One Ugly Year
It’s not my fault. I’m just the messenger. I didn’t cause this mess.
Although, to be honest, I don’t seem to have done much to prevent it.
Since the Media Mutt column began in late June of last year, the Maine media have been through some torturous twists and turns. Most of them haven’t been for the better.
There have been cuts, then slashes, then wholesale bloodbaths at the state’s daily newspapers, leaving readers with less news, reported by fewer people, edited by almost no one and sold for a higher price. The reason? As one former daily reporter put it, “The bad decisions stem from very stubborn editors who think the good old days will make a comeback.”
Most weekly papers appear to be holding their own, but few of them have attempted to beef up their staffs to fill the news void left by the shrinking dailies. (Village Soup is promising to add reporters at its five recently purchased papers, but it’s too soon to assess the results.) Instead, most weeklies have hunkered down, more concerned with conserving their resources than expanding their range.
The scary thing about that approach is that it’s almost the same one the dailies were using a year ago.
Television news outlets seem confused as to how to proceed in the aftermath of the cutbacks at the likes of the Portland Press Herald, Lewiston Sun Journal, and Bangor Daily News, which for decades have constituted their prime sources of story ideas. Some, like WCSH-TV in Portland, have opted to continue as if nothing has changed, a course that’s left their newscasts thinner and more superficial than ever when it comes to local coverage. Others, such as WGME-TV in Portland, have revamped, focusing on crime, fires, traffic accidents and an unflagging belief that if a story is reported live in an urgent tone, it will mask the fact that what’s being said isn’t particularly important.
Radio news continues its descent into irrelevance, with only Maine Public Radio making any pretense of being a legitimate journalistic enterprise (although most legitimate journalistic enterprises don’t shut down on weekends). Talk radio has offered occasional moments of interest, although I suspect the annual total from all stations in the state wouldn’t fill an hour of airtime, even with commercials.
And then there’s the Web, which was supposed to replace all that’s been lost. This past year has seen the establishment of PolitickerME.com, which provides a much-needed supplement to the state’s anemic political coverage. Independent local news sites in places like Westbrook, Rumford, Farmington and other towns have picked up some of the slack left by cutbacks in the print media. But what’s not always clear with these online news outlets is whether their main goal is to provide news or promote a political agenda. Still, lively but slanted coverage is almost as good as the balanced-but-boring kind and way better than the incidental-and-superficial sort.
The big problem is the most comprehensive news sites on the Web continue to be the ones run by the daily papers, and those operations are suffering from the same sharp declines in resources and quality as their dead-tree counterparts. (The Press Herald’s site, as well as those of its sister papers, the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, have been down or semi-functional for a week. At first, the company claimed the sites were closed for maintenance, but finally admitted they’d been hacked and equipment damaged.
Why they couldn’t have been honest about the problem in the first place remains a mystery. But, hey, who worries about credibility when ad revenues are tanking?)
In my initial posting a year ago, I cited some of the stuff I liked about the Maine media:
“Mal Leary of the Capitol News Service does a fine job dissecting the intricacies of the state budget. John Frary writes a biweekly column full of wit, insight and erudition for the Franklin Journal. Steve Meyers’ political cartoons in the Portland Press Herald use humor to cut to the core of complex issues. Lance Tapley deserves a Pulitzer for his investigative work inside Maine’s prisons.”
Tapley hasn’t got his Pulitzer, yet, but he did receive top honors from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies for his prison series in the Portland Phoenix.
On the other hand, Meyers has been cut back from three cartoons a week to one. And Frary is running for Congress (partially my fault) and now displays his talent for political invective only in campaign ads and the occasional op-ed.
There have been some additions to my list of quality journalistic efforts.
The print edition of The Bollard, a Portland news magazine, now appears monthly, instead of quarterly, with every issue to date containing at least one hard-news gem.
Phoenix editor Jeff Inglis has instituted his own monthly media-criticism column and supplemented it with several important online scoops.
A. Jay Higgins’ reporting has made Maine Public Radio a must-listen for political news.
Naomi Shalit, editorial page editor at Waterville’s Morning Sentinel and Augusta’s Kennebec Journal, and Tony Ronzio, who holds the same post at the Lewiston Sun Journal, have both tried – and sometimes succeeded – in re-establishing advocacy journalism in the mainstream media.
The Press Herald’s Kevin Thomas is doing a major-league job covering the minor-league Portland Sea Dogs and the Red Sox' other affiliates, particularly in his frequent blog postings (when the paper’s Web site is working).
T. Cushing Munjoy, the pseudonymous blogger who writes Pressing The Herald, has provided a wealth of criticism, simultaneously constructive and biting, of the state’s largest daily. Somebody in authority at the Press Herald should start pay attention to him.
As Maine Goes, the conservative Web forum that features everything from rants from Neanderthals to suggestions for quality jazz recordings, continues to catch rumors, trends and even the occasional tidbit of legitimate news well before most print and broadcast outlets.
And my fears that making fun of the mangled English and haphazard editing in the Original Irregular, Kingfield’s weekly paper, might cause it to be published in a language I could understand, thereby eliminating all the fun of reading it, were unfounded.
It still makes no sense. And its Web site hasn’t been updated since last December.
A few bright spots (well, that last one is a little dim), but hardly enough to make up for the massive loss of veteran reporters and editors at every daily paper, the increasing timidity of publishers and station owners to tackle controversial issues, and the growing indifference of a public that’s figured out it isn’t being well-served by the traditional media and no longer regards those outlets as necessary.
An anonymous – but highly credible – mainstream media insider told me in the early days of this blog: “I hate the idea of spending my final years in this business presiding over its demise. But beyond that, I think the decline of community newspapers will have a serious impact on the kind of information that [readers] are looking for in newspapers …. [A]s revenue declines, and staffing is cut, less and less basic reporting will be done.”
That posting examined the changes the state’s mainstream publications were undergoing in an effort to deal with advancing technology and altered public attitudes. It was titled “New Spin or Death Spiral?”
At the time, I was hoping the result of those efforts would be the former, but I’m increasingly concerned that the question has already been answered by the latter.
(Disclosures: My weekly political column appears in the Portland Phoenix, in two Village Soup papers and on the Daily Bulldog, all of which got mentioned above.)
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com.