Jim Foster has made a name for himself in Germantown over the years, first as a refurbisher of classic cars, then as a community activist and political gadfly.
Now, at 66, Foster has a new title: publisher.
As other newspaper owners struggle to remain solvent, Foster has launched two community papers meant to replace a pair of venerable local publications lost when the Journal Register Co. filed for bankruptcy protection in February and stopped printing the weekly Germantown Courier and the Mount Airy Express.
Foster struck fast and hard once he decided the communities needed their own papers: The first issues of the new Germantown Chronicle and Mount Airy Independent were published April 30, just six weeks after the Courier and Express disappeared. The papers are free and are published weekly.
"Our philosophy was to get up and running as soon as possible so there would be as little time as possible between the closing of the papers and when we could get a paper back in people's hands," Foster said.
The owner of a successful auto-repair and restoration shop, Foster knew the newspaper business only as a consumer and frequent writer of commentary pieces and pointed letters to the editor, primarily in local community newspapers.
"I put together a business plan, and I convinced myself these papers could be self-sufficient with a little bit of capitalization and a couple years' time," he said. A selling point, he said, was the reaction of advertisers to the loss of the Courier and Express.
"The advertisers were just apoplectic," he said. "I was convinced the advertisers would respond if you could get a quality replacement paper out quick enough. The quality of the paper would be the convincing factor. You just couldn't put out a halfhearted publication."
Foster said he believed the quickest route to a quality replacement was hiring some of the people who had produced the Courier and Express. Among his eight hires were Karl Biemuller, former editor of the Courier and the Express; and Bob Canner, former advertising manager for the papers.
He rented second-floor space in the historic Clarkson-Watson House, once home to Thomas Jefferson during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic.
"I would never have made this move if I hadn't convinced myself that by doing it quickly and recapturing the advertisers, it may fly," Foster said. "As much as I am committed to the community, this had to make dollars and cents. It had to pay its own freight and give at least a reasonable return. That is why I hired these experienced pros."
Five editions of the papers have hit the streets, with a combined total of 32,000 copies printed each week.
The papers look relatively polished. There is a mix of local news stories, a police blotter, letters to the editors, as well as editorials.
The May 21 issues featured stories on Memorial Day services at the local American Legion Post and the possible effect of a new state law allowing varying interests to take control of and renovate blighted properties. There also was a full page of ads for local services - handymen, plumbers, roofers, electricians, and so on - as well as other paid notices scattered throughout the papers.
Journal Register, of Yardley, was generating about $750,000 a year in ads with the Courier and Express, Foster said. He said his papers were at about half that pace now. He expects them to match it by year's end. He declined to say how much he has spent to get his papers up and running.
"The feedback we have been getting is really positive," he said. "My circulation guy gave me the best pragmatic example. He said, 'When I go into Germantown and there is not one paper left yellowing on a porch anywhere, I know they have all gotten them and want to read them.'"
Foster attributed that to a demand among readers for papers that provide timely, in-depth stories about issues that affect them.
"People want to get information about what is going on in the community," he said. "You just can't go on the Internet and get all these local news stories."
A man of strong opinions, Foster promises a paper that delivers fair, unbiased reporting and one not tailored to his own political views.
"These are not going to be Jim Foster's hatchet newspapers," he said. "What we are going to do is make sure people get the information they need early enough so if they want to take up the mantle and help determine the outcome of a situation, that's great."
That said, the papers will not shy from taking on the powers that be.
"I want the politicians here to go to bed every Sunday night worrying what is going to be in the Chronicle and Independent this week," he said.