Thursday, July 30, 2009

Press Releases: Memo to Rich Connor

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We met a few weeks ago, at the press conference where you announced you had bought the Press Herald and its siblings. You may remember me — I'm the guy who, in a room full of reporters (including some from your own organization), was the only one who asked how much you paid. Of course I knew you would prevaricate, but these questions have to be asked.

You told me then that you had read some of my columns, which was nice of you to say. I'm going to take the extra step of sending this one directly to you, though, to be sure you don't miss it.

I want to tell you what people like me want from your paper. I've been blogging about this kind of stuff for a while now, and getting a lot of supportive responses from readers of mine who would like, one day, to be readers of yours as well. But you haven't seemed to react yet, so it's time for a serious call to arms.

I want to help you save the Press Herald — not despite the fact that I work at another publication in town, but indeed because of that. Maine's largest city needs a daily newspaper that lives and breathes the life of the people. Of course, it may well be too late to save the company, but it can't hurt to try.

I want to start you off gently: You, like every other news-industry executive, have found yourself running a niche publication, whether you think of it that way or not, whether you like it or not. Your daily papers are serving a small, if powerful, subsection of the community: self-appointed opinion leaders and news nerds, as well as policymakers and those who would influence them. A daily newspaper can no longer be all things to all people, so stop trying.

First up, stop printing the Internet. Next, consider your potential.

You could be the paper that, every day of the year, answers the following questions, which I first posed on back on July 8:

1) What was the most important thing that happened in Portland (or Maine) yesterday?

2) What is the most important thing that's going to happen in Portland (or Maine) today?

3) What have you chosen to address in-depth today, from among the most important issues facing Portlanders and Mainers down the road — whether short-, medium-, or long-term?

Sometimes a couple of those — or even all three — will overlap. That's fine. But if you can focus on those three things every single day, you will become an absolute can't-miss publication, every single day.

Sometimes — even many times — the "most important things" that happened or are about to will not be super-significant in a historic way. We can learn to trust your reporters when they say that such-and-such a story is the most important; we know Maine is the kind of place where earth-shattering stuff doesn't happen all the time.

But right now, your reporters don't always see potential in stories they're already doing, much less imagining anything bigger. Earlier this month, your front page had a press-release-based story about non-profits and state agencies buying fishing rights to help fishermen. It quoted one state official and three leaders of non-profits, but asked exactly zero fishermen whether the do-gooders' well-intentioned plan made any sense, or might actually help.

Simply put, you can't do that to us, your prospective readers. We're smarter than that, and if you're not, then we're smarter than you. Newspapers' stock in trade is being smarter, more thoughtful, and better informed. If you're not any of those three, you have nothing at all to sell. Good luck.

Campaign planning: Greens see red, must seek more green

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In a move Maine Green Independent Party leaders say unfairly targets them, but that Maine Democrats say is simply protecting taxpayer money, the Legislature last month passed a law requiring gubernatorial candidates to raise tens of thousands of dollars from private donors before qualifying for public support.

The rules, laid out in a bill sponsored by House Speaker Hannah Pingree of North Haven, create a new requirement that would-be governors who want to use the state's Clean Election Fund (no matter the party or if she is independent) must first raise $40,000 in "seed money," with individual donors giving no more than $100 each. The previous requirement for $5 contributions from individuals has also increased, from 2500 to 3250. Only by meeting both demands can a gubernatorial candidate become eligible to receive as much as $1.8 million in campaign financing from the state's Clean Election Fund.

Pingree, who is heading to Washington DC this week to testify before Congress about a federal clean-elections law, says the move was intended "to make the system more attractive for major-party candidates" — though of the six gubernatorial contenders who have used Clean Election funding since the system was set up, three have been Republicans; one was an independent and two were Greens. No Democrats have used the system to run for governor.

While it may be intended to become "more attractive," the task is actually made more difficult for all candidates — including those in major parties who want to use clean funds. Pingree says the reason for raising the barrier is because "this is a significant amount of taxpayer money," and so a candidate must "show that you have a wide base of support for your candidacy."

Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat who serves on the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee that worked the bill, says "it's not just a system for candidates who want to send their message out there," but rather for those who have a serious shot at winning the state's top office. She says she wants to avoid having "the Clean Election system be the system of losers," and asks, "are you really a viable candidate if you can't raise $40,000?"

But John Rensenbrink, a founder of the Maine Green Independent Party and the national Green Party, sees what he calls a "carrot and stick" strategy to take the wind out of third parties' sails. On the same day as the fundraising change passed, lawmakers also unanimously removed a requirement that to remain an official party in the state, a party's candidate for governor or president must receive at least five percent of the popular vote, replacing it with a demand that 10,000 members of the party vote in a general election.

That actually does make it easier for the Greens to keep official party status. Founded more than 25 years ago, the party has struggled to gain and hold elective office on a statewide level. Despite several successes in local government (mostly in Portland city and school elections), the Greens have had no members in the State House since 2007. And the party has only ever managed to get one person sent to Augusta: John Eder, who won a seat representing Portland's West End in 2002, and was reelected in 2004. But Eder lost a second re-election bid in 2006 to Democrat Jon Hinck, who argued during his campaign that he was just as progressive as Eder and would be more effective in the Legislature.

Rensenbrink says the new rules make it "more difficult for us to arouse our own forces" to back a Green gubernatorial bid, and says the effort shows that the Democrats are afraid of facing a Green candidate next year, when the governor's seat will be vacated by John Baldacci.

Lynne Williams, the Bar Harbor attorney who has already declared she will seek the governorship for the Green Party, says the new rules are "a paradox," in that the Clean Election system exists to take money out of politics, but now requires fundraising. "All the time that I could be meeting with voters, I'm calling people and asking them for money," she says.

Anna Trevorrow, chairman of the Maine Green Independent Party, says "Maine has always been looked at as a leader" in leveling the playing field for third-party candidates, creating a system where "candidates could compete based on their ideas and not on their ability to raise money." She says the new goals are "just above what the Greens have been able to achieve in the past."

Pingree and Russell, though, think setting high goals is a good idea. "I think it's hard, but I think it's fair," Russell says.

And for the Greens, who have always based their work on grass-roots efforts, there may be some hope. Williams says her campaign has already established offices in eight counties and is readying plans for the other eight; she hopes that level of outreach will create "the skeleton for post-election activity."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Yellow Lab Runs, Rides from Maryland to Maine

Published in Downeast Dog News

The trip ended the way its days always did—with a high-five between Sadie and Dan McCrady. But they had to do a few extras for the cameras, as their 22-day, 850-mile journey from Maryland to Maine ended June 13 with twin ceremonies in South Portland and Portland.

Sadie, a 3-year-old purebred yellow Labrador Retriever, attentively listened to the official greetings, including remarks from South Portland Mayor Tom Blake and Portland City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, but perhaps she was just waiting for some more treats.

In South Portland, the city bought her a cake reading “Congratulations Sadie,” made by Scratch Baking Company using their popular dog-biscuit recipe, which she happily shared with the half-dozen other dogs there to celebrate the end of her trip with her bicycling human, McCrady.

McCrady dreamed up the idea last year, as a project to occupy his time in retirement. “I wanted to do something a little bit adventurous and a little challenging,” he said. Because Sadie had become a constant companion since McCrady and his wife adopted her after his retirement three years ago, there was “no question that whatever I did, it would be with her,” he said.

McCrady decided they would bicycle a part of the East Coast Greenway, a trail-in-progress whose full length is planned to stretch from Key West, Florida, to Calais, Maine, combining hard-surface off-road trails with a few segments of low-traffic roads. McCrady figured he would attract some attention for the trail and raise some money to support its development—he has rounded up $5,200 so far.

