Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Press Releases: Talking points

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Rich Connor's reforms have brought a much-needed sharpened focus to the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and its sister papers. Certain changes, though, are raising eyebrows not just for what they are, but because of how Connor is doing them.

Many newspapers report on themselves as businesses on inside pages, and occasionally below the fold on the front; Connor has chosen top billing for his paper's self-references.

Lead "stories" have described how he came to buy the papers, announced how much his investors like him, lauded his investors' real-estate developments (without mentioning either their similarities to others' projects or the paper's relationship to the developer), and explained why he's about to shut down a printing plant and sell a landmark building in Augusta.

Lately he is taking the editorial pages in a new direction, as we can see in the now-clarifying picture of his ouster of Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel editorial-page editor Naomi Schalit. Unlike her counterpart at the Portland papers, John Porter, Schalit (a well-known and award-winning journalist who has also worked for Maine Public Broadcasting) survived the ownership change and was, by all accounts, settling in and attempting to get to know the new boss.

But she announced her resignation in early August, just after returning from a week's vacation. Readers might have been startled by the abruptness, but they must have been even more surprised at the editorials that ran in her absence. At a time when the editorial-page editor was not around to discuss the ramifications of such a shift, and without so much as a nod to the long-held former position, the papers overturned years-old editorial positions, most notably chastising Republican senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins for being bipartisan moderates on health-care reform.

It's that kind of move that suggests Connor, while certainly more hands-on than the absentee Blethens, doesn't have a feel for Maine. And the situation may not improve for a while: Schalit's replacement, Bill Thompson, is, like Connor's new executive editor and new head of advertising, an out-of-towner who has never worked in Maine (though a longstanding Connor employee).

But while these efforts may ruffle a few professionals' feathers, the real question is whether the readers notice — or care.

Sadly, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism suggests they do neither. Its latest State of the News Media report declares bluntly that in the latest research, "There was no indication that Americans altered their fundamental judgment that the news media are politically biased, that stories are often inaccurate and that journalists do not care about the people they report on."

Connor instead appears to be trading on the results of Northwestern University's Readership Institute's 2003 "Newspaper Experience" study, which concluded that people read newspapers to have "something to talk about" more than for any other reason. There, he is definitely succeeding.

• Also of note for those TV watchers who still don't use cable, satellite, or the Internet, if you're missing your fave ABC shows, you might just be in luck. WMTW, the Hearst-owned ABC affiliate on Channel 8 in Portland, wants to resume analog broadcasting to recover viewers lost in the digital-TV transition. While its filing with the Federal Communications Commission says there are "unresolved" problems with digital reception in both greater Portland and Lewiston-Auburn, this proposal would potentially restore a signal only as far out as Freeport and Biddeford. If it's approved, it'll be on channel 26 on your analog dial.

Hat tips to Al Diamon and NorthEast Radio Watch.

Visible man: Tracy Kidder gets into the picture

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

As Tracy Kidder’s immersive journalism matures — his latest book recounts his travels through genocidal East Africa — he becomes more visible. He featured significantly in his debut book, The Road to Yuba City (1974), which chronicled the murders of migrant farm workers in California. But he so regretted putting himself in the story that in 1981 he bought the rights back to prevent future republication, and he declines to list Yuba City on his books’ “Also by this author” pages. He began to disappear from the narrative in The Soul of a New Machine (1981), which won the 1982 Pulitzer for general non-fiction. By House (1985), he had perfected the art of invisibility. A passage describes the view from the ground, then quotes a builder on the need for everyone who goes up a ladder to carry a box of shingles, and then — with no acknowledgment that Kidder himself climbed and carried — moves to a scene on the roof.

He stayed hidden through the rest of what became a four-book-deep study of his community in Western Massachusetts: Among Schoolchildren (1989), Old Friends (1993), and Home Town (1999). But he allowed himself back in Mountains Beyond Mountains, the 2003 volume that garnered lots of publicity for the book’s subject, Dr. Paul Farmer, and Farmer’s effort to bring health care to rural Haiti. After a reflective Vietnam War memoir, My Detachment, in 2005, Kidder releases Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness, the second in what might become a series of intensely personal global social-issues investigations.

Strength’s prologue shows Kidder and Deo, the book’s main subject, driving through Burundi, returning to Deo’s home village more than a decade after his escape to America from the Hutu-Tutsi massacres of 1993 and 1994. The first section covers Deo’s youth, the civil war’s interruption of his studies to become a doctor, his flight through the wilderness, and how he rebuilt his life starting as a poor refugee in New York City.

Kidder’s gift is in the way he merges eagle-eye on-the-spot reporting with probing after-the-fact interviews, making us not just observers but privy to people’s innermost thoughts. In his previous books, we were left to imagine the exhausting work of assembling all these details. But in Strength’s second section, he gives a master class in interviewing, offering his own thoughts, as well. His devotion to his work and his compassion for those he writes about is most poignant when he confesses that he feared he was asking Deo questions that would “traumatize him all over again. On several occasions, I offered to stop my search for his story and let his memories die, if they would. Once or twice, I hoped he would accept my offer. But he always declined.”

