Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Summer in the City: In post-drinking death, is anyone responsible?

published in the Portland Phoenix; co-written with Chelsea Cook

Conflicting reports about why exactly Nathan Bihlmaier was asked to leave RiRa on the night of May 19 — whether he was drunk, whether he was behaving inappropriately toward another patron, or whether he stumbled over some musical equipment — leave questions about responsibility on nights out in the Old Port.
Bihlmaier, 31, was due to graduate from Harvard Business School just days after his celebratory evening out with friends; instead he was found dead in the water near Custom House Wharf, leaving behind his pregnant wife.
The police account has Bihlmaier, 31, being asked to leave because he was visibly intoxicated, a condition that under state law requires ejection from a bar. Bihlmaier's two friends did not accompany him when he left.
RiRa security manager Scott St. Ours has claimed Bihlmaier wasn't drunk, but rather was asked to leave after he tripped over some band gear (another early account also alleged Bihlmaier was bothering another customer). Despite the claim of sobriety, St. Ours says he walked "a block and a half" with Bihlmaier and twice attempted to get him a cab. (Sauschuck says security video shows St. Ours and Bihlmaier leaving together, and St. Ours returning to the bar within 30 seconds.)
According to the law, Bihlmaier was responsible for himself. But an inebriated person — particularly if determined to be so by a trained staff member of a bar — by definition has impaired judgment. Leaving an impaired person to their own devices could be construed as negligence. And courts have held that bars that sell alcohol to people who are already obviously intoxicated — are at least partially responsible for any negative aftermath. (Sauschuck has said he does not believe RiRa staff did anything illegal, and has said RiRa employees are assisting with the investigation.)
"It's a shared responsibility, between the person and the bar," says Doug Fuss, owner of Bull Feeney's and president of the board of directors for Portland's Downtown District (PDD). Fuss is also a former chair of the Nightlife Oversight Committee (NLOC), which has been instrumental in making rules for both bar owners and patrons.
The guidelines were established in 2008 based on the feedback of bar owners and security personnel, and include specific regulations, one of which is that management must designate floor staff to look for and interact with visibly intoxicated customers. Maine law says, "No licensee [of liquor] shall permit or allow visibly intoxicated persons to remain on the licensed premises," but isn't helpful about explaining how to eject someone in a way that doesn't incur liability if something bad happens afterward.
Fuss says NLOC, the PDD, and the police have been meeting recently to devise solutions for handling visibly intoxicated patrons. Fuss advocated personal responsibility and the "buddy system," as well as using a cab, while recognizing the complications that could arise in either scenario, as happened with Bihlmaier.
Laurence Kelly, owner of Brian Boru, shared ideas as well, including a potential helpline or phone number that would act similarly to Homerunners, a designated-driver car service.
"Talking to and assessing the customer's state is the best way. If we see someone staggering or not responding, take them outside and stay with them," Kelly says. A more out-there idea apparently batted around was the laughable — and ugly — idea of putting a chain link fence around the harbor. Either way, it's time for patrons and bar owners to bridge the gap between law and common sense.

Celestial Update: This brief transit

Published in the Portland Phoenix, the Boston Phoenix, and the Providence Phoenix

Back in the 18th century, observing the Transit of Venus took a ridiculous amount of effort, involving ships, draft animals, wagons with wooden wheels, and telescopes made by the best optics engineer in the world. Today — say it with me — there's an app for that.
In 1716, Edmond Halley (yes, the comet guy) asked the world scientific community to mount massive expeditions in 1761 and 1769 to watch Venus cross in front of the Sun. He expected that by comparing the observations from different points around the globe (called parallax), astronomers would be able to calculate the Earth's distance from the Sun.
As detailed in historian Andrea Wulf's recent book, Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens (Knopf), European nations (and the American colonies) took Halley up on his proposal in 1761 and again in 1769, sending astronomers to the far reaches of the planet.
The expeditions took years, and assembling the results and making the calculations took even longer. It wasn't until 1771 that the British Royal Society was ready to declare a result: 93,726,900 miles. That's less than one percent different than the present calculation of 92,960,000 miles.
We don't need your help measuring anymore, but if you want to attempt to re-enact just the observational challenges (for long, dangerous journeys, you're on your own), visit and download the free app, for iPhone and Android. It'll give you some simulated runs so you can perfect your timing, and be ready to go. (See below for your local observatory's viewing activity.)
You should take this opportunity — it's the last chance you'll have to see the Transit of Venus. (You caught the last one, in 2004, right? Yeah, neither did we.) The last pair happened in December 1874 and December 1882, and the next will be in December 2117 and December 2125. So mark your calendars.
Transit of Venus | dome show + viewing in the field (weather permitting) | Southworth Planetarium, 96 Falmouth St, Portland | June 5 @ 5 pm | Free | 207.780.4249 |

