Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Beats moving: Press Herald editor heading south

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In a tiny item buried in the Portland Press Herald’s “Business Briefcase” column Wednesday, April 12, and not posted to the front page of the paper’s Web site until the Associated Press moved its version of the story online in the early afternoon, was the announcement that Eric Conrad, the paper’s managing editor for the past five years, is leaving May 1 to become the editor of the News-Times in Danbury, Connecticut, where he starts May 22.

“The last year or two in the back of my mind, I’ve been thinking I wanted to be a top editor,” Conrad says. He has been trying to find a “good paper” in a “good company” that would offer him a top post and the opportunity to live in a community where it would be good for him to raise his two daughters, one of whom is finishing second grade this year, and the other of whom will start kindergarten in the fall. He wanted the new job to be in New England as well, which “limits your options,” Conrad says.

In part as a result of that limitation, Conrad is moving to a paper about half the size of his existing employer. The newsroom at the Press Herald (daily circulation: 70,000) employs about 100 people; the Maine Sunday Telegram’s circulation is 110,000. Conrad’s new paper has about 50 people in its newsroom and serves 30,000 daily readers and 35,000 on Sunday.

“For me, I think that’s a good thing,” Conrad says, explaining he is a “hands-on” editor. He has moved to a smaller paper before, leaving the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in Florida to come to Maine as the Press Herald’s city editor in 1995. He has also served as assistant managing editor for news and assistant managing editor for sports.

The News-Times is owned by Ottaway Newspapers, which calls itself “the community newspaper subsidiary of Dow Jones & Co.,” which owns the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and the Far Eastern Economic Review, among others.

Ottaway’s holdings in New England are the York Weekly and the York County Coast Star in Maine; in New Hampshire: the Portsmouth Herald, the Hampton Union, the News-Letter in Exeter, and the Rockingham News in Plaistow; in Massachusetts: the Cape Cod Times, the Nantucket Inquirer & Mirror, the Barnstable Patriot, and the Standard-Times in New Bedford; and in Connecticut: the Spectrum in New Milford, and the News-Times. The chain’s flagship is the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, New York, with a Sunday circulation of nearly 89,000, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s report of the third quarter of 2005.

Press Herald Editor-in-Chief Jeannine Guttman could not be reached for comment directly, but her assistant, Jennifer Lizotte, forwarded a company-wide memo Guttman issued April 11, lauding Conrad’s “no-nonsense style, strong leadership and . . . aggressive approach to news.” Guttman’s memo also says Guttman will begin a search for a replacement “as soon as possible.”

Portland Newspaper Guild Vice-President Tom Bell, who helps lead the union representing reporters at the paper, says the union has no response to Conrad’s departure, but among staff “there’s some anxiety about who will replace” Conrad, who was known for being “smart, capable, and intelligent.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me if the paper gets better when I’m gone,” Conrad says, anticipating that the management change will bring new vision to the paper. It has been struggling with “declining circulation and flat advertising revenue,” according to a 193-word business brief buried on page four of the business section on October 21, 2005. The paper imposed a hiring freeze “for all but critical positions” back then, and projected staff cuts “of some form.”

The Ottaway papers’ revenue was up “slightly” in the fourth quarter of 2005, with a one-percent increase in ad revenue, even as ad-sales volume declined six percent. Operating costs climbed as well, spurring promises of “increasing profits at Ottaway in 2006,” according to financial statements and data posted on

In his new post, Conrad will also oversee the paper’s Web site, which is a different arrangement from what he had at the Press Herald, where “MaineToday[.com] and our newsroom are separate things,” Conrad says. There’s a chance for reunification: editor Scott Hersey, who, along with other company brass, took lots of heat when the site started requiring user registrations, was quietly let go, or just left, in January, leaving the site leaderless even now.

Conrad’s wife, special projects writer Barbara Walsh, will be going with him to Connecticut. In a move unnoted in the pages of the paper, she left the paper “a couple weeks ago,” according to Conrad, to work on a book project. Bell says she took a leave of absence a few months ago, and recently formalized her departure to work on the book, about a Newfoundland sailing disaster.

Walsh has been one of the Press Herald’s claims to fame, on the basis of her contributions on the staff of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune when that paper won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for general news, for its reporting on the Willie Horton scandal in Massachusetts, which drew attention to problems in that state’s prison system and hurt the election chances of former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who was running for President.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Seen + heard: The Maine Deaf Film Festival shows everyone a new world

Published in the Portland Phoenix

These could easily be stories of alienation, of separation, of frustration. And those are here. But they are not in the majority of the fare at the Maine Deaf Film Festival, to be held on Saturday, April 15, on USM’s Portland campus.

Certainly there are the poignant, heart-wrenching stories of aloneness, of confusion, of fleeting connections, like in Stille Liebe, a Swiss film made in 2001 whose name, translated from the German, means “Secret Love.” Stille Liebe follows the life of a nun, played by famed European actress Emmanuelle Laborit, who was born deaf and has made a career of playing deaf characters in films that have won countless awards all across the continent.

