Catching up on a month without Mutt
By Al Diamon
For those who missed it: In late July, Down East abruptly dumped all its paid bloggers, claiming that while they were generating considerable traffic on its website, little of that traffic was sticking around to read the material posted by the parent magazine. That put a temporary end to Media Mutt’s five-year run annoying Maine journalists. A few days later, Down East also ousted publisher John Viehman, but insisted the two events were unrelated.
I’m not sure what Viehman is doing these days, but most of the dismissed bloggers quickly found new homes. Mike Tipping, the politics and polling expert, moved to the Bangor Daily News, where he promptly made a major splash by revealing Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s secret plan for a special legislative session.
Outdoor writer George Smith likewise shifted to the Bangor paper’s Web site, although he did so just ahead of the news that the rest of us were getting the sack. Probably a coincidence.
Restaurant reviewer John Golden hasn’t found a new address as yet, but doesn’t seem to be in need of much sympathy. Golden is a partner in a newly formed real estate venture, which plans to specialize in high-end properties in the multi-million-dollar range. That should keep him in foie gras for the foreseeable future.
And then there’s me. I’ll be turning out monthly columns on media matters for the print edition of The Bollard (the first one is on the stands now), as well as frequent updates on its website.
As for what’s been going on elsewhere in the Maine media …
Dirigo Blu-er: Gerald Weinand announced on Aug. 24 that he is calling it quits after Labor Day as a regular contributor to his political blog, Dirigo Blue. Weinand, who’s been responsible for a steady stream of scoops over the past five years, said he could no longer afford to put in the 40-plus hours of unpaid time he devoted to that project each week.
The site will continue as a forum for other writers, but without Weinand, there’ll be a big hole to fill, not to mention the loss of a reliable source of news and research for rest of the media.
Crash crashes: Columnist Christopher “Crash” Barry has parted ways with the Portland Daily Sun. Barry’s “Crash Report” column vanished from the Saturday edition of the free daily after about a month, when the Sun rejected a piece on independent U.S. Senate candidate Angus King’s finances.
Vex vexed — or is it? Vex, a new Portland-based entertainment weekly, got some badly needed publicity recently, when news reports claimed the paper had run afoul of local activists. According to an account in the Portland Daily Sun, a person or persons unknown seized most copies of Vex’s Aug. 22 issue, which featured a column (allegedly authored by “Lew G. Rant”) that claimed that in rejecting a bid by the Eastland Hotel to purchase an underutilized city park in Congress Square, “Portland Politicians Prefer Bums Over Jobs.”
The Sun story said the few copies of Vex that could be found had been defaced with a sticker attacking the publisher (a local advertising and public relations firm called Station A) and had an insert defending the city’s decision not to sell the park. The Sun article speculated that Occupy Maine activists were behind the protest. A follow-up piece carried firm denials from Occupy members.
A couple of observations on all this…
First, Vex’s claim that most copies of the offending issue were stolen is suspect. On Aug. 25, I was able to find untouched piles of that paper at several Portland locations, including Bull Moose Music and Gritty McDuff’s. They were right beside equally large piles of the Aug. 29 edition. None had either stickers or inserts. Either the protester(s) missed several prominent distribution points for free papers or there’s more self-promotion than accuracy in the claim most papers were taken or altered.
Second, the Sun’s claim in an Aug. 25 editorial (it doesn’t seem to be posted online) that stealing the papers and defacing them were somehow violations of the First Amendment is ridiculous. The First Amendment protects the media from interference by the government, not by disgruntled individuals.
If somebody did, in fact, take a significant number of copies of Vex and alter them, the publishers may have legal recourse for theft and vandalism, but there’s no constitutional issue here. Instead of complaining to the media, Vex should have gone to the cops. If only a small number of issues were affected, and this matter was mostly cooked up to call attention to the paper, it’s only succeeded in making an irrelevant publication seem pathetic.
I e-mailed Vex several days ago seeking comment, but received no reply.
TV news gets a scoop — really: I’ve often been accused of not paying enough attention to television news, which is, after all, where large numbers of people get their information. I plead guilty, mostly because what passes for news on the average Maine TV evening newscast is merely a rehash of what’s already been in print, supplemented by any fires, car crashes or crimes that have occurred since that morning. Local TV has become less a journalistic enterprise and more of a news aggregator, merely repeating what more enterprising reporters have discovered.
But every now and then, even a blind pig finds an acorn.
On Aug. 17, WABI-TV in Bangor beat the state’s best political journalists by revealing the reason Gov. LePage was considering calling a special session of the Legislature.
The station reported the governor wanted to use revenue from a new state wholesale liquor contract to pay off debt owed to Maine hospitals.