We accompany Kidder and Deo as they travel to Burundi, retrace Deo’s route to safety, and also launch a Burundi branch of the medical initiative Kidder described in Mountains. We research with Kidder the baseless “distinctions” between “Hutus” and “Tutsis” that were so central to the mass slaughter. We, too, feel terror when he and Deo explore the now-vacant hospital where the massacre began for Deo, and from which Deo fled into the wild. “Up until now I hadn’t fully understood . . . that even his most lurid dreams weren’t weirder or more frightening than what inspired them. He didn’t wake up from his nightmares thankful they weren’t real.”

Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness | By Tracy Kidder | Random House | 277 pages | $26

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Summertime blues: The scoop on red tide and blue-green algae

Published in Downeast Dog News

We’re hearing a lot about red tide this year, harmful algal blooms in the Gulf of Maine that cause state officials to close shellfish flats all along the coast. And because of June’s rainfall, several beaches were closed or under advisories for several days because of high levels of bacteria in stormwater runoff. But it turns out that while those conditions carry some minor risks for dogs that play on beaches and in the surf, the real danger is algae floating in freshwater lakes and ponds.

“Red tide” is a term that broadly covers many different kinds of algae with different toxicity levels. In some places around the world, toxic algae can be highly concentrated in seawater and may become airborne in surf spray, poisoning people and animals, including dogs and anything else that breathes along the shore.

News accounts from Florida state that the first reported cases of red tide toxins in dogs of the United States were in 2003 on the Gulf Coast, during a toxic algal bloom that became airborne. So, if you take your dog on a coastal trip, be sure to gather information about the type of red tide that may be found at that area.

The red tide found in Maine—which is actually brown—is not very concentrated, and has never been reported as airborne, according to Michael Sieracki, a senior research scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay Harbor. Rather, the danger comes primarily from eating shellfish that have stored up the toxins after they consumed lots and lots of the algae.

While this year’s algal bloom is at “unprecedented levels,” according to Sieracki, it is still not so concentrated that it might harm dogs or people who are simply exposed to seawater. However, Sieracki does caution against letting dogs eat shellfish that might be found around the beach, because it may be contaminated.

Keri Lindberg of Maine Healthy Beaches, a state-run program that monitors water quality on Maine’s ocean beaches, agrees, and adds that even non-red-tide shellfish, especially uncooked—just the way our dogs prefer them—can also harbor dangerous bacteria that can sicken a dog. But she said that dogs are unlikely to get sick from algae unless they “ingest a lot of water” that is particularly contaminated.

Dr. Jennifer Roberts, a veterinarian at Maine Veterinary Referral Center in Scarborough, said that she has not heard of red tide as a problem for animals in Maine, and has not heard much about blue-green algae causing illness in dogs here, but it can be “very toxic,” often particularly hurting a dog’s liver. Roberts urged dog owners whose pets develop gastrointestinal distress to tell their vets not only whether the dog likes to chase the neighborhood squirrels or knock over trash cans, but also if the dog swims in the local ponds. This
information may help a vet identify blue-green algae toxicity as a possible cause of illness.

Dogs have died from blue-green algae poisoning in Lake Champlain in Vermont, which has led to periodic warnings from state health officials there. New Hampshire tests its lakes and issues blue-green algae warnings that mention potential dangers for pets and humans in areas with high levels of contaminants. Maine does track algal blooms, and just last year began tracking their toxicity, but at this time, the state does not issue warnings, according to Roy Bouchard, a biologist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Lake Assessment Program.

Bouchard said that toxicity is “something nobody has a real good handle on yet,” and that states that do issue warnings are being “very conservative.” Because blooms can be nontoxic one day and toxic the next, it can be hard to keep track; lab tests require days or weeks to return results. As a result, the warnings are often based on visual observations from which experts draw the conclusion that the conditions make toxicity possible.

Between 38 and 54 lakes across the state have algal blooms “commonly” or “frequently,” according to the Bureau of Land and Water Quality in the Maine DEP, although it is more typical that 11 to 25 lakes are documented as having blooms each year, according to state data.

Bouchard said that he has not heard reports of exposure to blue-green algae toxins in Maine; however, he added that one reason might be that some of the symptoms—in both people and dogs—include vomiting and diarrhea. That could lead people to blame other causes, such as that a dog “got into something.” According to Bouchard, the additional data on toxicity that he began to collect last year may help develop a warning system that may be used as early as next summer, but but not before then.

Meanwhile, and because he cannot track toxicity at every one of Maine’s 5,900 or so lakes and ponds—even with the help of Maine Volunteer Lake Monitors (—Bouchard suggests that people stay away from lakes that are “really green and murky,” especially when algae are concentrated together on the surface, and to be certain that their dogs do not drink from or swim in these bodies of water. Other states also suggest washing a dog’s coat if she has taken a swim in questionable water to prevent her from ingesting algae while cleaning her fur.

Bouchard said that seeing plants in the water is quite normal and can often be a sign of a healthy body of water; the concern should be about algae, “murky fine particles that are free-floating with no obvious structure,” he said.

Roberts suggests using common sense about where you let your dog swim, “If you don’t want your kids playing in a certain area, you shouldn’t let your dog go there either.”