Saturday, March 22, 2008

Maine's news sources dry up


[I’ve been told that no one reads blog posts longer than 300-400 words. My site stats bear this out, but I don’t really care. If you can’t handle anything heavier than that, you know the drill—JB (note: photo is of Henry Louis Mencken) ]


What happened to my morning newspaper?


On Monday morning, our daily Portland Press Herald arrived in an emaciated state. Per usual, I made my daily 300 foot, 5:00 am trek up our driveway and across the busy road bordering our property. Upon retrieval of the newspaper from the delivery tube, I sensed the paper was thin, but it wasn’t until I was back in the light of my lighted kitchen did I know the story behind the paper’s paucity.

The nominally worthwhile, four-section Monday edition, had shrunk to only two. One of the sections I enjoyed, iHerald, a jazzed-up nod to twenty-somethings (who study after study show, don’t read newspapers), had been deep-sixed (or remaindered, online). The iHerald’s Favorites feature was one I actually looked for it each and every Monday, curious to see what local “celebrity” was featured. For the uninitiated, this section highligths someone with ties to greater-Portland, usually involved in some kind of creative endeavor (writing, making music, entrepreneurial business), but not always (local 20-something activist, cool community group) with a brief bio/explanation of what they do and their favorite web links. RiverVision Press and my writing/publishing actually graced the slot twice during 2006-2007. Given the paper’s reduction and lack of girth, as well as the loss of my favorite section, my wife heard me utter a familiar rhetorical question in our household, “why do we continue to subscribe to this piece-of-sh*t paper?”

Apparently, Jeannine Guttmann, in her semi-regular column, had provided an explanation for the source of my frustration, in Sunday’s Maine Sunday Telegram, the day before. Since Guttmann is a hit-or-miss proposition for me, I happened to miss that one, so Monday’s brief explanation took me by surprise.
In accessing the piece online, I found Guttmann to be in her typically lame, condescending writing mode, once more shilling for corporate ubiquity. Ms. Guttmann laid out her case for her paper’s shrinking content, with this opening.

If you're reading this column, you're probably a loyal reader of this newspaper. And when I write this column, I imagine that I'm speaking to you.

You are a member of that coveted group we call our "core readers." Demographically, you tend to be 44 years of age or older; you own your home; you are married or in a two-adult household; you have a college education; you have a higher income level than the Maine market average.

Many of you work in professional or technical careers, are self-employed or retired. Many of you are empty-nesters. You tend to be older Gen-Xers, boomers or the parents of boomers. You represent a huge cohort of people with sizable amounts of disposable income. And you love to read newspapers.

But let's go back to the age data again. Our core audience is solidly middle-aged or older. What about the younger folks?

Of course, let’s get back to the data!!

She goes on to tell us things that most of already know and have read elsewhere, written more convincingly, and interestingly, I might add.

Lamenting that here in Maine, ...our state’s been, buffeted by the dramatic waves of media transformation hitting the country. Some have called it a tsunami. With the rise of the Web and the loss of advertising that was once the exclusive domain of newspapers – think about all those classified and recruitment ads you've bought and read over the years – papers across the nation have to adjust.

"Adjust" means a smaller work force and a different product. Last week, our newspaper cut 27 staff positions, 15 of which were occupied. From the newsroom, with a staff of 103 full-time positions, we cut seven posts – five of which were occupied.

It is very difficult to say goodbye to colleagues and friends. It is very difficult to realize an end to one era is under way.

Of course, Ms. Guttmann assured those of us “core readers,” which according to her demographics, would be me that the content will not suffer. Yeah, right! Heard that line many before, coming from the mouth of similar corporate mouthpieces. Actually, heard something similar coming from her paper back in 2004.
I’m sure running a newspaper is tough, just like running any business is during difficult economic times. I’m not sure, given the data coming from other newspapers, with their dwindling circulations that dumbing down content for people who don’t (or can’t) read newspapers and cutting staff is going to stem the freefall in readership. That’s, just my opinion.

