Thursday, April 30, 2009

Testimony before the Maine Legislature

Testimony before the Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary of the Maine Legislature, on behalf of the Maine Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, with support from the National Freedom of Information Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Maine: Why We Live Here

Published in the Portland Phoenix; my contribution to a 13-person group essay

I'll blame my sister. Sort of, at least. For a while, having grown up and gone to college elsewhere, and traveled a good bit, I had no home at all. My stuff was in a self-storage unit in Vermont (or in my parents' basement). I had been living out of a duffel bag and a backpack (or just a backpack) for 18 months when I stopped in Portland to visit my sister and some other friends who lived here. I was about to go back on the road for another six-to-eight-month stint and was talking about that prospect, when everything changed. The group ganged up on me and told me that since I didn't actually live anywhere else, why didn't I just live here?

(I suspect they planned this in advance, so well-coordinated was the approach. But they couldn't possibly have known that while on the road, I had so longed for a home, any home, that I had been sketching a house in my journal, just to explore the concept.)

I couldn't answer the question — I actually still can't — and so when I got back from that road trip I borrowed my sister's spare room and went apartment-hunting. Without boring any of you with the quotidian details, I've gotten married, bought a great house (from which I've been walking to work lately in the glorious sunshine), got a dog, found a job I truly love, and see my sister and her children all the time.

But as much joy and pleasure those facts bring to my life, I live here because it has become home. I used to think of other places I lived — Vermont, New Zealand, Antarctica — as home, and for a time, they each were. I carry pieces of them with me every day (even literally — around my neck is a piece of New Zealand jade).

Sometimes, I confess, I long for them. Of late, my faith in Maine has been a bit shaken. One of the biggest things bothering me is that some people are going around claiming — without having asked me — that somehow my marriage and every other marriage in Maine will suffer irreparable harm if we allow more people to marry. If our senses of mutual respect and personal dignity — not to mention outright practicality — are this disjointed and illogical, and if our faith in our own relationships is this weak, I worry what might be next.

But close-mindedness and selfish behavior happen elsewhere. Here, we have an expanded, and more complicated, interdependence. We let each other be, but we look out for each other, too. (A Vermont columnist once described it as knowing that while you and your next-door neighbor may never have spoken or waved after years of living side-by-side, she'll be the first person banging on your door if your chimney catches fire.)

It's spring now, so naturally I'm thinking about winter. It was early morning, and I was going to be late for work because I was digging like hell after one of this year's interminable blizzards, trying to clear the massive snowbank the plows had left at the end of my driveway, when a pickup truck zoomed in from out of nowhere (well, outside my hatted, hooded peripheral vision, anyway), and swiped the berm away in one go. I raised my arms to the sky, thanking whatever heavens had brought this godsend to my aid. It wasn't until the truck came back for a second pass — to clean up the remnants, which were easily shovelable — that I realized it was the guy who runs the business next door to my house. He rolled down the window and his dog's nose poked out. Vinny told me that the dog treats my wife had made and dropped off a couple days before had been quite a hit. I went back inside and told my wife to start making some more biscuits, because it looked like more snow was on the way.

In summer, it's much the same — I was walking the dog once in a local park, and passed a few other people. We said hello just briefly, and went on our ways. And then the dog just plain ran off. Gone. I searched everywhere, yelling, beseeching, pleading, in hopes that he'd hear me and come back. No dice. I had already called my wife to come and help me look when one of the people who had passed earlier came up to me and said he had my dog — his family had seen him running toward the road, and had caught him. They had him on a leash nearby. The relief I felt was the same as at the appearance of the plow: the purity of outright serendipitous good-heartedness from a totally unexpected quarter.

I am not for a moment saying that these kinds of small miracles — and that is the right word — don't happen elsewhere. I am, though, saying that the fact that they happen here so often makes me all the more sure that this is the right place for me.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Press Releases: Naming names

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In last week's cover story (see "Fold or Float") I outlined what the Portland Press Herald has to do to survive — either under existing ownership or somebody new. It started with attracting and keeping readers. The task includes dreaming up new ideas and experimenting with them, to see what will work as a business model that can support good, solid journalism.

