On March 16, Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram editor Jeannine Guttman used her weekly column to proclaim her newspapers "the news-origination engine for Maine." Guttman went on to say, "What you see on television and hear on radio often is a pickup of news and information that we have reported first, either through our newspaper or our Web site."
There's some truth to this assertion. Because the Associated Press routinely distributes condensed versions of most major stories from the Portland papers to its broadcast customers, a lot of news on the airwaves can trace its origins to the Press Herald or Telegram. That works in reverse, as well. When a radio or TV station gets a scoop, its story may flow through the AP wire and end up in print. But that later scenario is relatively rare, while the print-to-broadcast pipeline has for many years carried a steady flow.
So, Guttman has a point. Although it's a point that, as novelist Daniel Woodrell once wrote of a man suffering from a terminal illness, time has whittled down to mootness.
Increasingly, the Press Herald is not the place news originates. In part, that's because the paper has cut over the last decade the number of reporters and support staff it employs. But it's also because of a superior attitude fostered by Guttman and the rest of her editorial hierarchy. They appear to believe that only when a news story has appeared in the pages of their newspapers has it been validated. Until then, it's not news, no matter how much attention it receives elsewhere.
There's been an increasing number of examples of this attitude in action this winter.
For weeks, the Portland papers ignored the story of a Biddeford oil dealer who was allegedly refusing to honor pre-paid contracts for heating fuel, even as WGME-TV
was reporting on it nightly. Only when state officials took action did the paper deem the matter worthy of its precious ink. By then, there was little new to say.
On April 3, WCSH-TV
reported that the city of Portland was laying off municipal transportation director Jeff Monroe. It took two days before the Press Herald got around to making his dismissal page-one news
, even though, as with the oil-dealer story, the information was already being circulated widely on the Web.
When Autum Aquino died at the age of 23 on April 3, the Press Herald trailed the pack in reporting the full story on the woman, who, as a 6-year-old, had raised Mainers' awareness of AIDS
In fact, it never caught up. Both WCSH and the Bangor Daily News
carried information on Aquino's cause of death (a respiratory infection that developed into pneumonia) and comments from a relative. The "engine" had only this: "Members of her family were not ready Friday to talk about her death, and they asked others who knew her to refrain from commenting publicly." Except, apparently, to Channel 6 and the Bangor paper.
On April 3, the Current, a South Portland weekly (full disclosure: my political column appears in three papers owned by the Current's parent company), reported that General Growth Properties, the owner of the Maine Mall, was dropping plans for a 134,000-square-foot addition,
including a movie theater, expanded food court and several restaurants, all of which had been approved by the South Portland Planning Board in 2007. The story included details from national media sources indicating that General Growth was shifting its emphasis from expanding in the U.S. to building overseas.
A day later, the Press Herald gave its version. It mentioned only that construction of the movie theater had been canceled
. Nothing about the rest of the project, which made up more than half the expansion. It skipped all the stuff about General Growth's change in strategy and what long-term consequences that might have for the mall. And it filled out the piece with rosy forecasts for the Maine Mall's future, mostly from people with a vested interest in that future.
One other item missing from the story: It gave no credit to the Current or reporter Linda Hersey for breaking the news. If you're going to grouse about TV and radio stealing your stories without credit, maybe you should claim the moral high ground by setting a good example when you do the same.
"Nothing against our colleagues at other media companies," Guttman wrote in her March column, "but [the Press Herald's alleged role as the "news-origination engine"] comes down to simple math, too: We have more journalists, more boots on the ground, than any other news organization in Maine."
Somebody ought to lift one of those boots off the ground and direct it a bit higher, with considerable force.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com .