, but would directly support the enterprise by both buying advertising and supporting those who advertised in the paper.

To some degree, this business model worked. After losing $174,000 in the first three years (a number Cox admits would amount to more than $2 million today), Cox considered Maine Times successful by the time he sold it to Dodge Morgan (until then, most famous for making radar detectors and sailing around the world), in 1985. By then, it turned a modest profit — with about $900,000 in annual revenues — and circulated roughly 16,000 papers weekly. Yet the paper’s modest prosperity appears to have rested solely on Cox’s tremendous dedication and shrewd financial management.

Soon after the sale, the paper began suffering "massive losses," Cox says, "running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year." He returned for another go at editing, but soon grew disillusioned with the paper’s financial direction, as it turned to gimmicks and one-time special issues to raise revenues, rather than focusing on loyal advertisers. He quit, and over the next decade watched as the paper changed hands twice and was converted into a shallow glossy. "During its short life, the new publication was so far from what we had intended that if anyone asked me whatever happened to Maine Times, I told them it no longer existed and left it at that," Cox writes. The mag finally ceased publication altogether in January 2004.

For the remainder of his life, Cox served on a number of local boards (the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the Portland Museum of Art, a progressive think tank called Eco/Eco), trying, often without success, to further influence the constituencies he so cared about. But journalism was Cox’s one true passion, and he betrays a tinge of regret throughout the account of his later years.

Here in 2005, the marketing industry has mostly succeeded in stripping the word "alternative" of real meaning. Journalism Matters makes clear that it meant something to Peter Cox.

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at spfeifle@phx.com


Issue Date: April 8 - 14, 2005
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