But even as the film depicts her discovery of, and connection with, a deaf pickpocket from Latvia, and the change the relationship prompts in her life, it has another twist right out in front of everyone: “Stille,” in German, means not just “secret.” It also means “silent.”

A number of these films have puns and jokes in their names, as their deaf creators and actors play with a language not entirely their own, with the title No Talking Allowed, for example.

And that film also has what may be the most insightful look at deaf culture for hearing people — exploring the things hearing people do that drive deaf people crazy, as well as deaf people’s fears of a hearing world.

“We try to pick films that our deaf audience will identify with,” says USM linguistics lecturer John Dunleavy, one of the event organizers, who is deaf.

The concept that people have to be — or at least act — hearing to be “normal” is also explored in the British film Chronic Embarrassment, in which deaf people, as they often do, go to nightclubs pretending to be hearing because, well, nobody can really hear in a club. (The British Sign Language used in the film means the subtitles will be useful even for deaf audience members, who are likely to know American Sign Language best. They will recognize some of the signs but not all of them, and may be particularly confused by the fingerspelling alphabet used in Britain, which uses both hands, rather than just one, as with ASL.)

At a press screening (which only the Phoenix attended, to the shame of the other media around the city), Dunleavy, USM linguistics lecturer Brenda Schertz (both teachers of ASL), and several of their students explained some of the films’ subtle nuances.

Text, Batteries, and Earwax posits two divergent sub-cultures against each other, the “deaf culture,” in which people embrace signing and do not try to learn to talk, and the “oral culture,” in which people (often with partial hearing) do learn to talk, attempting to function as hearing people, and not always learning to sign.

There are also some straight-up silly films, including an eight-short series called “Pinky Tells the Real Story,” in which deaf actor and director Pinky Aiello explores the virtues and pitfalls of the Video Relay Service, one of the technologies hearing people pay for in our phone bills (grouped under the Universal Service Fund). With the VRS system, a replacement for the TTY device (which itself was barely a step above a telegraph), a deaf person can use sign language, combined with a video camera and a high-speed Internet connection, to communicate, through an interpreter, with a hearing person over the telephone.

Aiello’s shorts are laughably funny, if you understand the concepts she’s working with, including the idea that a person who is Too Far from the screen (the title of one of the shorts) is effectively whispering to the interpreter, who can barely see the signs. Many of the conceits treated in these films are inside jokes, but the frustration a deaf person has with an automated-answering system (in Get Real Live Person) is universal.

There are pictures here of a culture few of us will ever see — a thriving, vibrant culture with not just a lot of signs, but also a powerful voice.

Maine Deaf Film Festival | April 15, 1-10 pm | Luther Bonney Auditorium, USM, Portland | "inside deaf culture" films 1-3:30 pm | film discussion 3:30-3:45 pm | "telling it like it is" films 3:45-4:15 pm | film discussion with Pinky Aiell 4:30-5 pm | reception 5-6:30 pm | "British humor" films 6:30-7:15 pm | film discussion 7:15-7:30 pm | "to be deaf or not to be deaf" films 7:30-8 pm | feature film Stille Liebe (Secret Love) 8-9:30 pm | short films 9:30-10:30 pm | $15 full day, $8 half day | 207.780.4989 | TTY 207.780.4069

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Wednesday, April 5, 2006

USM's Radio days: WMPG launches election coverage

Published in the Portland Phoenix

WMPG-FM (90.9 and 104.1 FM) has launched news coverage of the upcoming elections, with the first installment already aired and posted online at the station’s Web site,

While the community-minded, donation-funded station, based at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus, already has several talk and public-affairs programs on its regular schedule, “none of them are really news reporting, per se,” says program director Dave Bunker.

The new effort comes in part as a result of a listener survey taken last fall, in which nearly 80 percent of the 400 respondents said they would be at least “somewhat” interested in hearing local news produced on WMPG, Bunker says, noting that more than 50 percent of the respondents expressed “strong” interest in WMPG launching news coverage.

However, “radio news is the single most expensive and time-consuming . . . radio to make,” Bunker says.

So without the money or the production space or the production staff, Bunker’s approach is a bit toned down, using some of the station’s senior volunteer-producers as editors and putting together an editorial process for handling stories to air in the weeks before the June 13 primaries and the November 7 general election.

The focus will be on state and local races, with particular attention to those in greater Portland, Bunker says, though the first edition, aired in late March and reported by WMPG volunteer Erik Eisele (also a Phoenix intern this semester), focused on the US Senate race for the seat now occupied by Republican Olympia Snowe. She is running for re-election, and two Democrats, Jean Hay Bright and Eric Mehnert, will be in the primary seeking to oppose her.

Bunker says he hopes to be able to schedule reports to start at specific times each day, especially in the immediate lead-up to the election days, though he stressed that the reports will be only as long or as short as they need to be, with “no filler” to make the spots last a pre-defined amount of time.

“I want it to be substantive,” Bunker says. “It may eventually lead to having a full-fledged news department,” and he is very aware that “you only get one chance to establish your credibility.”