Transit of Venus | live telecast | Museum of Natural History and Planetarium at Roger Williams Park, 1000 Elmwood Ave, Providence | June 5 @ 6 pm | $8, under 12 free | 401.331.8575 x36 |

Transit of Venus | viewing + live telecast | Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 60 Garden St, Cambridge | June 5 @ 5 pm | free | 617.495.7461 | harbor cruise + viewing in the field (weather permitting) | Spectacle Island (ferries from Long Wharf), Boston Harbor | June 5 @ 5 pm | free | 617.222.6999 |

Press Releases: Ask questions

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Portland residents concerned about the drowning death of Nathan Bihlmaier saw the advantage of having competing news organizations last week, and may yet continue benefiting from this as the investigation continues. (See "In post-drinking death, is anyone responsible?" for a run-down of some of the issues involved.)
With both the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News working sources on the street, in the bars, and at the police station, reporters scooped each other and responded to each other's revelations with follow-up stories on successive days. This is how journalism is supposed to work: rather than either ignoring each other's reporting, or simply getting the same information for reprinting a day later, the reporters on this story are digging in, with each paper's crew asking questions raised by reports in the other paper.
When newspapers understand readers have a choice about where to get their news, coverage improves, responds, comes alive. For too long Maine's dailies have believed themselves to be impregnable fortresses, must-read publications by definition, rather than by merit. This has led to stagnation, which the papers would do well to stir away. Perhaps the coverage of this tragedy is an example of good things to come, as economics force greater competition.
Can Maine support three major dailies and five smaller dailies? Does the demand exist to justify the supply? To that end, the big dailies (the PPH, the BDN, and the Lewiston Sun Journal) have taken steps to dispel the popular belief that print is dead.
They've chosen an interesting tack, though: simply claiming the opposite. They staged a panel discussion where they claimed that Maine's papers are different, are is escaping the national trends of dropping ad revenue and circulation. Then a panelist, a moderator, and another speaker wrote a boosterish opinion piece whose most revealing statement was this: "So what does the future hold for Maine's newspapers? The precise answer is unknown. What is known, however, is the future exists — despite gloomy predictions to the contrary."
In two very lengthy blog posts (at I've examined the ideas expressed during the discussion and in the opinion piece, and have explained why simply claiming "the future exists" is hardly evidence that Maine's daily newspapers are any different from the national trends.
If the competitive success evidenced in the Bihlmaier case is a harbinger of a revitalized approach to reporting and publishing the news, then Maine's dailies might have a fighting chance. But it has to be a sustained effort, not just once in a while.
Which is why it's disheartening to have learned that such a level of persistent inquisitiveness is missing when it comes to election coverage. Our candidate questionnaire this year accidentally uncovered the fact that candidates aren't used to getting direct, strong questions from the media. (See "GOP runners for federal office get squirrely; Dems and independents share answers.")
A classic example is how Keith Shortall's Maine Public Broadcasting Network interviews with all of the candidates in the US Senate primary are described: the candidate is "asked why he [or she] is running for office and which issues he [or she] believes are most important to the citizens of Maine." Or, in other words, "We'll hand the candidate a microphone and let them talk about what they want, without subjecting them to serious questioning."
In Shortall's defense, some listeners who called in to those shows asked pointed questions. But too much coverage of the major races in Maine has boiled down to giving candidates carte blanche to talk about themselves, their concerns, and their goals, and leaving it at that. (It can be useful in smaller races where the candidates are not as well known, and where the stakes are lower; see our coverage of the three Portland-related legislative primaries here.)
When people seeking to be elected to represent Mainers in Washington DC can't handle questions that put them on the spot, it's hard to know how to react. But it's important to know that they're flummoxed. And it's important to know that the state's media outlets, who claim to serve the public, aren't testing these candidates as much as they might have you believe.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The #menews op-ed, and my response

