AUGUSTA — Nearly 200 years ago today, people in this city were thumbing through the first edition of an upstart weekly known as the Kennebec Journal.

Today, as the paper celebrates its 190th birthday, readers can get the latest capital area news in the Kennebec Journal on their laptops, tablets and cellphones, or, like they did 190 years ago, they can still thumb through the paper, the oldest in the state.

“When you think of 190 years, the fact that you have this continuous record of events in Augusta and the area, this is clearly the single greatest collective source about the history of the community and the region,” said State Historian Earle Shettleworth. “The ability to go back and read a paper at any point in that 190 years is to be able to really time travel back to that particular moment in time and recapture what was going on in the community at that particular point.”

Luther Severance and Russell Eaton, working out of a small office at the corner of Bridge and Water streets in Augusta, distributed the first issue of the Kennebec Journal on Jan. 8, 1825. The men began publishing the four-page weekly after leaving good jobs in Washington, D.C., at the urging of Augusta resident Robert C. Vose, who persuaded the men that the bustling community of 2,000 people needed a newspaper. Maine, which had broken off from Massachusetts just five years earlier as a result of the Missouri Compromise, was still two years away from establishing Augusta as the state capital. When the legislative and executive branches moved to Augusta in 1832, making the city the focus of much statewide news, the Kennebec Journal was in position to become the leading news source for the state. Shettleworth said the Kennebec Journal reflected the city’s aspiration to become a major city in the state.

“In a sense, the Kennebec Journal was established just prior to and in anticipation of Augusta becoming the seat of government,” Shettleworth said. “Although there were a number of weekly and daily papers in the 19th century, the Kennebec Journal prevailed and became the major remaining paper to represent the community throughout the entire history up until now. I think there’s major significance to that.”

Countless editors have helped steer the paper throughout the years, but probably none as influential as 24-year-old James G. Blaine, who bought a share of the paper and took over as editor in 1854. Blaine, who was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served as speaker, helped re-shape the newspaper, which then was covering a city of 8,200 people. Blaine successfully lobbied the Legislature to name the Kennebec Journal the state’s official newspaper before leaving office in 1857.

By 1869 the Kennebec Journal had become the state’s largest weekly newspaper. A year later, on Jan. 1, 1870, the paper published its first paper as a daily. The Kennebec Journal continued to print a weekly edition until December 1913.

The paper has changed hands a number of times over the years. After Severance and Eaton left there were a number of owners until June 1929 when Guy P. Gannett of Gannett Publishing Co. bought the Daily Kennebec Journal. Gannet in 1921 had purchased the Waterville Morning Sentinel and the newspapers that later became the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram.

Gannett moved the Kennebec Journal to a former corset factory on Willow Street in Augusta that his father had bought to serve as an office for the Gannett’s Comfort magazine. The paper eventually outgrew that space and in 1961 moved to a new building at 274 Western Ave., in Augusta, that included a new printing press.

Gannett in 1992 combined the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel under one management called Central Maine Newspapers. The papers maintained their own sales and editorial staffs.

Gannett continued to run all four papers until Sept. 1, 1998, when the company sold them to the Seattle Times for an estimated $200 million. The purchasing group included the Blethen family and California-based Knight-Ridder Co.

Blethen Maine Newspapers continued to own the papers, including the Kennebec Journal, until 2009 when facing severe financial trouble, the company sold to an investment group headed by Richard Connor. Connor took over as chief executive officer of the newly-formed MaineToday Media.

Connor, citing a need to streamline operations, carried out a number of changes, including laying off dozens of employees company-wide and selling properties in Augusta and Portland. One of those moves meant relocating the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s printing press to MaineToday’s South Portland facility. The printing presses in Augusta went silent for the first time in more than 180 years in December 2009.

Two years later, in April 2011, the Kennebec Journal’s advertising and editorial departments moved from Western Avenue to its current facility at 36 Anthony Ave. in Augusta. The paper’s circulation department is headquartered at 22 Leighton Road.

Connor abruptly departed MaineToday Media in October 2011, leaving the company on the brink of bankruptcy. Nearly two years later, MaineToday officials announced that forensic accounting reviews over a year revealed that Connor misspent more than $500,000 in company money on a variety of personal items, including cars, credit cards and vacation homes, even as he was laying off employees. Travelers Casualty & Surety Co. paid MaineToday more than $537,000 — minus a $50,000 deductible — on MaineToday’s employee theft insurance policy. Connor, who was accused of similar activity toward a Pennsylvania media company, has never faced criminal charges.

MaineToday Media and the Kennebec Journal continued to face extreme financial difficulty in February 2012 when Donald Sussman, a financier and husband of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, purchased a majority share of MaineToday Media. Sussman’s Maine Values LLC reached terms with the company that included a loan for between $3 million and $4 million.

Scott Monroe, managing editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, said that despite the difficulty, the paper has continued to be a “vibrant paper” since its founding in 1825. It continues to be the local source for local news, from selectmen meetings to sports. Monroe said the Kennebec Journal continues to serve as a watchdog that scrutinizes public officials.

“Although our staff is much smaller than in past years, the KJ is still producing a lot of important journalism,” Monroe said. “We face industry-wide challenges and the need to continue innovating the way we deliver content, but what remains the same 190 years later is our commitment to accurate and relevant journalism.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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