MaineToday Media Blurs Line Between News and Marketing
Digital manipulation: MaineToday Media – which owns the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel – has created a new subsidiary, MaineToday Digital. According to a story published in the company’s newspapers on Sept. 4, MTD will be “a marketing agency specializing in new media.”
Put in those terms, this latest enterprise doesn’t seem that different from what the papers already do – sell ads. But the story goes on to mention several points that raise ethical concerns. Among them:
MTD will offer a service called “reputation management.” This provides customers with frequent updates on how they are viewed on social media sites and other online locations, allowing companies to respond quickly to negative press or rumors. It’s easy to see how this sort of operation could come into conflict with journalists working for MaineToday’s papers when they report on controversies in the business community. How such conflicts might be resolved within the MaineToday family wasn’t mentioned in the article.
What is in the story was an indication that MaineToday Digital will have considerable influence over what shows up on MaineToday Media’s websites. MaineToday.com will contain material from the company’s papers plus “additional content from other sources such as community collaborations.” Whatever that means.
The re-launched site will be overseen by Angie Muhs, currently the managing editor of the Press Herald, although she’s supposedly leaving that job after the revamped website is launched in 2012. Muhs characterized the new MaineToday.com as “a central location for all the news out of Maine.”
That leaves open the question of whether a site run by a marketing company is primarily for enhancing public perceptions of its clients or for providing unbiased news, including stories that might reflect poorly on those customers.
MaineToday CEO Richard Connor is quoted extensively in the piece, making his usual unsupported claims. “We have seen our online audience continue to grow exponentially,” Connor said. In reality, the Press Herald’s Web site has shown a downward trend in recent months, falling behind the Bangor Daily News in the number of unique monthly visitors.
These numbers don’t reflect the Bangor paper’s recent efforts to boost its coverage in southern Maine, the Press Herald’s prime territory. In the past week, the BDN has scooped the PPH on news that Bath Iron Works was seeking shipbuilding work from Saudi Arabia and several other stories.
While boosting marketing efforts is obviously essential for any newspaper company’s survival, doing so while ignoring journalistic shortcomings (fewer reporters, fewer editors) seems like a recipe for disaster.
Encouraging trend – sort of: On Sept. 3, the Morning Sentinel carried a story produced by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. To the best of my knowledge, this marks the first time a MaineToday Media paper has published the center’s work, which appears regularly in most of the state’s other dailies and numerous weeklies. I hope this is a sign MTM is ending its feud with former employees John Christie (once the publisher of the Sentinel and Kennebec Journal) and Naomi Schalit (ex-editorial page editor for those papers) and will be carrying their important investigative pieces on a regular basis.
That said, the initial piece in the Waterville paper was a curious choice. It was an abbreviated version of a follow-up article on the state’s slack dam inspection program that lacked the context provided by the center’s original story, which the Sentinel never carried.
If the MaineToday papers plan to deal with the complex issues the center covers, they should make an effort to publish all the material, rather than using pieces of it to haphazardly fill space.
That didn’t take long: The Portland Daily Sun recovered in record time from its consternation over columnist Bob Higgins’ sudden decision last month to run for mayor of Portland. No sooner had the announcement been made that Higgins had failed to qualify for the ballot than his column was back in the paper.
At least until the next election.
Less talk, more sports: Atlantic Coast Radio has shuffled the line-ups on a couple of its stations, greatly reducing the reach and staffing at WLOB (1310 AM). The conservative talker lost half its morning team with the departure of co-host Ted Talbot. In addition, its programming will no longer be heard on the air outside Greater Portland, as its FM counterpart at 95.5 will now simulcast Fox Sports Network shows that are already on Atlantic’s WPEI (95.9 FM) in Saco.
The Radio-Info.com website speculates that the change was made to enhance the sports stations’ signals in the newly expanded Portland market, which now includes areas north of Portland where WPEI can’t be heard.
Sharper images: WCSH-TV (Channel 6) in Portland is promoting its plans to soon begin producing its local newscasts in high definition.
Rival WGME (Channel 13) in Portland had previously announced it would be going hi-def in the near future.
Both southern Maine stations trail WABI (Channel 5) in Bangor which made the switch months ago. And WVII (Channel 7) in Bangor has said it plans to make the upgrade this month.
Now, if only they all could do something about the content, which remains heavily dependent on whatever was in the morning paper.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.