Published at

Some of you might remember my long post about the #menews forum a couple weeks back. Well, they're still at it - and so am I. In my inbox this morning comes moderator Mike Cuzzi, with an opinion piece jointly penned by him, Maine State Chamber of Commerce head Dana Connors, and Tony Ronzio, the Sun Journal's new media director - one of the more clued-in folks on the panel. (BTW, Tony, I've had a website since 1992. Can we stop calling it "new media" soon?)
They asked if I'd consider printing it, so I took a look. And I've agreed to publish it here - with my responses in line. And no, this doesn't stop me from shaking my head at Maine's daily newspaper situation. 
Anyway, here's the op-ed, with my responses. I'm in bold.

The Future of Maine's Newspapers
Despite National Trends, Maine's Newspapers Remain Strong

The national narrative about newspapers is expressed in two words: they're dying.  
Let's be clearer: the national narrative about daily newspapers is that they're dying. Weekly newspapers, including alternatives, have hit a rough economic spot just like everyone else, but are doing just fine.
Over the past few years, newspaper circulations have declined, staffs have been cut back, budgets have tightened with the shrinking economy and the explosive growth of digital and social media, and some publications even closed their doors. 
Yep, such as the Portland Press Herald, the Portland Press Herald, and, well, the Portland Press Herald's York County bureau. And Village Soup Media, of course. Or were you going to tell me Maine's an exception to this stuff?
However, the national narrative is largely driven by the experiences of big, publicly traded newspaper chains, like Gannett or McClatchy, or the big institutions, like the New York Times or Washington Post. Neither represents the real story of newspapering in Maine. 
Except, of course, for the obvious and well-known facts that Maine daily newspapers have lost circulation big-time, shrunk their staffs significantly, tightened budgets, and closed their doors.
First, most daily and weekly publications are owned by Maine individuals and families who live and work in this state.  While committed to turning a profit, these local owners read their newspapers like broadsheets -- as opposed to spreadsheets.  
And as we know, people who live locally are by definition better than people who live far away. This is why, as we all know, Maine has the best telecommunications companies, the most innovative universities, the world's best teachers, the most talented artists, and more Nobel Prize winners than anywhere else on the... (Fine, we have some of these - but Maine-centric exceptionalism is hollow rhetoric that substitutes boosterism for substance.)
This also attempts to get away with lumping the struggling all-things-to-all-people daily newspapers in with the successful niche-publication weeklies. Don't let this sort of silliness cloud your vision. Daily papers print the Internet - after it's been posted online. Weeklies print the news first, with insight and context.
Second, there is cautious optimism in Maine that its newspapers are rising again, albeit slowly, after some difficult years. 
Who is optimistic about that? Is it anyone outside the newspapers in question?
Maine's papers are making money, hiring newsroom and other staff, either holding or growing circulation, and reaching more people than ever before with their print and online offerings.  
If the dailies are making money, it must just not be enough for their local owners, who continue to seek greater profits by cutting back on content while raising cover prices. They're not "holding" circulation, though by some measures they are slowing the losses. But it's important to note that how circulation is measured has changed, allowing greater flexibility in determining what counts - specifically so that the newspaper industry can make its numbers look better, in an attempt to regain control of the narrative of the obvious.
And if they're claiming to reach "more people than ever before," make sure you get them to show you how they know that they're not reaching the same exact people in print, online, and mobile devices - and just counting them multiple times. What's that? Oh right - they can't show you that. Because they don't know that. Also, make sure they show you how many of those online readers are people who would gladly pay to read what's there. Oh yeah, they can't show you that, either, because most of them wouldn't.
That greater reach hasn't necessarily translated into greater profitability, but even so, Maine's newspapers' balance sheets as a whole are trending in the right direction.
Just cut the word "necessarily" from the sentence. And if the balance sheets are looking up, it's not because there's more revenue. It's because costs are lower. That means fewer workers, at lower salaries, less employee benefits, and smaller circulation (accompanied by smaller print runs).
Third, Maine's newspapers are now more competitive than ever before, battling for the best reporters and investing in new, more robust technologies to deliver content to ever more sophisticated consumers.  
The dailies are indeed more competitive with each other. Perhaps that's because they're engaged in a race for survival. Can this state really support three major dailies and three smaller ones? They are as uncompetitive as ever with weeklies, who trounce them time and again, week in and week out, in print and online.
What are these "new, more robust technologies" they're talking about? Better blog engines? Slightly faster websites that might load faster in a state whose overall broadband speed is terrible?
The existential crisis of Maine and national newspapers is reshaping their mission and invigorating them to rapidly adapt to new challenges. This strong competition and renewed sense of purpose promises to keep Maine's newspapers vibrant. 
Innovation, competition, and reinvigoration do not directly and automatically equal success. Some innovations fail. Some businesses lose competitions, and renewed energy can be wasted by mismanagement, or by outside economic factors.
So what does the future hold for Maine's newspapers? The precise answer is unknown. What is known, however, is the future exists -- despite gloomy predictions to the contrary. 
Ah, that's some refreshing honesty. Despite the original interpretation of Mayan predictions that the world would end in 2012, the new interpretation is that the Mayans expected the world to continue for many more years. "The future exists" is the banner of promise that is held high by people whose entire jobs have for decades, even down to today, been obsessed with telling you what happened yesterday. Their newspapers certainly don't reflect the idea that the future exists - and only rarely even address the present. They just talk about what happened in the past.