McCrady planned to take the Greenway’s route from his home in Annapolis, Maryland, to Maine, which he had visited many times because his wife’s sister and her husband live in South Portland. He arranged lodging with the help of Greenway supporters, many of whom offered to host the traveling pair.

The biggest bike trip McCrady made before this one lasted three days and covered 200 miles, and didn’t involve towing a trailer—or a canine companion. “This is the only time he’s done anything like this,” said his wife, Eileen, who came up from Maryland to join her sister and other family members and friends to greet McCrady and Sadie at the end of the trip.

It was a first for Sadie, too. McCrady gave her more food to handle her increased activity level—she ran an average of 10 miles a day, and once ran 25 miles in a day—and weighed her every week to make sure she was doing well. Her weight didn’t fluctuate more than half a pound either direction during the trip, McCrady said.

McCrady wasn’t sure how Sadie’s paws would hold up—“I even carried little boots,” he said—but she had no trouble. Sadie also had never blogged before, but learned quickly, posting daily during the trip at

The pair averaged 55 miles a day. Whenever Sadie wasn’t running, she relaxed in her “limousine,” a Track’r dog-carrying bike trailer donated by Solvit Products. The one Sadie used was the largest model, capable of carrying 125 lbs., according to McCrady. Because Sadie is a fit 75 lbs., McCrady was able to stow some clothing under the floor of the trailer, giving her a softer ride and him some extra cargo capacity.

The trailer itself hitches and unhitches in only 30 seconds, and is fully enclosed, but with plenty of screened windows for Sadie to look and sniff through. When not in use, it folds down to be 6 inches thick and the size of a “small suitcase,” McCrady said.

During training rides, McCrady sent some feedback off to Solvit; they incorporated some of his ideas into their designs, and sent him a revised trailer for the actual journey. He still has an additional tip for the company—their guidelines suggest the dog should enter and exit through the zippered door in the rear of the trailer, but that didn’t seem safe to McCrady, who feared Sadie might manage to get out into traffic. Instead, he had Sadie jump through the opening directly behind the bicycle’s rear tire. As an additional precaution, “I’ve taught her she never goes in or out unless the bike’s at a full stop,” he said.

The celebrations began in South Portland’s Bug Light Park, where the mayor’s proclamation included formal recognition that a “dog’s need for exercise can help encourage dog owners’ increased physical activity.” That was cheered by local dog enthusiasts, including the South Portland Dog Owners Group (SoPoDOG), represented by its president, Crystal Goodrich, and several human and dog members.

SoPoDOG gave Sadie a taste of Maine lobster—in biscuit form—and a stuffed lobster dog toy, to complement the Maryland blue crab dog toy she had been given at the trip’s beginning in Annapolis.

Then they boarded a water taxi, which is part of the official route of the East Coast Greenway, and took Sadie’s first boat ride, crossing Portland Harbor to the water taxi dock next to Flatbread Company. Sadie took that in stride as well, lying calmly on the boat’s deck. “She’s a very mellow dog,” McCrady said.

During the walk and the ride up to East End Beach, where Sadie graciously accepted gifts from and Planet Dog, McCrady contemplated his next retirement project. “I think I’d like to get involved in some hiking,” he said, mentioning doing pieces of the Appalachian Trail.

That may not come as such welcome news for Sadie, because her owner’s plan already includes the assumption that she “can carry her own food and water.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Avoiding the problem: Snowe misses the point of healthcare reform

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Over the course of Olympia Snowe's career in the US Senate, companies and workers in the healthcare and insurance industries have been her top donors (except for retirees and retiree political-action committees, which are obviously also concerned with healthcare issues).

And as she wades into the middle of the healthcare-reform debate, Snowe — who declined to answer Phoenix questions about her donors' influence — is urging the exasperated American public to give private health-insurance companies one more chance.

Snowe, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee (which handles healthcare issues), says she is afraid that a government-run health-insurance option (an option, mind you, not a mandatory-participation program) would unfairly compete with the private sector. She told the Associated Press last week, "If you establish a public option at the forefront that goes head-to-head and competes with the private health insurance market the public option will have significant price advantages."

