Down East 2013 ©
Several years ago, I was talking with Peter Cox, one of the founders of the original Maine Times, about an uncomfortable topic. Why, I asked Cox, were so many stories in his alternative weekly paper so … er … boring?
“I don’t care if the stories are boring,” Cox said, “so long as they’re important. In some cases, the stories are intentionally boring.”
Well, nobody ever questioned Cox’s commitment to hardcore journalism.
On the other hand, his business plan might have used some tweaking. Maine Times folded, in part, because the market for brain-numbingly long and detailed articles on subjects of limited interest to the general public was severely limited. No matter how important the topic, few readers other than policy wonks were likely to plow through the minute details required to understand it.
In other words, Maine Times was based on exactly the opposite theory of journalism than the one that guides TV news. The former couldn’t be too thorough. The latter can’t be too superficial.
There’s no question about which approach results in a healthier bottom line.
Which brings me to the Web site called the New Maine Times,  an attempt not only to carry on the original’s legacy of investigative reporting, but also to defy conventions about brevity and maintaining the readers’ interest.
At its best, the New Maine Times is as deep as its namesake – and as dull.
At its worst, it’s just dull.
Unlike the Maine Times, the New MT is a nonprofit operation,  so it doesn’t have to generate the large readership numbers that attract advertisers. But it remains to be seen whether producing stories capable of causing an epidemic of eyes glazing over will induce donations and grants in sufficient quantity to stave off the fate that befell the weekly newspaper.
When NMT digs, it creates a crater. Editor Gina Hamilton’s (late of the Coastal Journal) piece on dredging the Kennebec River  is as detailed and complete an examination of the issues as seems possible. Have plenty of coffee on hand before attempting to plow through it, and do not operate heavy machinery or drive immediately afterwards. There’s so much jargon and so many long excerpts from legal documents that it’s difficult to imagine anyone not directly affected by this issue having the fortitude to finish it.
On other occasions, NMT stories are equally dull without being as definitive. A Hamilton piece on campaign contributions carries the intriguing headline “Following the money: Do large donors have certain ... expectations?”  But only one individual donor is mentioned by name, and no hard evidence is offered that he influenced the agenda of the LePage administration with his cash.
A three-part series on the Maine Turnpike and its associated scandal by David Kaler is valuable for its historical perspective  and its detailed coverage of the public hearing  before a legislative committee, but offers no new insights into what went wrong or what could be done to prevent it happening again.
Hamilton’s article headlined, “Supermax prison cells and torture”  turns out to be little more than a rehash of the book “The United States And Torture,” which features stories done by Lance Tapley for the Portland Phoenix over the last several years. There’s nothing new here.
The News section contains lots of legislative coverage, much of it brief and little of it exclusive. The longer new stories tend to be less insightful (a piece on economist Charles Colgan called “A chat with the smartest guy not in the room”  brushes aside his abysmal record of failing to predict state revenues) and more inaccurate (the same story incorrectly claims Gov. Paul LePage “apparently has had a recent change of heart” about abolishing the State Planning Office) than are the norm for investigate journalism.
NMT’s Analysis section is mostly concerned with national issues, such as the federal budget deficit  (a piece by Hamilton that carries a Washington dateline, which made me wonder if she actually went to a budget briefing in D.C. or is engaging in her old habit of datelining stories without actually having visited the scene) and the housing crisis  (no interviews and a lot of material that has appeared elsewhere, but doesn’t get attributed properly).
The Opinion section also needs work. Instead of the old Maine Times’ hard-hitting editorials on the important issues it covered, there’s Hamilton exploring some metaphor involving the flying buttresses needed to hold up her camp. 
The New Maine Times is still, well, new, so some of these problems may correct themselves, particularly if Hamilton is able to attract additional contributors and stable financing.
I hope so, because there’s a place in Maine journalism for deep.
Even if it is dull.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org .