So daily newspapers are discovering that "the future exists." This is important, but continues to underline the idea that daily newspapers and their leaders are profoundly detached from the rest of the world, in which we're constantly worrying about the future and talking about what's next, and only rarely deeply interested in what happened in the past. (And yes, I'm a trained historian, and I recognize the distinction between my interests and those of regular people. Daily newspaper workers have continued to think theyare regular people - and they're not.)
Recently, in Portland, we hosted a panel discussion about the future of Maine's newspapers. The participants came to some common conclusions, although with divergent opinions about how to get there. 
What? I was there, and didn't hear any common conclusions - besides "We don't know what's happened, but the future exists."
First, print editions are not going away anytime soon. Plenty of fans still exist for printed newspapers, particularly in Maine, which supports dozens of excellent weekly papers that cover every inch of the state. 
And the fact that weekly newspapers are successful has what bearing, exactly, on daily newspapers, which are an entirely different animal?
Going forward, though, print will become just one vehicle for readers, as opposed to the dominant one. Digital journalism and advertising will eventually supplant printed papers for primacy, but never replace them entirely. 
This is already true - and not just something we'll see "going forward." Print is just one vehicle - for a decreasing number of readers. Perhaps printed papers won't ever entirely disappear. Some people still put music out on cassette and vinyl, after all.
This will happen not as readers' news consumption changes, but as advertisers optimize how they pursue and attract customers online. For decades, newspapers have aided businesses in the quest for customers; as the digital age dawns, newspapers still remain ideally suited to provide this service for years to come.
Here's another bright spot of honesty: This transition won't happen because of what daily newspapers think their readers want. (Reason: They have no idea what their readers want.) Rather, it'll happen because of what advertisers demand, and what makes the numbers work. Sounds a lot like what's already at work killing daily papers.
And what it really says is that Maine's daily newspapers will not be leaders in innovation, but rather will follow the innovations of others, who will determine the future of advertising. Being a follower - especially when calling it innovation - is always a good way to save your failing business, right?
Moreover, newspaper advertising departments are transforming themselves into full-service digital providers to businesses, offering value-added services such as website design in response to businesses' growing digital needs.
Ah yes, website design - so glad that's a new offering of Maine's newspapers. Have they heard of Blogger, Tumblr, Google Sites, or any of the zillions of free and low-cost, easy-to-use services already out there? Oh wait - newspapersstill aren't used to the idea that they're competing with the entire Internet.
In other words, local advertisers will have as much to do with the evolution of Maine's newspapers as any other force, actively driving news organizations to become more rooted in the digital economy. 
Any chance those local advertisers could drive daily news organizations to become more rooted in their actual physical communities? Yeah, didn't think that was on your radar.
The willingness of consumers to pay for information received online is also increasing. While not a full answer to revenue challenges, digital subscriptions add another revenue stream when done right and are proving successful at large and small papers across the country.
The pay model requires two things: scarcity and quality. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times can limit free access and require payment because they do stuff nobody else does. Maine's papers not only share each other's stories, but are heavily dependent on wire copy. Associated Press copy you read in your daily newspaper is by definition at least 12 hours old - that's how long it takes to receive, edit, lay out, print, and distribute information that's been online for free for most of a day.
If Maine's daily papers even want to think about charging for access, they have to start providing information that's unique to themselves, hasn't been published in weekly newspapers already, and is of unquestioned quality. Right now, there are fewer than five journalists in the state working for daily papers whose work is worth paying for. The rest of them may have talent and smarts, but are being ground into meaningless, useless dust by outdated management and editorial ideas - such as those that think making websites is a business opportunity for the future.
These models prove that readers value what newspapers have historically provided to their communities: unbiased, objective reporting and engaging, insightful information about the places where we all work, live and play. 
You forgot the word "timely." You also forgot the word "exclusive." And when we see all that as a regular feature of all three of Maine's daily papers - and not as a special exciting extra, we'll think about being willing to pay. But if the NYT can't command more than $15 a month from subscribers - half the monthly print rate - how is a lower quality publication with smaller readership that has plenty of other options for getting information for free going to get any amount worth counting? If the PPH allowed digital subscriptions at half its present rate, that would be $6.50 a month. And remember, PPH quality, volume, and exclusivity are all far lower than the NYT, so we'd really be looking at something far lower as a subscription rate.
It's not yet clear what Maine's digital subscription models might look like, but it's fair to say greater experimentation is coming.
And experiments always find success, so positive results are assured, right? Right?
Finally, all newspapers agree that providing excellent, engaging content is paramount. Content is king and is driving competition and innovation across the industry, top to bottom.
Yep - and this is the first time that "content" and its quality have appeared in this missive. So we see where it rates as far as a priority for the daily newspaper leaders of Maine.
It is a golden age for journalism and those that practice it. With more people consuming more content in more ways than ever before, journalism's mission has never been more obvious or more important. 
More boosterism, with no relevance or insight into how this will help Maine's daily newspapers in any way. Plus, any newspaper editor would have made sure "those that practice it" was properly edited to "those who practice it."
And as long as that mission is valued, a business model will emerge to support it.
Again, placing the foundation of this argument firmly in the clouds.
It won't be what newspapers looked like in the past, but it will be innovative and responsive to the rapidly evolving expectations of Maine's media consumers.
And closing with a heartfelt, meaningless, boosterish platitude. Maine's daily papers haven't changed a bit. And I wouldn't hold your breath about that.

