Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Press Releases: Laid off

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Here are two items major Maine newspapers would rather you not know about.


That’s what they told members of the Portland Newspaper Guild, the union that represents most of the daily’s employees, to explain why eight advertising-related workers would be laid off and an unspecified number of vacant positions would remain unfilled, according to a summary of the conversation distributed by e-mail to guild members on August 17.

Aggravating those hefty losses is a cruel summer: “the company cited a very poor July [and] an August that’s shaping up to be even worse,” according to that same e-mail.

In roughly that same time period — from March 2005 through March 2007, the papers’ circulation has dropped 7.6 percent on Sundays, and 5 percent from Monday through Saturday. But compared to what the paper’s filings with the Audit Bureau of Circulations claim are its recent-history high (in September 2004), the drop is even bigger: down 21 percent in Sunday circulation, and 16 percent in daily circ (from 129,931 to 102,204, and 79,957 to 67,250, respectively).

And no wonder — by its own account back in June, the paper’s “Community Council” — the group of readers who help guide the paper’s coverage — has always had “hefty representation” from Baby Boomers and “World War II-generation” readers, whom Press Herald editor Jeannine Guttman calls “our core audience.” US government data estimates that roughly 2500 Maine World War II veterans are dying each year, which could help explain some of the decline. (In fact, if every single Maine veteran subscribed to the Maine Sunday Telegram, the WW2 vets’ deaths would account on their own for a full third of the subscription drop.)

The company’s statements about the August layoffs blame a “seismic shift” in the “newspaper industry,” without noting the particular problems in daily newspapers, or describing the shift as the solidification of a long-emerging trend in which consumers who are attractive to advertisers (the much-ballyhooed 18-to-34 set) are not reading daily newspapers.

This is, however, neither seismic nor — even if it were — unanticipated.

All newspapers have been facing the onslaught of the Internet for more than a decade. But it’s been the mainstream dailies, who experience the shift to online as a loss of new readership, who have felt it most sharply.

And while the pressure has risen sharply in the past 10 years, the Press Herald has been facing competition from community weekly newspapers — who focus exclusively on local news while the Press Herald touts its local devotion but then expends gallons of ink printing Associated Press stories about the Iraq war — since 1965, when former Portland Evening Express editor Harry Foote combined two smaller newspapers to create the weekly American Journal, based in Westbrook, which has covered all sorts of things the Press Herald staff never learned except by reading his paper, now owned by Current Publishing.

Second, THE BANGOR DAILY NEWS IS NICE AND COZY WITH SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS, who is seeking re-election in 2008. How cozy? BDN executive editor Mark Woodward is married to Bridget Woodward, who works as a “staff assistant” in Collins’s Bangor office.

Neither of them returned calls seeking comment, leaving us to wonder how their connection relates to the BDN’s outrage that Maine Democrats were videotaping Collins’s appearance in a public parade, allegedly as part of a coordinated effort to catch her saying or doing embarrassing things, clips of which could then be posted on YouTube.

With a tip of the hat to the contributor called “maineiac” on

Group seeks to hold Maine to UN standard

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Next week Portland-based prison activists will be knocking on Munjoy Hill doors collecting signatures to oppose the “legalized abuse of prisoners” in Maine and throughout the country.

The Black Bird Collective was originally formed earlier this year to support Maine inmate Deane Brown, a key source for the Portland Phoenix’s series on conditions at the Maine State Prison, whom prison officials shipped out of state in retaliation for his protests. Their latest efforts will launch a statewide petition drive as part of what the group hopes will be a national effort to enact state and federal laws requiring that “all prisoners and detainees . . . be treated in accordance with the UN Convention Against Torture.” (The US has signed and ratified the convention, and participates in its international governing body.)

Such laws would ban, among other practices, the use of “electro-shock devices, ... restraint chairs, chemical sprays, and prolonged periods of isolation,” all of which are commonly used to discipline, punish, and control inmates in Maine’s correctional centers.

Black Bird organizer David Bidler says his group is “trying to show any potential legislative supporters that there is community support” for humane treatment of prisoners. “We’re looking for someone to step up” and lead the legislative fight, he says.

The call has been put out nationally by an organization calling itself the San Francisco Eight, made up of former members of the Black Panther Party (the militant black-power/community-action group from the 1960s and ’70s), who were arrested earlier this year on charges stemming from the 1971 killing of a San Francisco police officer. Some of the Eight had been similarly charged in the mid-1970s, but their cases were dismissed when a judge ruled that some of the suspects had been tortured during interrogation.