Give me some hard-hitting content

In my geographic area of the state, I’m in that newspaper “tweener” netherworld where subscribing to the Portland Newspapers’ product (Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram), with their maddening multi-edition way of publishing, means I get the Coastal Edition, which comes out of the Brunswick/Midcoast distribution area. This edition goes to print first, meaning I get no late sports scores; if the Sox play a game that goes to extra-innings, or starts later than 8:00 pm, I won’t get a result. I also miss late-ending local sports. Additionally, I rarely, if ever get any sports north, or west of Brunswick.

On the news side, their business section has some decent coverage of statewide issues and they actually do a decent job on workforce (my daytime job) and economic development-related stories with a statewide arc.

My other option, which I’ve gone with before (but currently am not) is to subscribe to two newspapers, including the Lewiston Sun Journal. This paper tends to have a more local orientation and is devoted to news north (north of Durham, but south of Augusta) and west of me. Even this paper, which I have a long and varied history with (I once delivered their afternoon Journal as a youngster, back in the day and was briefly employed as a regional circulation manager with the company during the 90s) has given me cause for concern. The content began to get “cuter” about two years ago and when they added their own “stupid” section for 20-somethings who need pictures and graphics to get the story (their “legendary” b-section), I quit the paper in a huff.

So, where the hell do I get my local news?

There are several weekly pubs circulating in our area. Turner Publications mails out a variety of community newspapers that are filled with advertorials, press release fare and business boosterism, but very little that I’d call “real news.” Ditto the Twin City Times and even The Forecaster newspapers, since taken over by the Sun Journal, seem to have cut out anything resembling investigative reporting.

One of the last local sources for actual hard news and capable reporting, the afternoon Brunswick Times Record has been bought by an out of state corporate entity. The Central Maine Newspapers are owned by The Blethen family, which owns and is selling The Portland Newspapers and the Bangor Daily News isn’t even an option for me, other than occasionally scanning articles online.

Interestingly, news still happens and sometimes that news isn’t always best served in a business/advertising-friendly format. The problem with running a newspaper entirely by financials and revenue sheets means that some of the hard-hitting journalism that used to find its way to the pages of Maine’s newspapers, has no print outlet.

For instance, those of you that have been stopping by Words Matter know that I grew up in Lisbon Falls, or as I am want to call it now, Moxietown. This town will always hold a special place in my heart and I’m who I am, for good, or for bad, because of the roots that are still planted deep in its rocky soil.

Over the past few months, I’ve become aware of matters that seemed a bit odd, even to an outsider. I’ve heard “whispers” about things, but nothing easily verified. Like when the town hired their new town manager, Steve Eldridge, who had left behind a somewhat checkered history in his former stint as town manager, in Rumford. In landing the job, he received a tidy compensation package from the community, which according to the Brunswick Times-Record, was set at $80,000/year.
Shortly after Eldridge took office, the town’s Economic and Community Development Director, Jennifer Stowell Norris resigned after five months on the job. I had the opportunity to meet Ms. Norris at the Growsmart Conference, back in the fall. Seeing her Lisbon name tag upon entering the day’s best breakout session, which featured one of my fave community-based writers, Stacy Mitchell of Big Box Swindle fame, I made a point of introducing myself to Jennifer at the end of the breakout.

I found out she had been hired by Lisbon and her passion and energy for my former hometown was evident. We had a 10-15 minute conversation, exchanged business cards and I told her I would follow-up with her, as I wanted to brief her on some of the workforce development projects I was working on that might benefit residents of her the municipality she was now serving. My belief is that workforce and economic development go hand-in-hand, and Jennifer agreed to meet.

When I met with her in late November, she informed me that she might be resigning. She couldn’t give me many of the details (at the time), but in February, I read an article by Michael Reagan, in the Brunswick Times Record about a possible fraudulent loan that Daniel Feeney, who was Ms. Norris’ predecessor, had made to a “non-existent business.”
Reagan, who no longer writes for the newspaper, is the only local reporter that I know of that has filed anything smacking of journalism on the town in recent memory. Until now that is.

