Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Press Releases: Ask questions

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Portland residents concerned about the drowning death of Nathan Bihlmaier saw the advantage of having competing news organizations last week, and may yet continue benefiting from this as the investigation continues. (See "In post-drinking death, is anyone responsible?" for a run-down of some of the issues involved.)
With both the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News working sources on the street, in the bars, and at the police station, reporters scooped each other and responded to each other's revelations with follow-up stories on successive days. This is how journalism is supposed to work: rather than either ignoring each other's reporting, or simply getting the same information for reprinting a day later, the reporters on this story are digging in, with each paper's crew asking questions raised by reports in the other paper.
When newspapers understand readers have a choice about where to get their news, coverage improves, responds, comes alive. For too long Maine's dailies have believed themselves to be impregnable fortresses, must-read publications by definition, rather than by merit. This has led to stagnation, which the papers would do well to stir away. Perhaps the coverage of this tragedy is an example of good things to come, as economics force greater competition.
Can Maine support three major dailies and five smaller dailies? Does the demand exist to justify the supply? To that end, the big dailies (the PPH, the BDN, and the Lewiston Sun Journal) have taken steps to dispel the popular belief that print is dead.
They've chosen an interesting tack, though: simply claiming the opposite. They staged a panel discussion where they claimed that Maine's papers are different, are is escaping the national trends of dropping ad revenue and circulation. Then a panelist, a moderator, and another speaker wrote a boosterish opinion piece whose most revealing statement was this: "So what does the future hold for Maine's newspapers? The precise answer is unknown. What is known, however, is the future exists — despite gloomy predictions to the contrary."
In two very lengthy blog posts (at I've examined the ideas expressed during the discussion and in the opinion piece, and have explained why simply claiming "the future exists" is hardly evidence that Maine's daily newspapers are any different from the national trends.
If the competitive success evidenced in the Bihlmaier case is a harbinger of a revitalized approach to reporting and publishing the news, then Maine's dailies might have a fighting chance. But it has to be a sustained effort, not just once in a while.
Which is why it's disheartening to have learned that such a level of persistent inquisitiveness is missing when it comes to election coverage. Our candidate questionnaire this year accidentally uncovered the fact that candidates aren't used to getting direct, strong questions from the media. (See "GOP runners for federal office get squirrely; Dems and independents share answers.")
A classic example is how Keith Shortall's Maine Public Broadcasting Network interviews with all of the candidates in the US Senate primary are described: the candidate is "asked why he [or she] is running for office and which issues he [or she] believes are most important to the citizens of Maine." Or, in other words, "We'll hand the candidate a microphone and let them talk about what they want, without subjecting them to serious questioning."
In Shortall's defense, some listeners who called in to those shows asked pointed questions. But too much coverage of the major races in Maine has boiled down to giving candidates carte blanche to talk about themselves, their concerns, and their goals, and leaving it at that. (It can be useful in smaller races where the candidates are not as well known, and where the stakes are lower; see our coverage of the three Portland-related legislative primaries here.)
When people seeking to be elected to represent Mainers in Washington DC can't handle questions that put them on the spot, it's hard to know how to react. But it's important to know that they're flummoxed. And it's important to know that the state's media outlets, who claim to serve the public, aren't testing these candidates as much as they might have you believe.