Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Good starts: Maine journalism shows some promising new lights

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It's a new year, and Maine journalism is worse for the battering it took in 2009. But there are some new lights appearing on the horizon that might just make things a little brighter.

The first is a new endeavor founded by yet another of those recently-unemployed daily-newspaper journalists, the MAINE CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEREST REPORTING, led by former Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel publisher John Christie.

From his first story, published last week, it appears Christie will be resurrecting a journalistic endeavor long missing from Maine's mainstream press: holding powerful people accountable for their actions.

The debut story was based on an age-old premise: money and personal connections drive politics. But exactly how that happens in Maine has been under-covered, thanks to pols' and journos' often-friendly relations (see "Our Journalism Echoes Our Politics," by Lance Tapley, August 3, 2009).

In a story posted online at and printed in the Bangor Daily News, the Lewiston Sun Journal, and two weekly papers in the midcoast, the Ellsworth American and the Mount Desert Islander, Christie made clear how Governor John Baldacci thanks his friends.

Specifically, people who raised money for Baldacci's political campaigns and have known him for many years can get special favors from him, even — indeed especially — in tough budget circumstances.

Christie fills his story with quotes from State House players asserting that, as we all know, politics is personal. And when Baldacci weakly protests claims that he made a political decision — carving out an exemption to a new sales-tax expansion — to help his friends and benefactors in the skiing and real-estate businesses, Christie not only quotes his anemic reply ("the facts don't bear it out") but shows those facts clearly, as they do bear out the very allegation Baldacci denies.

It is a bit sad to be singling out this effort. It is basic, straightforward, workaday journalism that should never have been missing from Maine's daily newspapers. It should not have taken a startup nonprofit to ask why the governor's demands were so specific, and limited to inside players. But it did, and we're glad it's back.

And while the Portland Press Herald and its sister papers are not publishing Christie's work (Christie was let go when Richard Connor took over the company), there are small signs of a NEW WATCHDOG MENTALITY at Maine's largest newspaper company, too. It's not just that Connor has added one more capitol reporter — which he has done.

Over the past week, the Press Herald newsroom has been on top of a small-potatoes story, but in a way that portends better government scrutiny than officials have been used to of late.

Starting on January 5, with a front-page story entitled "At Deering Oaks, That Familiar Sinking Feeling," the PPH has demonstrated an institutional memory many feared lost. That first story reported that a snowplow machine had sunk in Deering Oaks Pond the previous day. But it went much deeper, digging up PPH archive photos from three previous times Portland's public-works department had done the same thing, all the way back to 1987. Two days later, the paper reported that the estimate for fishing the Bobcat out of the pond was not the $500 city officials initially claimed, but rather $5000. One day after that, the paper reported that the city's policy for clearing snow from the pond requires the ice thickness be checked before the plow sets out, and quoted city sources saying that hadn't happened. It's not government waste or incompetence on a grand scale, but it's a beginning.

These are excellent signs, and we look to a bright future in which we learn who else is courting our governor (and the candidates to replace him), and the discipline meted out to whomever it was who violated Portland's snow-clearing policies and cost taxpayers $5000 they don't have.