That is, Snowe fears that the public option will be cheaper than the choices offered by private insurers. Of course, lower costs are precisely what Americans are seeking in healthcare reform.

But Snowe — and her colleague Senator Susan Collins (for whom healthcare and insurance-industry gifts are among the top six campaign donors) — are instead seeking to protect the insurers, advocating for delaying the public option until it is demonstrated that the private companies can't expand coverage and decrease costs. Instead, they are advocating a system by which taxpayer-funded subsidies would help Americans pay private insurers' market rates for health-insurance plans.

They neglect two vital facts. First, healthcare is a basic human right — though Snowe, through her press secretary, Julia Wanzco, declined to say whether she believes that, saying only that she supports "universal access" to care. Second, private companies have already proved unwilling to solve the problem: insurance premiums nationwide have doubled over the last 10 years (income hasn't followed suit, obviously), and insurance-company profits have quadrupled. Forty-seven states, including Maine, have near-monopoly situations in which one or only a very few companies control the health-insurance market.

Progressives throughout the country, and all over the Internet, are screaming. And they are acting, seeking tales of woe from those struggling to get and pay for healthcare, sending pollsters out into the streets to ask people for their opinions, and airing television ads urging constituents to contact their senators to urge more reform. Last Wednesday in Portland and Augusta, Mainers took to the streets to oppose the high premiums of Maine's near-monopoly health-insurance provider, Anthem.

Citing figures that show premiums in Maine rose five times faster than the state's median income, and that Anthem continue to show massive profits despite the poor economy, the protesters called on Snowe and Collins to support a public option from the get-go. At the rallies, organized by the Maine People's Alliance, a progressive advocacy group, several Mainers spoke about their problems with the private health-insurance industry, citing high prices and low benefits.

While progressives cite stats like the Wall Street Journal's recent poll showing 75 percent of Americans are strong supporters of an government-run option, both Snowe's and Collins's offices say that the thousands of constituent comments they have received show, in Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley's words, "little agreement on what ought to be done."

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Press releases: Nice to meet you

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Rich Connor, the mercurial new co-owner and editor/publisher of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Waterville-based Morning Sentinel, and the Augusta-based Kennebec Journal, is a curious figure, who himself seems a good candidate for interesting copy in the coming years. Here are a few scenes from his first couple weeks of ownership:

• The press conference at which Connor announced his purchase of the papers (you can see the full video at featured lavish praise for his wife, Deborah. And understandably so, as he went on to admit that, while he ran several papers in Texas for six years, THEY WEREN'T PROFITABLE UNTIL HE LEFT to run the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader in Pennsylvania, and Deborah took over the Texas operation.

• During that press conference, he recalled that a friend, a rich woman in Texas, told him that he shouldn't buy the newspapers if he couldn't get a local bank to support it. Perhaps someone should lend him an atlas — he ended up BORROWING THE MONEY FROM BRITISH TAXPAYERS. Citizens Bank, whose Portland office did the paperwork, is owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which was taken over last year by the British government during the banking crisis. Maine is part of New England, but, c'mon.

• He also promised to assume that "the customer is always right." Of course, if you define "customer" the way Connor does — someone who is either an employee, a reader, or an advertiser — it's easy to imagine a situation where there are THREE GROUPS WHOSE INTERESTS CAN BE SIMULTANEOUSLY "RIGHT" AND WILDLY DIVERGENT. Here's just one: Should a reporter stay up very late at night, away from her family, to cover a contentious city-council meeting, during which an advertiser's business plan is at stake?

