Bangor Daily News Website: What’s news? What’s not?
by Al Diamon
Mixing fact and fancy: The Bangor Daily News website makes it tough for readers to distinguish between news stories (written by BDN reporters and vetted by editors), opinion pieces (from the paper’s editorial staff or columnists), items turned out by other media entities with which the Bangor paper shares copy (that category includes The Bollard) and blog entries (produced by individuals with particular areas of interest, a wide range of viewpoints and varying standards of what constitutes solid journalism).
The BDN tends to throw all this stuff up on its homepage in a haphazard fashion, often neglecting to specify in the headlines where it came from and whether it’s news or opinion or some mix of the two. There’s also no way to know if the paper’s editors have checked the material for accuracy, although an incident last week would seem to indicate that, in some cases, they haven’t.
Carol McCracken writes a blog called Munjoy Hill News about happenings in Portland’s East End that appears on the BDN site. On Nov. 29, she posted what appeared to be a major scoop.
McCracken wrote that Portland’s health inspector, Michele Sturgeon, was no longer on the job checking restaurants for violations. While McCracken stopped short of claiming that Sturgeon had been fired or quit, her first paragraph stated the inspector had “been on the job just over a year when the change was made. And in that period of time, Sturgeon, who is respected by many in the industry for her high standards had shut down a number of restaurant facilities because of dirt and poor work practices. Portland, known in New England as a ‘foodie’ city could not tolerate this continued negative publicity and certainly restaurants did not want to incur the financial losses during the closures.”
Sort of makes it seem like she was fired, doesn’t it?
To her credit, McCracken contacted the appropriate city officials seeking confirmation and clarification. She got a lot of “no comment”‘s. While there could have been more than one reason for that refusal to talk (and as it turns out, there was), McCracken concluded it was because Sturgeon had been forced out, citing several unnamed sources. For example, someone identified as “[a]nother anonymous source in the food business” said Sturgeon had been made the “scapegoat” for complaints about “absurd” cleanliness standards.
The truth turned out to be a good deal different.
On Dec. 1, the Portland Press Herald reported that the inspector was on medical leave. City officials had declined to tell McCracken that because such information is confidential. But after her blog post appeared, Sturgeon gave her superiors permission to announce it.
In the aftermath, neither McCracken nor the BDN handled the incident well. The paper removed the post from its homepage, but didn’t run a correction. In fact, it left the original piece up on McCracken’s blog, complete with its erroneous implications.
McCracken didn’t apologize. Instead, she took a defiant stance.
In a Dec. 1 posting, she quoted herself saying to Bangor Daily managing editor Susan Young, “I stand by my story.” She added, “Not having any other information at hand when I wrote the post, I included some reasonable speculation from reasonable people as to why this change might have been made by the city.”
She also insisted her piece wasn’t in error because Sturgeon was, in fact, not on the job — a pathetic attempt at spin.
This has been a sad affair all around. In its wake, the BDN needs to reassess how it deals with inaccuracies posted by its bloggers – particularly those the bloggers themselves refuse to correct. It also ought to redesign its homepage to make it clear where postings come from, as well as what’s news, what’s opinion and what’s speculation.
To do otherwise risks spreading serious falsehoods and doing irreparable damage to the paper’s credibility.
Cutting the wire service: Effective with the new year, the Bangor Daily News will no longer carry stories from the Associated Press wire. In its place will be copy from Reuters.
The reason for the switch, according to BDN vice president and director of new media Todd Benoit, is money.
“We felt we can get equivalent service for what we needed from Reuters at a much more competitive price,” Benoit said. “The cost is a big difference. We’ve been able to hire folks with the savings.”
Another difference, but not one that’s in Reuters’ favor, is local news. The AP has two bureaus in Maine with several reporters. Reuters has one freelancer in the state. Benoit said he doubted that would make much difference, since the BDN’s expanded staff would pick up the slack.
He said Reuters is strong in regional news and business reporting, and has recently upgraded its weak sports coverage by contracting with third parties.
The Bangor paper has been running some Reuters stories for several months on a trial basis. It also carries material from the Washington Post, Bloomberg and McClatchy news services.
It remains to be seen how the Bangor Daily’s move affects AP staffing in Maine. The paper was one of the wire service’s largest customers. But cutbacks in Augusta, where it only has one reporter, and Portland, where its other big client – the Portland Press Herald – is located, seem unlikely, at least in the short term.
Standing up for the bad guy: The Dec. 2 Lewiston Sun Journal carried a fine story by staff writer Christopher Williams related to the plight of people – mostly men – in the state judicial system faced with protection from abuse orders.
Those seeking that court action – mostly women – can be assigned lawyers at no cost. Those accused of being abusers aren’t eligible for similar services. That can result in the men doing jail time for minor violations they might have avoided if they’d had legal advice.
It’s not easy to take the side of somebody who gets little public sympathy. But Williams did an excellent job of avoiding the pitfalls. The men in his article don’t come off as victims. The courts aren’t portrayed as an uncaring bureaucracy. The problem of domestic violence isn’t downplayed or dismissed by this technical glitch in the system. Williams clearly points out a real problem that needs to be addressed.
Another point in favor of this work: The Maine media devotes little effort to covering the judicial branch of government. That means many issues of public importance go unnoticed, even when, as in this case, they impinge on people’s rights.
Here’s hoping the Sun Journal – and others – use this as a starting point to improve coverage.
Change at the top: The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting has a new board president. Ellsworth B. “Nick” Mills of Cumberland, a professor of journalism at Boston University’s College of Communication, succeeded Jay Davis in the post at the center’s recent annual meeting. Mills has an extensive background in reporting from overseas and writes a column on fly fishing for the Maine Outdoor Journal.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.