Down East 2013 ©
New interest in conflicts of interest: Will there be any room left in the pages of the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, and Morning Sentinel once they run a full list of disclosures about the involvement of the two new members of their board of directors  in events those newspapers cover?
Developer Robert C.S. Monks of Cape Elizabeth is a political activist who has donated thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates in Maine and nationally. He sits on the board of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which is active in lobbying the Legislature on environmental issues. His business ties are too many and varied to list here. His wife, Bonnie Porta, is also a major funding source for Democrats and has been active in several causes.
Monks’ name also comes up in some circles as a person considering a run for high public office, possibly as soon as next year. That would make the campaign coverage interesting.
John Higgins of Cape Elizabeth operates one investment service and works with Monks’ father, Robert A.G. Monks, in another. Higgins is also a deep-pockets donator to Democrats and serves on the board of the Island Institute. He’s been associated with the Maine Audubon Society (another environmental group with a strong role in influencing legislation), although it’s unclear if he’s still a board member (Higgins did not return a phone call, and a call to Audubon was not returned by the time this item was posted). He, too, has close associations with numerous business entities.
Before MaineToday bought these publications, the previous owner, the Blethen Maine Newspapers, ran into ethical problems because it failed to disclose the presence of a Plum Creek corporate executive on the parent company’s board. Even after that conflict came to light, the newspapers had a spotty record in making sure the information was included with every story on Plum Creek’s efforts to develop a large and controversial project on Moosehead Lake.
It remains to be seen if MaineToday will do a better job in dealing with the more varied and complicated possibilities for conflict-of-interest issues presented by the company’s association with Monks and Higgins.
Speaking of which, just how much of the newspapers do they own? If previous reports that MaineToday paid between $30 million and $40 million for the former Blethen properties  are correct, Monks and Higgins must own a substantial portion. During his ill-fated attempt to get the state retirement system to invest in the purchase, company publisher Richard Connor revealed that he was putting up $250,000 of his own money  and HM Capital Partners of Dallas was tossing in just over a million.
Even with the recent sale of the company’s Portland property ($10 million or so if what Connor told the retirement system board is true), that still leaves something between $18 million and $28 million unaccounted for. Part of that is undoubtedly borrowed, but the Monks-Higgins share must account for a substantial percentage in order to have secured several million in financing from a bank.
The two say they don’t intend to meddle in editorial matters, but if Connor’s promise that the company will be profitable by the end of the year doesn’t get fulfilled, it seems likely they’ll have a lot to say about the business end of the newspapers, including layoffs.
And there’s still one more conflict-of-interest note. MaineToday announced earlier this week that it was seeking financial backing from the city of Portland  to keep at least some of the Press Herald’s staff downtown, rather than move its entire operation to its South Portland printing facility.
Will that involvement with city government be noted in print and online each time the paper reports on an official involved in processing or approving that request? Will it get a mention whenever it reports on another company’s attempt to get a tax break or other public assistance? If not, why not?
Perhaps because there’s a space problem?
Misfire: Covering a breaking news story live on television isn’t easy, but I’ve rarely seen a sloppier effort than that aired by WCSH-TV in its July 15 reports on the fire at the Cowan Mill in Lewiston.
Reporter Kathleen Shannon gave incorrect information about which mill building was burning in her early broadcasts by misidentifying Cowan as Bates Mill No. 5, a mistake any journalist familiar with Lewiston wouldn’t have made – particularly since Bates No. 5 has been the focus of news coverage in recent weeks. Shannon corrected herself in her 6 p.m. story, but then compounded the damage by discussing a smaller fire that had broken out on the roof of the Bates Mill, while showing video of the larger fire that was destroying Cowan. The impression many viewers may have gotten was that both buildings were engulfed in flames, even though the Bates fire was relatively small and was mostly out by then.
Lewiston already had enough confusion that evening. Channel 6 didn’t need to add to it.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Lewiston Sun Journal and staff writer Mark LaFlamme did a fine job reporting on the disaster , both online and in the next day’s print edition. And the paper’s stunning photographic coverage by Daryn Slover put WCSH’s distant, sometimes-unfocused video shots to shame.
If somebody’s looking for a reason the world still needs newspapers, this story is an excellent example.
One use too many: From George Smith’s column “The Native Conservative” in the July 15 Kennebec Journal : “The powers that be decided the University of Maine was located in many places and my alma mater was downgraded to the University of Maine in Orono. I refuse to use that reference.”
Uh, George, did somebody else write the previous sentence?
Hold the sugar: From a story by staff writer Scott Monroe in the July 15 Morning Sentinel  on planning board support for a proposal to rebuild the bare-breasted Grand View Topless Coffee Shop in Vassalboro: “The approval for owner Donald Crabtree includes an expansion of the previous business, allowing longer hours of operation and more seating capacity – from 25 to 80 serviceable patrons.”
And then there are the customers who just want coffee.