The Black Bird Collective will meet with supporters at the Home Grown Herb and Tea shop, 195 Congress St, at 5:30 pm on Monday, September 3, to talk about the campaign, distribute literature and petitions, and begin collecting signatures.

On the Web
Black Bird Collective:

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Internet disconnect: Getting online in Maine can be painfully slow. And the planned Verizon-FairPoint merger won’t help.

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Most of the objections about the Verizon-FairPoint telephone-company merger proposal do not hinge on whether either of them is providing any kind of worthwhile, valuable, or useful telephone service.

The proposal, in which industry giant Verizon would sell the wired-telephone parts of its business in northern New England (including the wires, switching equipment, maintenance staff, and everything else) to industry midget FairPoint Communications, is relevant in Maine — and New Hampshire and Vermont — mainly in terms of what it would mean for rural customers who want high-speed, broadband Internet access.

Everyone involved — the two companies, the merger’s opponents, and state officials — talks about the deal’s impact on bringing DSL broadband Internet service to rural Mainers. This is indeed a concern in many remote parts of Maine, although state figures show that, overall, 85 percent of Mainers already have the option to choose broadband service via cable-Internet or wireless access, if not DSL.

While the states’ public utilities commissions technically regulate only telephone service, and not Internet access, DSL enters the discussion because it can be provided over regular old copper telephone wires, so long as those lines are properly maintained and equipped.

The trouble with this debate is that DSL is the wrong topic. We should be talking about fiber-optics technology, which transfers data over laser beams through glass wires. Because fiber-optic lines are capable of handling telephone, Internet, television, and other communications of the future, fiber optics is widely accepted as the immediate future of high-speed Internet connections. It is currently being rolled out by Verizon in major population centers around the country, including New York City, Boston, and Washington, DC. Whether the $2.7-billion Verizon-FairPoint deal goes through or not, the problem is that our state officials haven’t noticed that DSL is the wave of the past.

Lighting the world
Nationally, Verizon operates about two-thirds of the 1.3 million fiber connections to homes, according to the Fiber to the Home Council, a nationwide non-profit agency combining towns, utility companies, real-estate developers, and Internet service providers working to encourage the connection — by whomever is best equipped to do so — of fiber to every home in the US. (Today, just under two percent of US homes have fiber connections, the council says.)

Verizon’s fiber customers are primarily in large urban areas where population density (and therefore the number of prospective customers) is high enough to justify the cost of installing fiber. But many of the homes connected to fiber other than Verizon’s are, perhaps ironically, in rural places where town officials or smaller companies have decided to install it to boost economic development, according to FTTH Council president Joe Savage.

Seems like a good idea. “We’re the slowest in New England as far as download speeds,” says Peter McLaughlin, the business manager of the union representing Maine’s Verizon employees, which is a member of the national Communications Workers of America union’s research project on US Internet-access speeds. The union — looking to expand employment opportunities for its members — is lobbying to get companies to increase bandwidth, and to get government regulators to require universal Internet availability.

Through a variety of initiatives over many years, Maine has been trying to build rural economic development, including DSL-focused efforts to bring better Internet service to the hinterlands. The state is even looking to boost the number of telecommuting workers; Savage suggests fiber to the home may be faster than businesses’ office connections. But not even the few legislators who have commented to the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) about the FairPoint deal have mentioned fiber; one didn’t even mention DSL.

That’s too bad, because Maine actually has a lot of fiber already. Many Maine high schools and colleges are connected by a fiber-optic “ATM” network, which is mostly used for videoconferencing now. Maine has fiber-optic backbone running throughout the state, between telephone-company switching offices, in major connections by cable-television companies, and in downtown Portland and Lewiston-Auburn. Oxford Networks sells fiber to the home — in Maine. And Verizon is letting homes in a few Maine towns right on the New Hampshire border get fiber service from its Portsmouth center.

Vermont is in about the same place as Maine: Verizon provides no fiber to Vermont homes, though some communities have it, through either municipal initiatives (like Burlington’s) or small, independent companies. New Hampshire is better off, at least in the southern part of the state, where Verizon does offer fiber connections to homes in some areas.

In Maine, aside from those few homes next to New Hampshire, Verizon has no fiber to the home. FairPoint, which has phone customers in 18 states, offers fiber-optics to residential customers in four states (none in New England), but only in sizable housing developments being constructed on land with no previous telephone or Internet service.