WABI is the former employer of LePage communications director Adrienne Bennett, which might have had something to do with it getting information from an unnamed source in state government. Or not.
There’s also the little matter of the liquor deal and debt payoff not quite fitting the description LePage gave of his secret agenda for the session — that it was something other Republican governors had done and that it would really annoy Democrats. But that’s probably too fine a distinction for mere TV reporters to make.
Nevertheless, WABI’s report that something was in the works regarding hospitals and booze money was confirmed by other news outlets. The station deserves credit for uncovering that information, even if it has nothing to do with the possible special session and was leaked merely to distract journalists from LePage’s real agenda.
Now, if only the idea of covering fresh stories became a habit on the tube.
Grant magnet: In a time when most media outlets are struggling to pay the bills, it’s refreshing to know the non-profit Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is managing to keep the wolf from the door. On Aug. 29, the center announced it had received two more grants totaling $125,000. According to a news release, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation came through for the second year in a row with a hundred grand, while the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation chipped in 25 Gs, the third year it’s contributed.
The center, founded by former Kennebec Journal publisher John Christie and reporter/editorial-page editor Naomi Schalit, has been around since 2009 and is currently producing a series of in-depth pieces exploring claims made by the candidates in the U.S. Senate race.
Moving north – some: A little more than a year ago, MaineToday Media — publisher of the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel – outsourced its customer service operations to a company in Honduras.
Since then, new ownership has taken over and has reversed that decision – partially.
Calls to report undelivered newspapers are now being answered in the United States, but not back in Maine. According to the person I reached a few days ago in connection with my missing paper, MaineToday has now contracted with a company in Pennsylvania to handle that business.
When firmly meets squishy: On Aug. 23, rookie reporter Michael Shepherd of the Kennebec Journal turned out a story about the U. S. Senate candidates’ positions on abortion. In it, Shepherd wrote, “The major candidates, Republican Charlie Summers, independent Angus King and Democrat Cynthia Dill, are all firmly pro-choice.”
Shepherd should do better research.
While Summers has claimed to be pro-choice throughout much of his political career, he’s also made increasingly frequent attempts to ally himself with pro-life voters. As I reported elsewhere, as recently as this past June’s primary campaign, he told the Bangor Daily News, “I support a woman’s right to an abortion in the case of rape, incest and life of the mother.” He did some additional waffling in a Maine Sunday Telegram piece last spring. There were allegations of similar attempts to have it both ways during his 2008 congressional campaign.
Summers needs to firm up his positions, and Shepherd needs to firm up his facts.
Personnel moves: The Bangor Daily News has hired Robert Long as its new “political analyst.” Long, formerly the managing editor at the Times Record in Brunswick, is now based at the State House in Augusta, thereby boosting the Bangor paper’s team there to two full-timers … Meanwhile, the Bangor Daily has lost the services of business editor Matt Wickenheiser, who moves out of journalism to become director of college relations at Southern Maine Community College … Wickenheiser’s replacement at the BDN is Whit Richardson, most recently the managing editor of United Publications’ Security Director News and formerly the new media editor at Mainebiz … Speaking of business reporting, MaineToday’s new hire, Jessica Hall, has been doing above-average work in that field since coming on board in April … Considerably less than exceptional are some of the freelance choices at Mainebiz. The Portland magazine used ex-Kennebec Journal city editor Bob Mentzinger to interview the new director of the Maine Film Office, even though Mentzinger is the media coordinator for Democrat Cynthia Dill’s Senate campaign. Since the director works for the Republican administration of Gov. Paul LePage, that creates some uncomfortable — and unnecessary — questions about objectivity, even though the piece displayed no obvious bias. Mainebiz also chose Douglas Rooks to write its story on the business community’s assessment of LePage, even though Rooks has been consistently critical of the governor in his weekly opinion column in the Lewiston Sun Journal. Surely, the magazine could have found reporters without such glaring conflicts … One more note on the Dill campaign. In addition to Mentzinger, it’s also hired Boss Media from the Washington, D.C. area to do consulting work. Boss is the brainchild of former Portland Press Herald editor Jeannine Guttman and ex-Portland TV anchor Patsy Wiggins. That gives Dill more folks with journalism experience on her payroll than many weekly papers … WDEA (1370 AM) in Ellsworth is losing morning man Rick Foster on Aug. 31, after a full half-century on the air. Foster, in an online posting, said his retirement was his own idea and not due to pressure from the station’s new owners, Townsquare Media.
Lights out on ideas: The Aug. 28 Morning Sentinel devoted its limited editorial-page space for local commentary to a column on how to keep flashlights from failing.
Nothing says quality journalism like the fearless confrontation of controversial issues.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.