Any effort at survival should take advantage of the ample brainpower and ability already on staff — ideally, by naming the sharpest tools in the shed to what we'll call the Survival Committee. Here are the top five candidates, and a few ideas for a strong supporting cast.

• DIETER BRADBURY, who was briefly the paper's "online reporter" and handled video and audio with competence, if not a gift. With practice, he'd get better. With support from co-workers, the passable stuff he did in his abortive stint (before staffing cuts eliminated his position and sent him back to writing for print) would actually get some traction.

• JUSTIN ELLIS, the only person in the newsroom who shows any evidence of knowing how to blog or use the Web. He's also the only one who appears to have actually met anyone under the age of 35, much less imagined that they might read his newspaper.

• DEIRDRE FLEMING, the former outdoors reporter who now writes for the corporate-speak-renamed "How We Live" beat. She not only spent a ton of time actually in the out-of-doors while reporting, but found ways to sneak public policy into recreation pieces, and vice-versa, which made her pieces about waterways, in particular, must-reads.

• DAVID HENCH, a veteran cops reporter who has gotten some of the best scoops the paper has ever had, including jailhouse interviews with all manner of accused criminals, and even a few confessions. He's been too distracted lately, which has hurt some of his work (his initial response was to take the Portland Police Department at its word that it was a good idea to buy Tasers with federal stimulus money, but he soon came to his senses and started probing deeper), but his connections remain solid enough for him to really get into the grit of this city.

• TUX TURKEL, a longtime business and public-affairs reporter who appears not only to remember most of what anyone has ever told him, but to keep a list of interesting stories that develop over time and need to be checked in on periodically. Witness, as just one example, his close coverage of Portland's television-news market, which can be excused for its intermittency by its clarity and sense of history, even in short briefs.

Those five will need some solid help in other aspects of news coverage and presentation. And the Press Herald has those handy, too. Gregory Rec is one of the best still photographers in Maine (we'd love to see his picture-making eye applied to video); when he's both in high dudgeon and thinking straight, Bill Nemitz can weave great columns; and the Web-development crew (specifically Suzi Piker and Jeff Woodbury) can organize and lay out information online really well, as evidenced on the rare occasions when they've been allowed to break the boring-as-all-hell format of

The Survival Committee's first move should be to get rid of editor Jeannine Guttman, for the simple reason that she regularly — and publicly — fails to understand what readers want (see "Gender Confusion," February 15, 2008, by Jeff Inglis).

The paper can save itself, but only if smart, capable people are allowed to step forward and try bold ideas. Some of those experiments will fail, but some will succeed. And time's running out.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Fold or float: How to save the Portland Press Herald

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It doesn't matter who the new owner of the Portland Press Herald is, or whether there even is one. The state's largest-circulation daily newspaper simply cannot survive in its current form. This situation is not helped by the fact that PPH execs both here and in the state of Washington seem incapable of imagining themselves out of this mess.

A glance at the most recent figures pairing circulation declines with those in advertising revenue show that while papers like the PPH have a problem keeping and attracting readers, the bigger problem is keeping and attracting advertisers. The problem has worsened significantly over the past several months, with the economy's downward spiral.

The Press Herald has lost 16 percent of its subscribers in the past eight years, according to reports from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the independent organization that monitors media-readership statistics.

That decrease is on par with the other two big dailies in Maine: the Bangor Daily News lost 15 percent of its subscribers in the same period, and the Lewiston Sun Journal lost 19 percent of its subscribers in the eight-year period from 1996 to 2004, when the paper stopped ABC audits.

And it's better than stats for the Boston Globe and the Hartford Courant, which have respectively lost 24 percent and 20 percent of their readers between 2000 and 2008. (The other major daily in the region, the Providence Journal, saw its circulation drop 15 percent over that period.)

It's not good that one-seventh of Press Herald readers stopped reading in the past eight years, but it's much worse that the paper's advertising revenue dropped by half, according to statements from the company. (The other papers are quieter on their revenue situations, but massive reductions in newspaper-ad spending are extensively documented nationwide, with many papers seeing double-digit ad drops in just one year.)