Dana Connors is the President of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
Michael Cuzzi is a Senior Vice President with VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm located in Portland.
Anthony Ronzio is the Director of New Media for the Sun Media Group & Past President of the Maine Press Association.    
Jeff Inglis is the managing editor of the Portland Phoenix, Maine's largest single weekly newspaper, and its only alternative weekly newspaper.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Still shaking my head about the #menews panel. Here's why.

Published at

I'm still shaking my head in dismay and disbelief after Monday's panel convened, allegedly, to discuss the future of Maine's newspapers. (Here's the video.) I've spent many years in the alternative and community press, and am well used to seeing frequent examples of the outright cluelessness and lack of vision at mainstream daily newspapers. It's helped form part of my theory about what's wrong with today's newspaper industry. (In brief, it's that they don't realize what strengths they have, they value what they shouldn't, and are too full of themselves to look around at the wreckage they inhabit and decide to clean out the pigsty.)

But after Monday, I'm actually reconsidering my view that the larger players in the media industry - even the larger players in Maine's media industry, who are tiny specks in the global media universe - are out of touch with reality. Now, I have begun to think they're operating in a fully alternate universe than the one in which I've been reporting and editing - and living - for my entire career.

Here are a few of the moments that continue to really shake me, and, in italics, why.

Tom Bell, Press Herald reporter and president of the paper's union, said the paper's plan for self-improvement now that it has been purchased by hedge-fund mogul Donald Sussman is to double its news staff from 8 to 16 reporters. In my professional life, I've never worked for an organization with that many reporters - and I've always worked at papers that scoop dailies on an extremely frequent basis. It's unclear to me that the solution to failing business models is to put out more of the same stenography mainstream dailies are famous for. That said, the PPH has hired two crackerjack reporters: Steve Mistler and Colin Woodard (the latter a now-former member of the Phoenix's freelance crew). If they're the mold for what's coming next, then that does bode well. But their advantage is their actual skill, not how many of them there are.

