Shakeup at MaineToday Media Bodes Well
Connor gets one right: The Kennebec Journal in Augusta and Morning Sentinel in Waterville were doing reasonably well before Richard Connor came along. The two small dailies had suffered from the financial problems afflicting their owners, the Blethen family, but had managed to maintain enough local coverage and sufficiently feisty editorial pages to keep a lot of their readers satisfied. Most important, the KJ and Sentinel were making money, while the Blethen’s other Maine daily, the much larger Portland Press Herald, was bleeding red ink.
When Connor, the CEO of MaineToday Media, took over the papers in June 2009, he apparently decided to fix what wasn’t broken. He cleared out senior management and much of the experienced staff at the Augusta and Waterville papers. While that process did eliminate some deadwood and saved some cash, it also drained those publications of their vitality. In short order, the KJ and Sentinel became largely irrelevant to readers not interested in pedestrian stories on local government meetings, lackluster coverage of state government, and ill-conceived feature stories.
The editorial pages, once essential reading for anyone concerned with Maine issues, were reduced to running opinion pieces written in Portland, supplemented with a selection of syndicated national material, seemingly chosen because it fit the available space. The papers, once major players in important issues affecting central Maine, no longer took any stands on such matters.
But now, there’s a sign this trend toward irrelevance might soon reverse itself. Last week, Connor announced management changes at the Sentinel and KJ that indicate there could be a shift underway back toward a local perspective.
Bill Thompson until now, the editor of both papers – will now become the editor and publisher of the Sentinel. Tony Ronzio, only recently hired away from the Lewiston Sun Journal to be the KJ’s managing editor, will become that paper’s editor and publisher.
According to a source familiar with the company’s plans, the moves are intended to shift more control over business and editorial decisions from Portland to Waterville and Augusta. “It gives those papers a seat at the table,” the source said.
Among the changes likely at both the KJ and Sentinel is the return of locally produced editorial pages (it’s not yet clear if someone will be hired to write opinion pieces or if Ronzio and Thompson will handle that task). The two editors are also promising a better-focused news product.
There’s reason to take that promise seriously and regard these promotions as positive developments. Unlike many of Connor’s executive hires, Thompson and Ronzio aren’t hacks or hatchet men. They’re real journalists with the experience and talent to restore the community coverage and local approach that were once hallmarks of these papers. I’m not predicting that they’ll immediately transform a couple of moribund small-town dailies into investigative powerhouses, but given their track records, I don’t think it’s overly optimistic in the near future to expect competent, comprehensive news coverage and thoughtful, interesting opinions.
In other words, a decent newspaper for a change.
Legal morass: I’ve complained a lot over the past few years about the poor coverage being churned out by much of the State House press corps. But that much-diminished group of journalists is Pulitzer-Prize-worthy compared to many of the reporters sent to cover court proceedings.
Recent stories on trials and hearings have produced gobbledygook that must leave most readers confused, at best, or seriously misinformed, at worst.
A prime example of this sort of ineptness is the piece in the July 10 Lewiston Sun Journal by staff writer Leslie H. Dixon on an eminent-domain hearing held in Oxford County Superior Court last week.
To be fair to Dixon, the proceeding appears to have been chaotic, with Barry Mazzaglia, the owner of the Norway Opera House, appearing without a lawyer. Mazzaglia made a number of questionable claims (no attorney would take his case for “political” reasons, Dixon should have been prohibited from taking photos), but that doesn’t excuse the erroneous material and misconceptions that crept into the published story.
Dixon reported that a challenge by Mazzaglia’s company was dismissed “with prejudice.” The article says that means Mazzaglia can raise the issue again at a future time. In fact, dismissing a claim with prejudice means just the opposite. I have no idea what part of that decision Dixon got wrong, but as soon as somebody finds out, it ought to be corrected.
Equally unenlightening is Dixon’s reporting on the legal problem behind Mazzaglia attempting to handle the case without an attorney. The story seems to indicate that under Maine law, a person can’t represent himself in court without a lawyer. That’s not true. The problem here is that Mazzaglia isn’t trying to represent himself. He’s attempting to speak for his corporation, which owns the building. I’m told by an attorney familiar with such matters that state law requires that when a corporation is the plaintiff in a case (as it is here), it must be represented by a lawyer.
That’s a fine legal distinction that many reporters might not know. But a good reporter would know enough to ask somebody in the legal profession to explain it to them.
That way, they wouldn’t confuse their readers. And that’s the crime Dixon (and a lot of other newsies muddling through trials) is guilty of.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org