Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Press Releases: Pressure is on

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The execs over at the Portland Press Herald are notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to talking about their newspaper to other media organizations. Publisher Chuck Cochrane and editor Jeannine Guttman don’t normally seem to notice that other media outlets exist — they don’t take phone calls from reporters even when they’re in the office, and never return phone calls or e-mails.

Lately, though, Guttman has not only noticed, but also responded to, comments about the paper published by a less traditional outlet — even holding a meeting with her staff to claim that certain comments were all wrong, and that she did not, in fact, engineer the ouster of chief Web honcho Joe Michaud, as a PPH-watching blog reported.

Who provoked this startling development? Local blogger and Munjoy Hill resident “Thomas Cushing Munjoy” (not his real name) with a post on his daily-updated blog, PressingTheHerald.

Munjoy “started out sort of simply,” he says in a phone interview. Frustrated with the quality of the local daily, he would send Guttman roughly one e-mail a week with feedback, occasionally asking her questions. But he never got responses, and after a few months, he started blogging instead, hoping public shame would work, as indeed it did.

Many of his critiques are basic editing questions, seeking — or providing — missing context and perspective. Since taking a month-long hiatus in which he dealt with some sudden and severe medical problems, Munjoy’s tone has been more positive, though still strongly critical. A recent post slammed a reporter for failing to look at the facts in a January story that claimed Maine’s home-foreclosure rate was better than the rest of the nation's. But that same post praised another reporter’s more recent story, which disclosed that Maine actually has more foreclosures than the national average.

Munjoy's efforts have even attracted competition of sorts; several months after his debut “T. Flushing Funjoy” appeared, blogging at with a more acerbic tone (including referring to the Press Herald regularly as “the snooze organ of record”).

All Munjoy wants is for the Press Herald’s leadership to “start taking the coverage of local news seriously,” and not just pay lip-service to it, touting their “commitment” while ignoring waterfront issues and running wire-service stories about days-old international events on the front page.

“These guys just can’t get out of their own way,” says Munjoy, who says he uses a pseudonym because he works locally — not in journalism — and occasionally encountersPress Herald bigwigs at professional and social events. (The ethics of using a pseudonym while trying to make the paper more transparent are questionable, though Munjoy says he has no present or past connection to the Press Herald or any of its corporate siblings in Maine or elsewhere.)

It’s his frustration — amplified by the fact that Guttman still won’t return his e-mails — that has led Munjoy to seek to draw even more attention to the Press Herald’s shortcomings.

He has repeatedly reminded his readers that the Press Herald is in bed with the Plum Creek Timber Company CEO (who sits on two boards that supervise the paper’s parent companies; see “Plum Creek Watchdog,” by Jeff Inglis, December 21, 2007) and that the paper failed to disclose that fact for 18 months, during which it reported extensively on Plum Creek’s plans for the largest land-development project in Maine history.

But in late January, he asked the American Society of Newspaper Editors to weigh in on the ethical implications of issue. Nearly two months later, he has received no responses, and suspects the reason is that the ASNE board includes an exec from the Seattle Times — the Press Herald’s parent paper.

But it still disappoints him. “I just don’t understand why they won’t try to improve,” Munjoy fumes.