Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Press Releases: Straight to video

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Over the past few years, Frank Blethen, the guy in charge of the Seattle Times Company, which owns the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, and the Waterville-based Morning Sentinel, has spent a lot of time supporting federal regulations that limit media consolidation, saying more owners equal more viewpoints, equals better democracy.

But recent moves by the Press Herald suggest that at least the first part of that equation isn’t necessarily true. While the paper may be owned separately from the city’s TV stations, it’s starting to act a lot like them, missing an opportunity to actually serve its audience something new.

Consider, for example, coverage of a vacant house that apparently filled with natural gas and exploded in South Portland on October 1.

Press Herald “online reporter” Dieter Bradbury, who has been with the Press Herald his entire 27-year journalism career, went straight to the scene after hearing about the explosion. Bradbury’s video on the Press Herald’s site was shaky, often without audio, and spent a lot of time showing us fire trucks with flashing lights and police officers walking around. Bradbury and other staffers filed written updates to the story throughout the day, and even into the next.

Other than the video pros covering the silent spots with voiceover, the Press Herald’s work was nearly identical to the TV coverage of the event.

But even Portland’s broadcasters don’t think the city needs more TV news. Two of the five channels that could have their own local news programs instead outsource it to other local stations. WCSH, the NBC affiliate on Channel 6, has a 10 pm news broadcast on WPXT, the Channel 12 CW affiliate. And WGME, the CBS station on Channel 13, puts out a 10 pm news show on WPFO, the Fox affiliate on Channel 23 (Channel 7 on cable).

It’s uncommon for print Press Herald stories to mention the TV coverage of the same events. But editor Jeannine Guttman continues to talk about “convergence” between the paper and the paper's Web site. We should expect, then, a good package story in the paper and online the following day, referencing video, at least, and maybe the previous day’s frequent updates.

Think again.

The 1250-word effort by staff writers Trevor Maxwell and Ann S. Kim on October 2 was written and presented — on the front page — as if no one reading it had heard the slightest rumor of a story that had received blanket coverage from the TV evening news and the Press Herald’s own Web site.

There is no mention — even in the online version of the story — of any video or previous coverage on the Press Herald’s site. And on subsequent days, the in-paper follow-ups repeated information that had been widely available hours earlier from the TV stations. The online follow-ups never once mentioned or linked to any previous coverage on the Press Herald's site, not even the words-only updates.

Let’s not kid ourselves — this was an insignificant story. It had good visuals (if you define “good” as a roof lying on the ground surrounded by tiny bits of wood), but nobody was dead, or even injured. No tragic tale of a life cut short — just a couple of neighbors who were a bit startled by the blast. Not even a family left homeless — the building was under construction and vacant.

The Press Herald has spent a lot of ink on Guttman’s talk of “trailblazing” news coverage. Its staff had a chance at a trial run at collaboration and teamwork on this story, with not much at stake if they did it poorly. Perhaps they gave it a try; if so, they failed so miserably that any effort was completely invisible. Or they didn't try, and will have to work out the logistics while on deadline for a vital story. Either way, they missed a chance to show Portland what they think news coverage should look like.