Fiber free
If the Verizon-FairPoint merger is approved, FairPoint says it will spend about $40 million ($13 million to $14 million in each of the three states) to expand DSL service to some areas that don’t have it, and roll it out over the next few years to cover as much as 93 percent of their customer base here.

By that time, we’ll be behind again. Savage, from the fiber council, estimates that in 15 years, 80 percent of US homes will have fiber connections.

Not us, though: Maine public advocate Richard Davies (the state official whose job is to represent Maine consumers in public-utilities deals) just made a deal with Verizon in which the company agreed to invest $12.5 million to expand broadband in Maine, but not with fiber. “Because they’re looking to sell out, it was not logical” to ask for anything other than DSL, he says. Verizon, in exchange for installing old technology, gets to wait until next year before PUC officials will determine whether the company has been overcharging customers by as much as $30 million a year for the past six years. (By that time, Verizon won’t be here, and Davies’s agreement will leave the rate battle to FairPoint.)

The head of one telecom company in Houlton (where Internet service is provided by small, independent local companies) suggested the $12.5 million be given to the ConnectME Authority, a state agency set up to bring broadband Internet to rural Mainers without any broadband options at all.

That sum would dwarf the $500,000 the Legislature has allocated to be split among several companies seeking to debut broadband service in rural areas of Maine. The rest of the money to fund ConnectME will come from Mainers, who this fall will begin paying an additional monthly surcharge (0.25 percent) on their telephone and Internet bills.

Of course, ConnectME has no plans to roll out fiber-optics anywhere in Maine, either, and is just hoping to get any kind of broadband at all to rural Maine before we’re completely left behind. “DSL is certainly not the leading technology, like fiber,” says Phil Lindley, acting executive director of ConnectME, “but it’s certainly something that will serve people’s broadband needs for a while.”

Left in the dark
Verizon knows fiber is the real future: the company has been taking profits from Maine and other rural areas around the country (like the rural Midwest and West Virginia), and investing that money not to improve telecommunications in the places the money came from, but to put the real broadband, fiber-optic cables, in densely populated areas like New York City, Boston, and the area around Washington, DC.

Now Verizon wants to get out of northern New England — and its other rural landline businesses (see sidebar, “Verizon Unloads”) — to focus on fiber elsewhere. In getting out, Verizon would leave us to a small, heavily indebted company (FairPoint) whose best plan is to invest less money in system upgrades than Verizon ever did, and to have those system upgrades get Mainers’ service to a level city-dwellers are already beginning to discard as too slow.

What if the deal failed, and Verizon had to stay (at least until it found a new buyer)? Verizon spokesman Peter Reilly said the company wouldn’t comment on what would happen in the “hypothetical” case that the sale — which must be approved by three states and the federal government — could fall through, leaving us to put the pieces together on our own. The picture isn’t good.

In Maine, Verizon is already the subject of some complaints to the Public Utilities Commission from rural customers about the unavailability of high-speed Internet (including one titled “Request for commission action to implore Verizon to implement the use of DSL” from 21 business owners and 12 residents in The Forks and West Forks, the central-Maine home to the state’s whitewater-rafting industry).

Verizon has made clear its lack of interest in being in the landline phone and wired-Internet business here. If the sale to FairPoint is blocked, Verizon will have no incentive to maintain its services, wires, or anything else — in fact, neglecting its customers and employees will serve to shift opposition to the sale into support as people insist on getting decent service.

Davies says the PUC has “very broad powers” to force Verizon to provide minimally acceptable telephone service, though that may involve going to court if Verizon is reluctant to do what is required. And those powers don’t address broadband service, which is not regulated by the PUC or state law.

Davies thinks that if Verizon tried harder to market its landline and broadband services — and if the company expanded broadband offerings in Maine — the company could do better here. As it is, “they’ve sort of said over the last couple of years, ‘we’re not going to invest in the state,’” Davies says.

Seeing the light
And while FairPoint talks a great game about how they will bring outdated, slow DSL to rural Mainers who are still stuck on dial-up, they’ll have to spend a lot more than they’re expecting, to do even that.

There is no outside evaluation of the condition of the wires Verizon would transfer to FairPoint (it’s protected as a company secret), but there are people who have a good idea of what they’re like.

