Thursday, April 4, 2013

Press Releases: On Walls and Laws

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The West End News last week broke the story that the Portland Press Herald is resuming active exploration of erecting a paywall for its online news offerings. While the PPH site has said nothing of the sort yet, it's worth wondering how such a change could affect the larger local news ecosystem.
Right now, a lot of the news you see on television and hear on the radio comes, at least initially, from newspapers. It's a common national situation, most extensively documented in Baltimore in 2010 by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a DC-based part of the Pew Research Centers. The study found that "much of the 'news' people receive contains no original reporting. Fully eight out of ten stories studied simple repeated or repackaged previously published information. And of the stories that did contain new information nearly all, 95%, came from traditional media — most of them newspapers."
Right now, most TV and radio stations subscribe to the AP's broadcast wire service, which, among other things, compiles and repackages print-media stories for on-air use. (This is what you hear when MPBN's Morning Edition host, Irwin Gratz, reads a few snippets, often including the phrase "The Portland Press Herald reports this morning...")
The paywall itself will likely not affect the broadcasters much. But they could be hit hard if the paywall's debut is coupled with a change in thePPH's membership in the Associated Press.
If the Press Herald keeps sending its stories to AP, then TV and radio stations will keep getting that information for their existing cost. But since that would mean PPH stories would be available elsewhere for free, it would make more sense to kill the AP connection. The broadcasters would be stuck either paying AP for less, or shelling out for the PPH separately.
In OPEN-GOVERNMENT NEWS, the group calling itself Maine's Majority — a far more hyper-partisan organization than the public it claims to represent — last week launched a dangerous and hypocritical assault on government transparency, by way of a political attack on admittedly loony ex-Maine treasurer Bruce Poliquin. Seems Poliquin asked for a state-compiled email list to expand the audience for his electronic missives after leaving office. MM executive director Chris Korzen sent out an email claiming Poliquin "abused" Maine's Freedom of Access Act, "to obtain (a) public list for personal use."
But the FOAA has no other purpose than to give people access to public information they want. It doesn't, and shouldn't, consider their reasons for asking, or what they'll do when they get the info.
Korzen's release admits Poliquin broke no laws. (Though it is tacky and may have violated the terms of his mass-email contract.) It went on to self-contradictingly say both that the email list (which had already been compiled for public purposes) is "publicly-owned" — and that its use by the public should therefore somehow be restricted.
When I pointed out to Korzen that trying to restrict what people do with public records once they're out of official hands is a dangerous and slippery slope (think: government-imposed restrictions on free expression), his response was almost immediate: "I really don't care. This is my job."
In an extended email conversation (see the full correspondence at, Korzen took harder and more sweeping swings at Poliquin, at one point saying he "would love to see the law changed so we can prosecute people who do what Poliquin did," and in another message condemning him for having "used public information to advertise himself for business/political/personal purposes."
Of course, Korzen had done exactly that too: He asked for public records (correspondence from Poliquin about email lists), got the information, and then used it for his own purposes (sending out a political-attack announcement).
Given this latest instance of shrill knee-jerk partisanship, and compounded by a clear failure to understand the important concept of government transparency, it's time to tell lawmakers something I never thought I would suggest: From now on, ignore Maine's Majority.