That is, in fact, the problem that threatens the paper today, and will continue to hang over the heads of any new owners. Ads and circulation are, of course, intertwined: reduced revenue means cost-cutting, which means making the paper worse for readers. Common cost-cutting measures, used at papers nationwide, as well as at the Press Herald, include shrinking the size of physical pages, printing fewer pages, and lowering the percent of space in the paper that is used to print news. In turn, this requires a smaller staff to report, assemble, edit, and lay out a paper.

That saves money, but readers drop away — particularly if, as the Press Herald did, the paper raises its cover price at the same time it cuts content.

This circling-the-drain problem gives us a good starting point for troubleshooting the Press Herald's future.

Cutting costs
The Blethen family borrowed roughly $230 million in 1999 to buy the paper, and has struggled to meet its quarterly debt-service payments ever since. Over the past decade, they've certainly lowered the amount they owe — to perhaps as low as $100 million — that's still a crushing burden for the paper to bear. Certainly, staff costs are a significant contributor, too, but a paper needs people to run. Debt service is an unnecessary killer.

The family and their top execs continue to claim that the Press Herald is still profitable. And they're probably half right. Despite the massive revenue drop, it's a good bet that the paper is covering its expenses — except for debt-service payments and transfers of money to the parent company (either through inter-company charges or outright profit-taking to prop up the Seattle Times Company).

If there's a new owner, we need to hope that he or she or they pay cash and view the purchase as a long-term investment, so they won't need to make very big profits (or any at all) right away. The price will certainly be lower than $230 million, and perhaps as low as $11 million, according to documents released by PPH suitor Richard Connor in last month's failed attempt to convince the Maine State Retirement System to invest in the papers. But it matters less what the price is than the point that the buyer shouldn't take on significant debt to make the deal.

And whether the Blethens remain in control or there is a new owner, a key way to pay off debt is to do what the Blethens have already done in Seattle, and Connor has proposed doing here: sell real estate. In Portland, the Blethens own not only the historic flagship building at 390 Congress Street, ideally situated between City Hall and the federal and state courthouses, but also a building across Congress Street and the parking surrounding it. While the building at 389 Congress was formerly home to the printing presses and is therefore likely contaminated with all matter of toxic printing chemicals, its prime location may help preserve its salability.

Another option would be to seek support from an allied non-profit, along the lines of the non-profit groups helping to bankroll the for-profit St. Petersburg Times and The Nation magazine. Yes, strictly speaking, the Press Herald may need to start begging for cash to stay alive. That's why selling real estate is smarter.

Boosting readership
As noted above, losing readership means losing advertisers. If, however, ad reps can show a paper growing circulation (or, frankly, in this sector, merely holding steady), that's a good prospect for advertisers. So an early step has to be attracting readers.

But it's not quite that easy. Daily newspapers, in particular, have tried for many years to be all things to all people, offering the Red Sox box score, NASCAR results, photos from the local high-school football team, reporting on town and state government, updates from Iraq and Afghanistan, features on businesses and individuals, the weather, horoscopes, comics, puzzles, and recipes (plus many more things, too!), in hopes that every person will be interested in at least one of those myriad offerings, and will therefore buy the paper.

This actually causes two problems. First, readers find themselves marginalized — by design, any one reader's areas of interest are a small proportion of what's in the whole paper, but they had to pay for the whole thing, which results in flipping pages quickly and recycling whole sections unread. And second, it becomes almost impossible to describe an "average reader," because the interest areas and demographics are so broad.

So they've upset readers by making them pay in full for something they want only part of, and they've annoyed advertisers by being unable to explain whom the paper will help the advertisements reach.

Obviously, the slumping economy has made both of these problems even worse — readers have less money to buy things with, and are less willing to part with it for the privilege of reading a few tidbits and then pitching the paper; and advertisers have fewer dollars that they want to spend in increasingly targeted ways.

The only way to tackle these problems is head-on. It's time to reinvent the paper to make its content attractive to readers who are countable, quantifiable, and demographically describable to advertisers.