McLaughlin, whose union members maintain the lines, estimates that FairPoint should expect to spend “a couple hundred million” dollars just to repair the existing copper wires to a condition where they can handle DSL traffic.

“Publius,” a pseudonymous Verizon employee who started the Web site to distribute information about the sale, says FairPoint is dreaming if they think it will be relatively cheap to improve service in northern New England.

“There is absolutely no way” that the installation of the equipment FairPoint is talking about would, on its own, bring broadband to the rural masses, says Publius, who withholds his real name for fear of losing his job.

The wires are in terrible condition, he says, many having been in place for decades and repeatedly spliced back together after wind or trees or car crashes knocked them down. Not all of those splices (of between 1000 and 2000 tiny 22-gauge copper strands in each wire) are perfect, as you might imagine, and there are plenty of places — such as the Concord, New Hampshire, neighborhood discussed in an August 2 Concord Monitor article — where the combination of age and bad connections means that Verizon phone service cuts out whenever it rains.

So repairing them will be expensive. And if FairPoint is going to invest millions — much less McLaughlin’s projection of hundreds of millions — what about fiber-optics?

Rather than replacing the old copper wires with new copper, Savage of the fiber council suggests installing new fiber — he even says doing so can be cheaper in some circumstances, but not really in rural areas where the distances are great.

In places like that, he says, our best bet is to arrange some sort of joint venture between the government — local or state — and telecommunications companies, in which the government would grant some sort of benefit to the company in exchange for bringing fiber to homes.

If only our state officials thought about fiber.

Verizon unloads
For seven years, Verizon has been busy getting itself out of the landline business around the country, and around the world. Here are the highlights:

2000 Verizon sells 133,000 landlines in WISCONSIN to a couple of local telephone companies for $365 million.

SEPTEMBER 2002 Verizon sells its shares in NEW ZEALAND Telecom, a landline company in that country.

SEPTEMBER 2002 Verizon sells 675,000 telephone lines in MISSOURI,KENTUCKY, AND ALABAMA for $2.6 billion to CenturyTel, a publicly traded company based in Louisiana.

APRIL 2004 Verizon announces it will sell Verizon Dominica (serving the DOMINICAN REPUBLIC), and its shares of phone companies in PUERTO RICO AND VENEZUELA, to a couple of Mexico-based telephone companies for $3.7 billion. The deal affects 15 million landline, broadband, and wireless customers.

OCTOBER 2004 Verizon announces the company is looking to sell 15 million of its nearly 50 million landlines AROUND THE NATION, to focus on wireless service and high-speed Internet connectivity.

MAY 2005 Verizon sells 700,000 lines in HAWAII for $1.65 billion to private-equity firm the Carlyle Group (a company backed financially by both former president George H.W. Bush and members of Osama Bin Laden’s family).

MAY 2006 Verizon’s hopes to sell 3.4 million landlines and related operations in ILLINOIS, INDIANA, MICHIGAN, AND OHIO are reported in the Wall Street Journal Online, and is seeking to earn between $5 billion and $6 billion from that deal. In addition, its hopes to sell its northern New England lines for between $2 billion and $3 billion.

JANUARY 2007 Verizon announces that it will sell its NORTHERN NEW ENGLAND operations, including 1.6 million landlines, for $2.7 billion to FairPoint Communications.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Air apparent? McNallica finishes fourth in the US

Published as a Web exclusive at

Maybe New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell is a breast man. That’s at least what Jason Jones of The Daily Show implied, as Jones introduced his score for McNallica at the US Air Guitar National Championship, held Thursday at the Fillmore at Irving Plaza in New York City.

But we get ahead of ourselves.

McNallica, the Portland and New England air-guitar champ (who works by day at a Portland mortgage company under the name Erin McNally), had traveled with about a dozen friends and supporters to NYC, after months of practice and performance (see the other stuff we’ve written about her). “I just really want to make it to the second round,” she said, knowing that would make her one of the top five air-guitarists in the country.

She was up against 13 other competitors (12 men and one woman) from around the nation for the US title, which comes with tickets to Finland for the world air-guitar championship in early September. She had prepped in a few special ways for this performance, MySpacing the last US winner in Finland (Sonykrok, from 2004) to “get her blessing,” and getting Jen Moore from Sanctuary Tattoo to bless her fingerless gloves. She was as ready as she would get.

