Thursday, April 7, 2011

Press releases: Build on each other

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Why is that when one Maine news outlet breaks a big story, the others spend more energy trying to copy it, rather than extend it? Take the most recent example, the labor mural dispute.

Governor Paul LePage's remarks and actions about the historical mural at the Maine Department of Labor office in Augusta are indeed newsworthy.

But after more than two weeks of non-stop coverage by Maine reporters, serious — and obvious — questions remain. We still don't know where the murals are, whether any actual business leaders disliked them, whether their removal was legal (a question now before a federal court), why they were removed so abruptly, nor why the governor later said he wished his removal order hadn't been followed so quickly.

These unanswered questions highlight a strange phenomenon of Maine journalism, which I have observed throughout the course of many years as a reporter and editor here.

In a competitive media environment, publications don't worry about getting the scoop a competitor had yesterday — they care about getting the news that hasn't been told yet. If someone gets a big break, other reporters swarm to the topic, seeking to build on that original story. Only rarely does this involve on-the-ground cooperation; mostly, reporters believe in the integrity of the competition, and bring their own resources to bear, driving deeper into the heart of an issue.

Maine has what might be called a passive-cooperative media environment, where media outlets don't acknowledge each other — for good or ill. Perhaps that's to avoid making the others look bad. But in the process, they make themselves weaker, and hurt the public interest.

As a contrary example, look at the New York Times-Washington Post relationship: They regularly scoop each other on topics both papers cover, such as national security. If the Times breaks a story, the Post will develop additional sources and insights to move the story forward, and will often make its basis explicit, saying in an early paragraph, "the New York Times reported X." By expanding on the information someone else has already reported, the Post can get a better, deeper, more insightful story. The Times will respond by building on the Post's reporting. Readers — whether they read one paper, the other, or both — learn lots more, very quickly.

That's not the case in Maine. Here, editors act as if their readers don't look at any other sources of news. So if the Press Herald, the Sun Journal, or the Bangor Daily News gets something good today, you can bet that tomorrow's editions of the other papers will have that story. But don't expect anything else. We see this in the coverage of the mural mess. Despite the massive reporting effort by the State House press corps (and the Press Herald was not the only paper to assign extra reporters to cover different angles), none of Maine's daily papers got anything substantially different from what any other paper had.

The basics still remain unknown. The problem is easily fixed, if only Maine media outlets would acknowledge that somebody has already covered some turf, and decide to move the entire story forward. Instead, busy covering what was already known, none of them bothered to figure out what the next question was, nor determine its answer.

• Another casualty of all this coverage of the mural controversy is news about WHAT ELSE WENT ON IN THE STATE HOUSE LAST WEEK. This is an administration and legislative majority with big plans to make big changes in Maine's governance — and while they likely didn't plan this particular massive distraction, key players are definitely poised to take advantage when the media spotlight turns away. Someone in the State House press corps should have the sense not to follow the pack, and to look in the dark corners others neglect.