Thursday, September 25, 2008

Press Releases: Post-daily

Published in the Portland Phoenix

After leaving daily newspapers, where do journalists go?

Kevin Wack, who had spent four and a half years at the Portland Press Herald, left the paper this summer, but is doing what he might have done had he stayed — covering the Senate race between incumbent Republican Susan Collins and Democratic US Representative Tom Allen. The difference is that he’s covering it online, for his own blog,

Even in its first couple weeks, Wack’s blog is earning its stripes, uncovering the fact that a pro-Collins TV ad was paid for entirely by the pharmaceutical industry’s lobbying group. That and his other findings are attracting attention — including responses from commenters on and Unfortunately, Wack took a long weekend off to travel out of town, and missed the first Collins-Allen debate (so there’s a bit of a delay for his insights on that, but we’ll look forward to more timely comments on the remaining nine).

Of his departure from the PPH, Wack says he could see the writing on the wall: fewer reporters was going to mean less time to do projects and investigations. Since those were his primary interests, “It was a good time to leave,” he says.

Armed with a few weeks’ pay and some solid time on his hands, he entered the blogosphere as a way to build his “online resume.”

Turning his political reporting into blogging was a natural choice. But many of the political blogs he read were “identifiably partisan,” and some offer not much more than a “link and snarky comment” treatment of important topics.

“I wanted to do something that was non-partisan and had original reporting,” Wack says. He hopes his blog will combine “the best of traditional journalism” — which he describes as the on-the-ground reporting effort, or “actual-fact-gathering” — with more “voice” than is customary in daily newspapers.

He might be regretting his choice of coverage, though — while Allen is closing what was a 20-percentage-point gap in the polls, the Senate race “looked like it might be a little closer than it is right now.”

After Election Day, he’ll head to DC to start a nine-month paid fellowship with the American Political Science Association. He will study how Congress “works,” and ultimately will spend several months working as a staffer on Capitol Hill, assisting either a member of Congress or a congressional committee. He expects that will give him additional insight into the machinations of the federal government, which will in turn — he hopes — allow him to better explain those processes to his audience at a future media job.

Wack swears he’s not following the journalism-into-government track that has been well paved in Maine by former journalists who became spokesmen and -women for some of Maine’s leading politicians (David Farmer and Crystal Canney for Governor John Baldacci, Kevin Kelley for Susan Collins, and Dennis Bailey for Angus King, among others).

But after he’s done with the fellowship, he’ll be back on the job hunt. “I’m fairly pessimistic about going back to work for a daily newspaper,” he says, noting that both the economy at large and the daily-newspaper industry in specific are struggling mightily. But with new connections in Washington, he’s optimistic about finding a job with an online media outlet, or possibly a journalism-like job with a think tank or research foundation.

“I hope that I am able to stay in journalism,” he says. He sounds as if he means it, and if the choices of AJ Higgins and Josie Huang (who left their papers and joined the Maine Public Broadcasting Network) are any indication, he may just get that chance.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Will FairPoint run out of money?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Wall Street’s melt down could burn consumers throughout Northern New England — especially those in Maine.

The flashpoint is FairPoint Communications, the state and the region’s principal phone company.

On Monday, FairPoint borrowed $200 million in cash for fear its major lenders might collapse and make that money unavailable.

FairPoint’s financial positions have been under scrutiny since the January 2007 announcement that the North Carolina-based company would buy Verizon’s northern New England landline operations (see “We Told You So,” by Jeff Inglis, July 4).

But the company’s financial struggles worsened Monday, when Lehman Brothers, a major lender to FairPoint, filed for bankruptcy protection.

Lehman was one of a group of lenders who collectively had offered to loan FairPoint $400 million. Of that total, Lehman was responsible for 30 percent, or $120 million, according to financial statements from the publicly traded FairPoint. (Spokesmen for the company did not return phone calls before the Phoenix’s deadline.)

Before this week, FairPoint had already borrowed $170 million of that group’s $400 million. Monday’s loan, also from those lenders, maxed out one of its largest available lines of credit and gave FairPoint $200 million more cash on hand. A company spokesman told CNN that he expected the $30 million in remaining credit to become unavailable due to the financial market problems. (It may sound like a lot of money, but it’s really small potatoes in the context of corporate financing. FairPoint, for example, borrowed most of the $2.3 billion it paid Verizon for the land-lines.)

Maine utilities regulators say having a cash reserve that the company spends down over time is better than not being able to pay for investments because money isn’t available from loans. But it’s a sign of how much FairPoint is relying on credit — rather than revenue from customers — to keep its finances afloat.