The opening set from New Jersey-based hair band Satanicide warmed up the crowd with such timeless classics of guitar rock as “Pussy and Ice Cream,” a Satanicide original angst anthem about, well, it’s fairly obvious, and “Twenty-Sided Die,” an ode to Dungeons and Dragons.

After a few butterfly-calming PBRs and Buds with her fans, McNallica got serious to prepare for her performance, getting quiet, still, and moving her fingers up and down in the air as if, well, she were playing a guitar. Rhinestones flashed from her arms, and diamond “M”s dangled from her earlobes. “The theme of Finland this year is bling,” she explained.

McNallica went seventh in the first round, introduced by MC Bjorn Turoque, who never won a US championship, but has become the celebrity spokesman for US air guitar. In Boston, at the New England regional championship, he had been a judge and gave her perfect 6.0 scores in each of the two rounds and called her “the future of air guitar.”

This time Turoque reminded the audience that “this woman blew my mind in Boston,” and let her go. She leapt, kicked, fingered, and tongued her way around the stage to Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart,” from the 1989 album Dr. Feelgood.

And then, amid the crowd’s cheers, she awaited the scores. Up to that point, the scores – and the performances – had been dismal, slow, pedestrian, even anemic. But McNallica opened the field, and the judges’ hearts.

Jones and Gladwell (who also wrote The Tipping Point, about the effects of social behavior) were two of the four celebrity judges (the others were Rachel Dratch from Saturday Night Live and Ben Wizner from the American Civil Liberties Union).

Gladwell had given Portland and New England air-guitar champ McNallica the first 6.0 maximum-point score of the night (there would only be one more, from Gladwell to McNallica in the second and final round of competition).

She took the 6.0, and Jones’s dismal 5.2 (which got him boos and the finger from the crowd), a 5.7 from Wizner and 5.9 from Dratch, and squeaked into the five-person second round in a tie for fourth place.

In the second round, in which she didn’t get to choose the song, she went first. But as the five finalists were allowed to hear the selected song for the first time, McNallica went wild. She knew the song, chord for chord: “Get Your Hands Off My Woman, Motherfucker,” by Darkness (off 2003’s Permission To Land). She started playing even just standing there on stage with the rest of the contestants, among whom was reigning US champ Hot Lixx Hulahan.

But despite her best efforts – her extensive and complex fingerwork on the fretboard, her lip-syncing, even her throwing of the guitar and her subsequent catch – it wasn’t enough. The only woman in the final five, she landed another perfect 6 from Gladwell, a 5.7 from Wizner, a 5.8 from Dratch, and a 5.7 from Jones (who had given her the 5.2 in the first round). Her total, 23.2 points, made her the fourth-best air-guitarist in the nation. (There was a tie for third place.)

The other four’s performances included crowd-surfing (exemplified by The Rock Ness Fucking Monster’s effort, in which he stayed standing, supported by a few sturdy new friends), acrobatics that lost their grace and surrendered to drunken uncoordination, and spraying of beer and energy drinks all over the stage and the fans.

But in the end, McNallica was a good sport, applauding – even worshiping – as the new champion was crowned, the man who had the home-field advantage from the beginning: William Ocean of New York City.

Will there be a next year? Will she become a coach for other female air-guitarists? Will she get knee replacements to be able to subject hers to the abuse Ocean gives his (she thinks they’re titanium; we think they’re jelly, at least now)? For the answers to these questions, we must wait.

But McNallica, on her way back to Portland on Friday, rocks on.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

McNallica heads to nationals

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Portland’s air-guitar champ, also New England’s top atmos-instrumentalist, will compete in New York City on Thursday, August 16, for the US title, which would get her a slot in the world championship competition in Finland in early September.

McNallica, whose unassuming day job is at a mortgage firm, says she has been contacted by some of her 13 competitors, asking for video. No dice, she says. Portlanders, of course, know what her routines look like (see “Music Seen,” May 4, by Sonya Tomlinson and Jeff Inglis; “Support the Portland Air-Guitar Champ,” June 8, and “One Step Closer to Finland,” June 15, both by Jeff Inglis).

But even Mainers who attend will get to see new material, as she has a serious practice regimen: “yoga, the gym, finger exercises, lots of rocking.” Tickets ($18.50) are still available to the show, which starts at 8 pm at the Fillmore at Irving Plaza, between Third and Park Avenues on East 15th Street (near the Union Square subway stop). And Greyhound Bus Lines have a $30 round-trip Boston-to-New York special if you book online.