Journalism Takes a Hit

After just eight issues, Portland’s newest alt-weekly, DigPortland, is no more. For the purposes of self-disclosure, I did write one article for the fledgling publication, and my name is listed as a contributor.

There’s always a curve and an evolution with any new publication, especially one that publishes under the alt-news banner. Each issue seemed to be building off the previous one, and it felt to me like there was a definite transition from prior issues (and prior publications) covered in town, like #Ferguson and race (the Samuel James feature, in what was the “old” Phoenix was stellar and one of my favorites), dumpster-diving, and I even got to take umbrage with an event masquerading as an energy panel that was simply promoting the build-out of natural gas, tied to fracking. Where else could a freelancer have that opportunity save for an alt-weekly that was tacking a course that allowed reporting with an edge.

I had a relationship with DigPortland editor, Nick Schroeder, from his days at the “old” Portland Phoenix (not to be confused, with the “new” Phoenix, which is a totally different publication), where he had also served as that publication’s editor. My longest bylined article of 2014, “What’s the Plan,” about economic development in Portland, benefitted from Nick’s guidance and edits back in the fall, when there was no inkling (at least for me) of major changes ahead concerning the city’s alternative publications like the Portland Phoenix. I had hopes of doing a few more of these longer-form type stories about similar subjects warranting coverage.

Weeks after my economic development article hit the streets, rumors began circulating, and then stories were reported by the daily media outlets that the Portland Phoenix was looking for a buyer. I won’t rehash the details—Seth Koenig’s article in the Bangor Daily News gives the rundown.

I’m also not interested in focusing on the immediate concerns and fall-out from yet another important publication with a purpose, crashing and burning. It’s not that they don’t matter—because they do. Instead, I thought I’d cast a little wider for the sake of this post, with a look at some of Maine’s history concerning other publications falling under the “alternative” banner.

The Dig/Phoenix fiasco had me pulling down my copy of the late Peter Cox’s Journalism Matters off the bookshelf. Cox was the co-founder of arguably, Maine’s most notorious alternative publication, Maine Times, and certainly one of the state’s most important ones.

Old school journalism, Peter Cox-style.

Old school journalism, Peter Cox-style.

I never got to know Cox, but when I moved back to Maine in 1987 from away, I made a point of picking up copies of the paper at the newsstands. Like Casco Bay Weekly, Maine Times (a statewide pub) offered a counterpoint to the staid, business-cozy news offered by the Portland Press Herald, Lewiston Sun-Journal, and Bangor Daily News, the three major dailies at that time. This was also back when most households still subscribed to one of those three, or their counterparts, the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, in mid-Maine.

Cox was honest about the mistakes he made, especially getting out of the gate. Along with co-founder, John Cole, Cox was often flying by the seat of his journalistic pants, trying to piece together a news operation on a shoestring. At the same time, there were enough people who believed in what Cox and Cole were doing (Cole eventually left) and provided seed funding for their venture, and were willing to overlook the human tendency to be less than perfect. I have often wondered if there are those kinds of people left in Maine, willing to make investments in media and journalists willing to hold politicians and businesses accountable.

To his credit, Cox had a deep-seated belief and commitment to covering issues, like the environment, social issues, and yes, Maine politics. The Maine Times published stories about education, as well as digging into what were deplorable conditions at Pineland Center, in New Gloucester, with their stark cover and blaring headline, “Maine’s snakepit,” during a time when increasing scrutiny was being directed at institutions warehousing people with disabilities in the state. Pineland was one of the worst, and Cox and Co. hammered state leaders, officials with Maine’s Department of Mental Retardation (that’s what it was called back in the 1970s and 1980s). Significant changes were brought to bear, and the Maine Times had a hand in making them happen. Journalism done with integrity and a purpose can do that.

The crusading weekly managed to stay ahead of its creditors, keep enough circulation and newsstand sales going to make it to 2002, a 34-year run. Looking back, especially in these days of truncated twaddle and 140-character tweets, I find it amazing and a tribute to dogged determination on the part of Cox and his successors.

I managed to dredge up an old news story from 2002, written by Edward Murphy of the Press Herald, on the announced shuttering of the paper. These two quotes say it all for me and where we’re in these days.

The first is from longtime Maine writer, Edgar Allen Beem, a regular Maine Times contributor.