• Perhaps most troubling, he is USING THE PAPERS' MAIN NEWS SPACE IN WAYS HARDLY BEFITTING A SERIOUS NEWS ORGANIZATION. First there was the 1500-word June 21 lead story (it was clearly marked "opinion") describing the astrological projections, as well as the reminiscences of the last time he lived in Maine (more than 40 years ago), that led to his purchase of the paper. Two days later, the lead "story" was about a newspaper promotion that no doubt surprised those "customers" who had paid for their papers: the Press Herald and its sisters are giving away free copies at various locations in their coverage areas. And last Friday, he printed large color photos of his biggest advertisers grinning awkwardly with their Press Herald sales reps on the back page of the front section. (Not to mention his giddily obsequious and boosterish column in Sunday's "Insight" section.)

But Connor was serious when he said, before the assembled cameras (and his bankers): "We will be profitable this year."

What that will look like is unclear. He plans to keep all three papers open (the Sentinel and the KJ are in better financial shape than the Press Herald), and hopes to pay off some debt by selling the Press Herald's downtown-Portland real estate.

There will, though, be significant cost-cutting. Connor's cagey about where, but we have two clues. First there's the press conference's Freudian slip: Confirming that there will be as many as 100 more layoffs in the near future, he added, "we're hoping it will be more than that."

And there is the praise he offered for newsroom staffers who worked until midnight one night and came in at 5 am the next morning. "We didn't ask them to do that," he said. Those employees just took a 10-percent pay cut, and face at best a 75-percent chance of keeping their jobs, so maybe Connor is suggesting he needs volunteer labor.

FairPoint watch: Making a quiet killing — of itself and Maine's economy

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Businesses in downtown Portland are on the move. Retail-property rents are lower than they have been in years, and stores are making deals left and right, with more than a dozen changing location in the past couple months. You don't know where your favorite store will be next — but don't count on calling them to find out where they've gone. They can't take your call — and won't even actually hear it ring.

That's because FairPoint — you remember them, our state's primary telephone-service provider? the nearing-bankruptcy company that has trouble providing phone service to 911 operators or even its own customer-service call centers? — has been making businesses wait more than a month to transfer phone connections to their new locations.

A simple stroll through the Old Port one recent afternoon led to three lengthy conversations with shop owners complaining about FairPoint (we'll save them the embarrassment of identifying them, if only so FairPoint won't target them for further delays). And there are many more, all of whom are talking about complaining to the Maine Public Utilities Commission, canceling their FairPoint service, getting their phone and Internet through TimeWarner Cable, or all three.

Even businesses moving a couple of buildings over, or onto the next block, have waited weeks and still can't get connected. And nobody from FairPoint seems available to help.

"I've spent hours on the phone with them," said one shop owner. "I give up." Another is forced to call a nearby business to process credit-card transactions, because he has no working FairPoint phone line to do it himself.

The problems are well known to state officials: Both Richard Davies, the head of Maine's Office of the Public Advocate (which represents consumers at-large in issues before the state's Public Utilities Commission), and Andrew Hagler, director of telephone and water regulation at the PUC, say they have heard complaints from businesses and residents.

Hagler adds that FairPoint has a "stabilization plan" it is using to mark its progress toward service-as-expected. But company filings with his office show that improvement is slow, and in some cases, not actually happening.

It is, therefore, little wonder that FairPoint recently told federal securities regulators that it might declare bankruptcy, unless its creditors allow it to delay interest payments on more than $500 million in debt (some of which is accruing more than 13-percent interest). In addition, its June 24 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission declared that FairPoint has exhausted its available credit, and its revenues continue to decline.

While Davies says bankruptcy is "clearly ... more than a remote possibility," he is hoping that FairPoint will be able to "stop those losses and get people to come back," so as to avoid another transition to a new owner, or the involvement of a federal bankruptcy court in the state's telecommunications industry.

At least businesses and residents can take heart from one thing: The FairPoint public-relations department is no more responsive than its customer service. Company spokesman Jeff Nevins responded to three interview-seeking voicemails with an e-mail asking for the questions; the Phoenix's reply remained unanswered at our deadline. (Read the questions and the answers — if FairPoint responds — at