In my job, I’m responsible for a five county region. I’ve already detailed the paucity of viable print news sources in our state. Being creative and fortunate to have acquired an education during an era when they actually taught students how to do research, I’m pretty good at ferreting out information. It also helps that I’ve actually done something resembling journalism, both as a freelancer and as a member of a collective practicing “direct action journalism” that once published that muckraking, spit-in-your-eye monthly, Portland Pigeon for two years, back in 2004/2005. In fact, I still maintain to this day that I’ve written the last “honest” article on a Maine-based professional sports team, with In Hadlock’s Shadow. I mention that to let you know that I appreciate journalism that has some connection to the history and tradition of news of the muckraking variety. I’ll even go a bit further. I think the problem with journalism today is that it often lacks credibility because of its obsession with ideological purity, over truth, or it caters to the corporate suite and doesn’t serve the needs of the people. Having said all that to say this, one source of news that I’ve utilized in the past, to find out what’s going on in remote areas of Oxford County, like Rumford, was an online entity called The River Valley Reporter, maintained by someone named Kevin Saisi.

For far too long, and for a variety of reasons, there has been too much misinformation and half-truths written and reported about Rumford, or the River Valley Region. Mr. Saisi tried to counter that and for that, I give him credit and acknowledge his efforts.

One issue that plagues the River Valley, is its geographic isolation from the trendiness of Portland and the pseudo-policymaking in Augusta. Additionally, it’s been an economically-depressed, rural region, with a heritage of working class values. In Maine and much of America, those qualities will always find you left out in the cold, or portrayed inaccurately when the big boys come calling.

When I visited Mr. Saisi’s site on Friday morning, to inquire about posting a press release (which I’ve done before), I immediately noticed a change. The former banner of The River Valley Reporter now read, The Rumford Reporter. I immediately checked my URL and knew I was at the correct site. Scrolling down the page, I stopped when I reached the headline reading, “Doar & Eldridge maintain close ties,” bylined by the initials, JSN. Reading down through a rather interesting piece, tying together the towns of Rumford and Lisbon, I discovered that JSN was, Jennifer Stowell Norris. Well I’ll be damned. Jennifer had landed back in Rumford and was bringing her passion for small towns to bear on this issue of “truthiness” (Stephen Colbert reference, not a typo) and the obvious lack thereof in the area’s print media. [The former small town newspaper in Rumford, the veritable Rumford Falls Times, has been bought by The Sun Journal—enough said there.]

I don’t know where all of this is going to lead. I know I learned some things about Rumford and my beloved Lisbon that I didn’t know. It certainly raised my awareness about the possibility that something is going on in Lisbon that I think taxpayers may want to be aware of. I also think it raises the issue of the public’s ability to get news.

Should the average citizen on the street require an internet connection, as well as some sleuthing ability to find out information that used to get reported by our area newspapers? Is the public served by an environment where officials who serve at the pleasure of the taxpayers and citizens of the town, can operate under the cover of darkness, or at least, the level of scrutiny that once existed when daily newspapers were more vibrant and arguably, practice a more hard-hitting version of news reporting?

I think these questions fit nicely with much of what I’ve written here in the past, tied to people in small communities, where my heart lies. I think they also fit well with some of the media criticism that I’ve done in this space. I’m hoping to hear more about the Rumford/Lisbon situation from The Rumford Reporter.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great article. I live in Wisconsin-- the "North coast", as we like to call it-- and what is curious is that if I change all the names of your towns & cities (in your essay) to names around here, your article applies to this region too. Underneath the surface world of reality that journalism covers there is a whole 'nother world going on that they could cover but don't. This non-coverage is due to-- as you hint-- the corporate thing, the laziness thing, the I-only-have-so-many-column-inches-to-devote-to-it thing, the I-grew-up-playing-video-games-so-maybe-I-just-can't-write-too-good-like-some-people-can thing, the I-didn't-really-care-that-much-about-the-subject-I-was-writing-about-so-I-totally-wasn't-that-motivated thing, the-time-was-short-so-I-cut-a-few-corners thing, the frankly-my-editor-really-doesn't-know-all-that-much-about-editing thing, and a whole bunch of other "things" that go on daily in journalism. Nowadays, competition with the internet and other new media has revealed some of these failings, drawn back the curtain on them, and as a result we see panic setting in and everyone running around like ants in an ant-pile, and whatever problems there were before, are now going up to the next level. Just my 2 cents.