Making that sign more ominous is FairPoint’s admission to CNN that this move is more expensive than borrowing cash as the company needs to spend it, because the interest FairPoint earns on the funds it hoards will be less than the interest it owes on the loans. So FairPoint will be losing money just sitting still.

Also Monday, the company announced it would sit still longer, delaying its full takeover of telecommunications land-lines in northern New England until at least January 2009. In the meantime, FairPoint is paying Verizon $16 million a month to run the phone systems in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

Outside consultants hired by the three states’ regulators reported on Monday that while FairPoint had made “substantial progress” toward being ready for the takeover, some software systems aren’t finished yet. As a result, training programs haven’t been finalized, and workers haven’t been taught how to use the not-yet-ready software.

Fred Bever at the Maine Public Utilities Commission and Bill Black, the deputy public advocate (a state agency tasked with representing the public interest in utilities-regulation cases), both say the delay is a good move. In Bever’s words, it’s “better than the risk of widespread service problems.”

Black says it’s too early to tell whether the postponement will cause any more problems for Maine consumers, but promised to keep an eye on things. But then again, Black admitted that, a day after it came out, he hadn’t yet read the report that forced yet another delay in finalizing the largest utilities deal in Maine history.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

World without end: After we're gone

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Will the Earth miss us when we’re gone? It’s unlikely, suggests Alan Weisman, author of the best-selling 2007 book The World Without Us. Weisman, who stops by Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Friday for a reading and book-signing, takes us to places people have abandoned and shows us how nature is reclaiming even urban landscapes.

He visits, among other places, the area around Chernobyl (still recovering from the 1986 nuclear disaster), and the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea (whose wildness is watched over by heavily armed soldiers), speculating on what will happen if, and when, people vanish (whether, Weisman cannily teases, by mass extinction, evacuation, or indeed Rapture) and leave the planet to its own devices.

His most striking example is on Cyprus, where, thanks to political tensions for the past 30 years, Varosha, a city that was once home to 20,000 people has been left abandoned and subject only to the forces of nature. Two years after war forced its evacuation, trees were growing up through what had once been paved roads, and at towering hotels, “10 stories of shattered sliding glass doors opening to seaview balconies now exposed to the elements, had become giant pigeon roosts,” Weisman writes. Four years later, “roofs had collapsed and trees were growing straight out of houses. . . . Tiny seeds of wild Cyprus cyclamen had wedged into cracks, germinated, and heaved aside entire slabs of cement.”

Now, “Fallen limestone facing lies in pieces. Hunks of wall have dropped from buildings to reveal empty rooms . . . brick-shaped gaps show where mortar has already dissolved. . . . Feral geraniums and philodendrons emerge from missing roofs and pour down exterior walls.”

Backed by extensive research and exhaustive travel, Weisman shows the real long-term effects of what we're doing to the planet — what wouldn’t make it through next week (New York's subway tunnels, daily in danger of being flooded), what would endure for 250,000 years (nuclear weapons' radioactivity), and what would last for millions of years (open-pit mines).

In the process, he offers a kind of hope — much of what we do to our environment can be undone without our help — as well as a warning: the undoing of damage only starts when we stop causing it. And then he ends on what we'll choose to call a happy note. "Around 5 billion years from now, give or take, the sun will expand into a red giant, absorbing all the inner planets [including Earth] back into its fiery womb." Then, the only things that will be left of us — if anything — will be our space probes, wherever in the galaxy they have ended up, and the TV, cellphone, and radio transmissions we have sent out into the universe for the past century. They will travel ever onward, without us.

Alan Weisman | reads from and signs The World Without Us | September 5 @ 7:30 pm | South Church, 292 State St, Portsmouth NH | Free | 603-431-2100

It’s not about the art: Looking behind the effort to paint South Portland oil tanks

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The real goal behind the Art All Around project, which proposes to paint original artists’ designs on several Sprague Energy Corporation oil tanks in South Portland, will be fulfilled even if none of the tanks is ever decorated.

According to Jean Maginnis, who dreamed up the idea and is coordinating the effort to bring it to life, the project is not actually about art for art’s sake. Instead, she says, it’s about forcing “a large public discussion of art.”

Maginnis, the founder, executive director, and sole employee of the Maine Center for Creativity, the “group” that spearheaded the effort, is getting her wish. Five semifinalists’ proposals — all abstract designs — were selected by jury from 560 submissions and made public in the middle of last month (see “Words Over Pictures,” by Ken Greenleaf). And since then, the outcry has been deafening. Though her organization has raised just $200,000 of the $1.2 million needed to actually put paint on steel, hundreds — even thousands — of Portland-area residents are thinking and talking about art, though not exactly the way Maginnis might have hoped. (See sidebar, “Talk of the Town.”)