“The Maine Times was a ‘radical departure and an alternative,’ but mainstream papers have been doing a better job of producing issues-oriented stories; there are more outlets for news and people have greater demands on their time”

“The Maine Times might have been too good at rabble-rousing,” he added. “A paper like the Maine Times by its very nature, alienates its readers as it goes along,” Beem said. “It might have initially attracted environmentalists and liberals, but ‘all those groups’ have been trashed by the Maine Times at one time or another.”

And then John Morton, a newspaper analyst from Maryland mentioned the uniqueness of Maine Times—it was a statewide paper, not a citywide publication. He noted that this was an “oddity” in the alternative press, because it (Maine Times) wasn’t free and it circulated in Maine’s rural areas, too, not just in the hipster-haven of Portland.

“Almost all of them are focused on a specific market, an urban market,” he said.

Never known for his timidity, Cole told the story of being approached while he was still partnered with Cox at Maine Times, by a man on the street who accused him of printing slanted journalism. “You’re f—–g right it’s slanted journalism,” he crowed. “What else is there?”

When the Casco Bay Weekly folded, the mantle of issue-oriented, even muckraking journalism, fell to the Portland Phoenix. Jeff Inglis was editor for a number of years. Colin Woodard was a regular contributor, prior to sliding over the Portland Press Herald; so was Lance Tapley, where he wrote with passion and knowledge about Maine’s prison/industrial complex. Inglis’ successor, longtime Phoenix columnist, Deirdre Fulton, continued in that tradition, albeit, for much too short a tenure. She left and is a staff writer at Common Dreams these days.

Schroeder followed Fulton. As editor, he wrote less often than he had as a Phoenix staffer. His investigative work on higher ed and USM was journalism of the highest order. I hope he finds a way to get back at this issue. It looks doubtful that some of the most talented journalists will have opportunities at the new version of the Phoenix, however, unless I’m mistaken.

Of course, there’s still Chris Busby and The Bollard, albeit monthly, rather than weekly. I’m sure Al Diamon has something to say about all of this, and eagerly await his next Media Mutt column in Busby’s paper.

I’ll miss not having a place to pitch a story that takes a hard look at something the governor is doing, or more sprawl development—both topics that rarely get adequate and critical coverage on pages of the state’s mainstream news outlets.

And let me just say that I don’t buy all the “aw shucks” platitudes offered by Dan MacLeod, in his assessment of the DigPortland/Phoenix blowout. You mention feeling bad for Nick and Caroline (O’Connor), editor and DigPortland staffer—and one place where you are right—you’ve helped create disillusionment among writers that had a byline and now they don’t. Sadly, many of them had been writing on the alt-weekly side for years and even a decade, like Shay Stewart-Boulay, aka, Black Girl in Maine. I can’t pick up a paper this week and read what they have to say about things that you’ll never find the Portland Press Herald talking about. And I’m sorry—I’m not interested in reading a warmed over rehash of the Portland Daily Sun, masquerading as an alt-weekly, costumed over in Portland Phoenix garb.

Wow! I said it. I wasn’t planning to, but after thinking about things, letting them percolate all week, and then, going to the DigPortland website and finding that it directed me to your pub’s site really ticked me off. Now, my feelings are out there and I’ll let the chips fall wherever they may land. Thanks to you, two articles I’m proud of—one that I worked harder for to land and pull off than anything previous—aren’t even available online via links (although, thankfully, I archive all of my published clips on my own site). I’m sure other writers who busted their asses to file their stories and columns are just as pleased as I am.

What’s the future for Portland and journalism that is bold and fearless? Busby, a Maine media veteran whom I respect, wrote about the mess between DigPortland and the Phoenix. It was his opinion that Portland can’t (or perhaps, won’t) support more than one alt-weekly.

I hope he’s not right about that.

Facebook Isn’t Real

When I had a 9 to 5, Monday through Friday job, it was a given that I’d see the same people on a regular basis. For most of us older than 40, being at work for the better part of your waking hours has been the norm.

As the world changes, and work as many of us know it continues evolving, our time toiling for the man doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll have this same kind of face-to-face interaction. While many of us are freelancing these days, many others are telecommuting and working from home. You have interactions with people via telephone, email, and even social media, but rarely do you spend significant amounts of time in the presence of other human beings. It’s possible to do work for others and never once meet them in-person.

Preferring our phones over other people.

Continue reading

Back It Up

I try to spend one day each week doing research at a local library, either for an article I’m working on, or for potential ones. As a freelancer, research helps in generating new ideas and keeping stories in the pipeline. I also get to read what others are talking/writing about.