Bell also said, as he has in the past, that the reason Sussman bought the company is for "philanthropic reasons." So a daily paper that is still allegedly profitable (though less so than in years past) is now a charity? It's certainly unclear that charities are big innovators in the news space. Even "new" models like ProPublica and the anemic Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting (MCPIR here) aren't doing anything that has never before been done in the news business. They're operating investigative bureaus at a loss, seeking subsidy from other, profit-making endeavors. (In past cases, it was the classifieds department of the same company; here it's whatever their donors actually do to earn money.)

Tony Ronzio, director of new media at the Lewiston Sun Journal's parent company, Sun Media, said news organizations will survive because they're unbiased sources of information. I'd love to think that's true, but it's not a business model - and especially not in our present society, where people debate seemingly obvious facts like whether the Earth is getting warmer, or whether trickle-down economics ever actually help the people they're supposed to trickle down to. It's almost impossible to find unbiased information - and mainstream daily papers are one of the least likely places to find it, since their reporters' workloads are too high to allow genuine inquiry, and editors' stomachs are too weak to allow more than he-said-she-said-he-said exchanges on even the most basic of recounting of events.

Todd Benoit, director of news and new media at the Bangor Daily News, said that the BDN is offering blogs to important thinkers in Maine, such as political-science professor Amy Fried at UMaine. Those are people who would previously be sources for reported stories, he observed, who now can weigh in directly to the newspaper's audience. That is indeed an interesting model, and one many other papers have attempted. The problem is the potential for a newspaper's website to turn into an environment like a TV talk show, where allegedly important people pontificate without regard for the facts. Perhaps it was lack of time causing Benoit not to talk about an editing process, or the means by which the BDN picks its bloggers, but he seemed to be saying that the value of the newspaper reporter as an intermediary is diminishing, not remaining valuable.

Ronzio talked briefly about the economic impact of newspapers and their employees, observing in passing that printing and production jobs in newspapers are "nothing to do with the newsroom or news gathering. Those are blue-collar jobs." It was barely a decade ago that most reporters considered themselves blue-collar workers too. He's right that reporters now are more inclined to think of themselves as distinct from the working classes, and see more in common between themselves and the corporate-government elite that's been running amok since the 1980s. Those efforts have gathered speed in the last 10 years, and I don't think it's a coincidence that the lack of scrutiny has come at the same time as the detachment of daily journalists from their audiences.

Bell, responding to an inquiry about getting more young people reading the paper, suggested having a beat focusing on young people, rather than a geographic beat structure, like the Press Herald has. Perhaps he's choosing to forget the days Justin Ellis's "Generation NXT" column regularly made the rest of the Press Herald appear even more out-of-touch than expected by "the young people" (as Ellis's blog called those he intended to cover). Ellis is a nice guy, who had good ideas that were often hamstrung and neutered by myopic leadership. Maybe new ownership and management at the PPH would help. But that still ignores the fact that young people want to know about health care, the economy, education, politics, the environment, culture, and government. Which seems a lot like what non-young people want to know about. (And, for that matter, what people care about no matter where they live in a geographic beat structure.)

Bell also admitted that the Press Herald staff look at the Bangor Daily News and the Lewiston Sun Journal regularly, and said that's a change from the past. This is something that should give me hope, and should help me feel better about the state of Maine's newspapers. But the idea that the state's largest paper didn't even bother to regularly look at the second- and third-place papers is distressing. And the fact that it's new enough to be notable suggests it's not happening nearly enough yet. Bell also didn't mention that PPH reporters are well known for reading the community weekly newspapers in their coverage areas, and pretending they didn't get scooped by days or weeks when writing their own stories on subjects long since covered locally.

Benoit provided one of the only moments with a sense of urgency, when he said, "if newsrooms are evolving then advertising and marketing should be in full-scale revolution." Nobody talked about that at all, and from what's evident on the market and on the surface, Maine's mainstream newspapers are not even close. In fact, their newsrooms are farther ahead than their advertising and marketing. Which isn't actually saying much.