Creating a whole new Press Herald doesn't mean hiring additional staff — which is good, because taking on more expenses is something to be avoided if possible. And some of what arises may be uncertain — as Clay Shirky observed in the must-read media-industry critique of the year, his March 13 post at entitled "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable," there is nothing that will replace newspapers, and no certainty about how journalism will be provided. Daily newspapers need to experiment grandly, and have many of those experiments fail, before any of us will figure out what comes next.

A few tips: Giving the Press Herald a fighting chance

Published in the Portland Phoenix

There are, in fact, some pretty basic things that would help ensure the paper might have a chance.

STOP PRINTING THE INTERNET. The Press Herald — like many dailies — is filled with wire content, including sports scores and foreign news. But because of the timing of the newspaper deadline, any wire story in the paper is by definition at least 12 hours old. Some of it has been online worldwide for more than a day. To get a sense of the real value of any newspaper, take an issue or two of it and the same days' (or weeks') issues of any other papers covering similar turf. Then cross out every story that appears in more than one paper. What remains is what each paper actually brings you. For the Press Herald, the value is low — most of what's there can be gotten elsewhere, and often sooner. Stopping this redundancy will make everything in the paper an exclusive — just what readers need to get them picking up the paper again.

TAKE THE PAPER FREE. And once they want to pick up the paper, don't put a barrier up. The Press Herald is competing with large numbers of free papers, and isn't winning. If people still want home delivery, they can pay for that service — at a price that covers the total cost of paying drivers to get them there. Otherwise they'll need to pick up copies around town. (As for going online-only, as many newspapers are trying to do, the biggest problem is that it's hard to reverse. They should try sticking with print — though possibly less often than daily — first, and go online-only if they need to later.)

MAKE EVEN BIGGER COST REDUCTIONS. The union is already on board for a significant — at least 10 percent — cut in workforce, and probably a similar reduction in pay. But even more people will have to go. This will be made easier by a smaller paper that has only exclusive-to-itself news — no more editors need to "sit on the desk" waiting for wire copy to arrive. The newsroom will be a shadow of its former self, but the paper will be alive, and — most importantly — able to do what it needs to. And that's the final item in our recipe for survival.

START DIGGING UP REAL STORIES AGAIN. The poor sods running the show for the Blethens have gotten old, tired, or both, and some of their reporters have, too. It's long past time for the state's most widely read daily newspaper to actually be an aggressive, energized watchdog, looking out for the people of Maine.

Sitting pretty: The guy with the cash can play a waiting game if he wants

Published in the Portland Phoenix

There are two players in this daily-newspaper game: the Blethens, and whomever Richard Connor is working with. Connor has cleverly cornered the market on the Portland Press Herald and its sister papers, and is now in what can only be called the catbird seat.

By keeping his interest in buying continually in the public eye, and by occasionally signing letters of intent that lock out other buyers for 30-day periods, Connor has blocked any other prospective suitors (a few were reportedly considering making an offer back at the beginning of the sale process), and he is now in a position to wait. And wait. And wait.

For what? For anything he wants. He's only putting up $250,000 of his own money, and his "financial backer" is only pledging $1.1 million more. Frankly, he could wait until the Blethens are so broke they will accept that pitiful amount as the total purchase price for something they bought 10 years ago for $230 million. That day may not be far off.

And he can wait until more newspapers shut down, which is happening about daily now. That strikes fear into the heart of the Blethens and the Maine employees. Connor, a union-buster from way back, has already gotten the Maine unions to agree to slash salaries and staff numbers for the sake of preserving at least a few union jobs — if they get more worried, they'd probably take almost any carrot Connor might dangle before them, even if it's a rotten one.

If he can line up investors to offer a price the Blethens will take, everyone's happy. If he can't, and waits until desperation sets in even more deeply with both the current owners and employees, the price will drop — as will the prospective salaries, benefits, and employee numbers the unions will accept. He can basically name his price, and pick his time. And if he can't find a deal he's happy with, he can walk away with no penalty and watch the Press Herald die.