Good intentions
Maginnis is a passionate defender of her brainchild, initially responding to a Portland Phoenix request for an interview and up-close viewing of the proposals by saying “I’m not going to share my information with you if this is something you’re going to attack.”

She did eventually grant us an interview, in which she explained that she wants her three-year-old organization’s signature project to appeal to several distinct audiences, mostly far from Maine.

-international media outlets, which might cover Maine as an artsy destination;

-art-interested people around the country and the globe, who might travel to Maine if they thought about it as a creative place;

-Google Earth users across the Internet, who might see the painted tops of the tanks on their computer screens, if and when the Web-based satellite-photo database adds new images;

-business owners and leaders everywhere, who might be inspired to use artists’ work or artistic approaches in business applications;

-investors, who might bring their businesses to Maine if they were more aware of how creative our state’s residents are;

-artists, who might benefit from being able “to feel that they are able to make their dreams come true;”

-and, ultimately, the millions of people — mostly Portland-area residents but also visitors — using cars, boats, airplanes, trains, bicycles, and even just their feet on routes from which they can view the tanks.

These are, indeed, positive intentions — efforts to “put Maine on the map in the national and international markets,” and even trying to get people who bad-mouth the Pine Tree State to start “saying something different about Maine than ‘it’s not worth investing in.’”

Fixing what’s not broken
If all this strikes you as a massive undertaking intended to right a large number of wrongs, you’re getting the picture. And if you question whether some of those wrongs are as bad as Maginnis makes them out to be, you’re not alone.

Maginnis says that she already has strong evidence of her project’s success. For example, she notes that many of the 560 entrants wrote in their entries that they had learned something new about Maine when researching their submissions — which is, it’s true, a start down the road of teaching the world about Maine’s creativity, but not really numbers worth boasting about. And she professes great satisfaction at having brought discussions about art into the halls of government and corporate boardrooms, in her search for financial and logistical support — even though many of her sponsors and collaborators are long-time activists in the local arts community.

There are even farther-reaching goals, though. Maginnis admits that, based on the wealth of national-scale artists who live here, Maine has a strong reputation among artists and art sellers and a robust visual-art life and economy. Considering their small populations, Portland and Maine — which have been art destinations for decades — have a high number of quality galleries and museums. But still, Maginnis insists that more people think of Maine as a state where businesses and artists struggle, rather than one where ingenuity is key to survival — and that this project can help shift that view.

That seems like a strange perspective, but it’s easier to understand how she got there when she offers the most startling example of the pessimism driving her forward. There are, she says, currently “no industries” in Maine where creative people can work.

That’s a particularly ironic statement for many reasons, not the least of which is the letter of support from Governor John Baldacci that is prominently posted on the Art All Around project’s Web site. In it, the governor makes clear that “more than 63,000 Maine residents are currently employed in the creative sector, which provides about 10 percent of all Maine’s wages.”

Her claim is further contradicted by the fact that she delivers it — with great earnestness — in one of several conference rooms in the offices of a large Portland marketing firm that provides her with free desk space and other support. At the desks outside the room where she is speaking work some of the most successful creative minds in the state.

Talk of the town
The public’s objections to the Art All Around project are legion, and range from philosophical to savage. The most pragmatic complaints decry the use of $1.2 million in private donations to pretty up massive oil tanks when the petroleum industry is making record profits and Mainers can’t afford to heat their homes or gas up their cars.

Some local residents have expressed concerns about the designs themselves, with one South Portland artist telling the Current (a weekly community newspaper serving South Portland) the designs give her “little to be excited about.” A resident and business owner quoted in the same article used the word “horrendous” to describe some of the designs — her strongest praise was, “Others, I could live with.” And a South Portland city councilor voiced among the most common criticisms of the designs: “I was expecting (design proposals) more along the lines of Maine-related history, mountains, seascapes, and native animals.”

Even the tough-as-milquetoast Portland Press Herald arts section recently ran a column calling the project “controversial.” (Note to those reading daily newspapers: the word “controversial” is code for “We hate this, but aren’t comfortable saying it ourselves, and we can’t be bothered actually talking to anyone to get a quote.”)

Project creator Jean Maginnis has an answer to all of those critics. “A lot of people” tell her they like the project and its semifinalists and are willing to support it with their time, energy, and money. Fighting back tears, she explains that this work is “valuable . . . because art matters.”