Terry Carlisle, general manager of the Ellsworth American, was perhaps the most obviously out-of-touch person on the panel. She outright scoffed at the idea of citizen journalism: "We're professionals . . . we don't need the help of people who are not trained to do it." It's never been clear to me that treating your customers as if they're helpless is a good business model. (Even hospitals know better than that.) And to outright refuse help? That's just stupidly arrogant. Admittedly, she works at a community weekly, rather than a mainstream daily. But none of the people sitting next to her even blinked when she said this, nor at her even more startling remarks.

Carlisle also claimed that young people aren't interested in newspapers; they only get interested later in life. National surveys show otherwise - and strongly otherwise. And that's in addition to the decades of success of alternative newspapers around the country, like the Portland Phoenix, whose core audience is in the group of people Carlisle suggests don't care about newspapers.

Carlisle also, separately, said that 18- to 24-year-olds "don't buy anything." Any of us who have ever been 18- to 24-year-olds know that's silly. If you're looking for expert advice, though, try the example of credit-card companies. They're extremely good at targeting people from whom they can make money, and they have for years been absolutely insane about getting college students to sign up for credit cards.

And Carlisle said she was dismayed by all the attention to lost circulation, saying that even after the drops, the Ellsworth American still has more readers in Hancock County than anyone else. She may be right about that - though the daily circ figures for the "mainstream" BDN and PPH are only barely above the circulation of the "alternative" Phoenix - but the problem is in how the circ drop combines with advertising rates. I'd bet none of the Maine papers has lowered ad rates, even while selling fewer eyeballs. Rather, they're in the position of trying to sell fewer eyeballs at higher rates. Sure, an ad in the Ellsworth American will reach more people in Hancock County than in any other publication, but why should it cost more than it did in the past, when it was an even better deliverer of advertising?

Carlisle had a very lucid moment at the very end, in which she said, "Nobody covers what we cover." This should give me hope - that perhaps people leading Maine's media outlets understand what they have that is valuable. But even Carlisle didn't seem to notice the importance of what she said. And certainly nobody else did. Of course, that statement isn't true for the PPH, BDN, and Sun Journal - not only are they all heavily reliant on wire copy (and on stories from the other papers under a shared-coverage agreement), but even the stuff they do cover is commonly covered by the local weeklies, often well before the dailies bother.

Bill Kuykendall, a senior lecturer in new media at UMaine (and a professor of mine when I was in grad school at the University of Missouri), observed that high-speed Internet access is expanding rapidly across Maine, thanks to the Three-Ring Binder project and UMaine's involvement in Gig-UThis is also something that should give me hope, except that none of the panelists even responded to this observation. That shows they don't understand the significance of the change that will come as their audiences move online even more quickly, and as mobile access to high-speed Internet gets even more widespread.

Kuykendall also asked the panel about moving to mobile apps, and what was possible for them to afford. Carlisle was the only one who answered the question -the Ellsworth American does have some mobile presence, she said. The folks from the dailies changed the subject. It's impossible to talk about the future of news without talking mobile, but that's what Maine's three largest daily papers are doing. Maybe they have something up their sleeves, but there was no sense along the lines of "we'll have something, but we can't tell you yet what it will be." Rather, the sense was, "Mobile? Who cares?"

There were a couple of bright points, though.

First was Bell's observation that Maine's papers are privately owned, carry little debt, and have owners who are involved locally. All of these are good starting points for organizations seeking to make changes. They're less likely to get bogged down in choosing a direction, more flexible at adapting, and largely unconstrained by outside economic forces. But being at a good starting point right now is WAY behind the rest of the industry's pack, and risks leaving Maine's media market - like its industrial market - as a backwater of little note.

And second was Ronzio's observation that the local community is what's going to support the newspapers, rather than any sort of national or regional advertising base or readership. He's right, and if even some of Maine's newspaper leaders are realizing this, they are approaching the starting gate on real positive change. But being at the starting line is still very far behind.

While I'm reluctant to end on a low note, the fact is I have a worse view of the mainstream press in Maine than I did before Monday. Not least is because I asked a question of the panel that I've been asking since 2009: Given what they're talking about as future changes (connecting with young readers, using social media, providing context and depth rather than just stenography), how will they compete with those news organizations, including the Portland Phoenix, that are already doing all of those things, and have been for years? There were jokes and criticisms, but no real ideas. As one person said afterward, it produced a lot of squirming, but no substantive responses.