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.