Larry W. Phillips
www.Larrywphillips.com

Kevin N. Saisi said...

Thanks for your kind words about the Reporter. The site began during a stormy period in our town's history. A lawless board of selectmen had been running amock, costing our town big bucks. The people wisely elected two new members to the board. This turned the tide of power over from one side to the other. The new majority consisted of Selectmen Boivin, Belanger and DiConzo. They worked to try and clean up the mess that the rogue board had left. In the process, mistakes were made. Unlike the previous board, these mistakes did not violate state law and our charter, but those who were no longer in power still tried to make a fuss and recently attempted to remove two members, and reprimand a third with only two members of the board voting. Of course, this was invalid, and the action was nullified. The effort to remove the members was not without motive. Under our town ordinances, vacancies in office are appointed by the selectmen. One of the people who would have taken office, had the removal been legal, was a man who had been Chairman of the Board during the past 16 years. Have you wondered why our town has remained stagnant for the past decade and a half?

Anyway, this turmoil is what caused the Reporter to be formed. The Lewiston Sun Journal reporter dutifully reported only one side of any issue, and the Rumford Falls Times reporter has not done much better. We needed an outlet for the truth.
The Reporter recently surpassed 33,000 hits. The counter began in mid april. It is currently garnering over 1,000 hits per week, and had its second best day yesterday withn over 300 hits in one day!!
I am proud of the product I created, but I have had to give it up due to other responsibilities. Jennifer is now the editor, and I trust that she will do well. If anyone wishes to contact me, you can do so by emailing rvcs@gwi.net.
Have a GREAT Day!
Kevin N. Saisi

D.L. Soucy said...

3 to 4 hundred words? And I thought I was spare by limiting my blog entries to around 1200. Reporting to day is not what it was even as late as twenty years ago. Stories are based on advertising content, and what the advertisers want to see. Musn't rock the corporate boat and all. A reporters first loyalty must be to the truth, the second must be to the reader.

Maine is no different than any other state when it comes to biased reporting in the mainstream media, but I believe that trend may change as print journalism relizes that they are losing out to online journalism not because online journalism is cheaper, mostly free, to the reader, but because it offers a choice that suits what the reader doesn't have in print. If all the reader wants to see is garbage, than the reader will only watch garbage. But if the reader wants hard hitting, truthful reporting on issues, then that is what they will read.

Everybody wants to believe what they want to believe, no matter the issue. It is the reporters responsibility to present fact, and nothing more. Unfortunately, today fact is only desirable if it brings income into a paper. So stories are cut, edited and changed, rehashed until they become something that will offend neither the reader of the paper nor the advertiser, whom today, is actually footing the bills for the newspaper.

It is unfortunate that the Blogger world has become the bastion of good and accurate reporting today. Newspapers used to be one of the anchors in life, holding us steady and into the wind. Today, it as become a good place to read comics and find out about the latest debacle in somebody elses turf, but as far as local news goes, it only counts if it's polite and doesn't stir the waters up in the corporate office, which may be thousands of miles away.

The motto should be not only truth in advertising, but truth in reporting as well. I've gotten some pretty nasty responses to some of the posting I have done (dlsoucy.blogspot.com) but nobody has ever offered to refute what I have posted as the research bears out the facts and truth behind the writing. Newspaper reporters should return to their journalistic roots and once again become purveyors of "just the facts, Maam."

Kevin N. Saisi said...

Just an update since my last post. JSN has turned the River valley Reporter into an extremist right wing website. Her extremist views seem to have resulted in some biased reporting on the town. Luckily, she seems to be concentrating on attacking the Obama administration. I have started a new blog called the Rumf)ord Monitor. It can be reached at the same domain name as the RVR was located (rivervalleyreporter.com).