The internet certainly allows you to do your research from home. There is a downside to that method, however. I also find corresponding value in getting out into the real world occasionally. Working at home is great and all, but at some point, the walls begin closing in, especially during January and February. I even think my weekly research trips spur creativity and productivity. An added plus is that going to a physical repository of books and information—i.e. a library—gets me away from my screens for a bit. Continue reading

RichardHarryNixonPotter

Red and blue, black vs. white, rich against poor, America is a divided country and has been for the past 50 years. Our politics reflect that and politicians, both conservative and liberal have used this to their advantage in seeking support from voters.

I am a child of the 1960s. I have lived my life during a period of turbulence and decay.  I have spent time on both sides of the ideological divide. Something has always seemed “off,” even though like other American schoolchildren, I was peppered with the same public school indoctrination into American exceptionalism, being taught that we live in a “land of opportunity,” and that equal access to the “American Dream” is our birthright.

The first presidential campaign that I vaguely remember was the one taking place in 1968. I was six years old and just beginning school. The Republican nominee that year was Richard Nixon. He had been vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower. He had also been the Republican nominee in 1960, losing to Kennedy. Pundits considered Nixon, “one and done.” Continue reading

Happy for Dr. Oz

When you’re a freelancer, whiling away your hours as a solitary figure, trying to collect a few shekels and interest an editor (or three) in your work, it helps to have a few online resources in your corner. Mediabistro is a new (old) friend of this sort.

Mediabistro offers resources for freelancers and other media professionals. They publish blogs analyzing the mass media industry, like FishbowlNY. They offer a host of other benefits too that provide far more value to me than let’s say, Maine Writers and Publishers.

I decided to re-up with Mediabistro a month ago, and I’m already reaping benefits, not the least is that FBNY (their tagline is, “Turning the Page For New York Media) offers up daily blogging prompts, if I want them. Like yesterday—if not for this FBNY post extracted from the core of America’s elite media center, the Big Apple—I never would have known that old “friend” Dr. Oz had a good year in 2014. I am so happy for the good doctor, and an apt exemplar of America’s hustling culture. Oh, and so happy for him that Oprah gave him his big chance. It’s a given that if Oprah deems you important, then you most certainly are. She’s one of America’s king (and queen) makers that’s for sure.

Dr. Oz, practicing good hygiene, while toasting Oprah.

Continue reading

Hunkering Down

January is the longest month of the year. By “longest,” I mean it’s cold, dark, and 31 days (compared to February’s 28, or 29 during leap years).

For active types, remaining engaged becomes a challenge. Running outside, biking on the frozen roadways, and other outdoor activities conducive to warmer temperatures get put on hold.

It is true that you can substitute cross-country skiing and snowshoeing for running, which is great when the snow begins piling up.

January is also a good month for hunkering down.

Peddling, but not going anywhere.

Peddling, but not going anywhere.

I’ve put my road bike on the indoor trainer in the basement. The beer fridge is well-stocked, and I’ll be making comfort foods like homemade granola, and an ethnic favorite of mine, sauerkraut. Continue reading

Music by Year

Another 12 months have passed. I recapped my reading during that period on Tuesday with my list of books. As I mentioned in that post, 2014 was a decent year for me as a writer with a new book, and host of bylined articles for a variety of publications.

When I’m writing, I like to listen to music—not always—but more often than not. What I enjoy listening to remains eclectic. I’m not sure I could assign a category to all of it. However, I’ve stayed true to a musical genre that I first latched onto following leaving behind theological structures that weren’t working for me. This was back in 1984. Then, my radio oasis was a commercial station in Chicago, WXRT, that played a pretty wide selection of music and bands. I first heard Husker Dü on their station, along with fellow Minneapolis rockers, the Replacements. Their late-night Friday night program, “The Big Beat,” opened me up to all kinds of new music with dissident elements, including Billy Bragg. Continue reading

Another Year and a Bunch of Books

Nothing says “Happy New Year,” looking out with hope and expectation towards a brand-spanking-new calendar of virgin reading territory than my end-of-the-year book wrap. It’s become a JBE blogging tradition.

In past years, I’ve summarized the previous 12 months and the books I’ve read. This year, I’m opting to hit the highlights rather than reviewing every single book simply, because in 2014, I ended up reading 65 66 books! (You can see the complete list, here.)

This year-end synopsis offers me a chance to reflect back over the previous 12 months of reading. I also get to take note of the books I enjoyed and found benefit in reading, and offer a few of the ones that were disappointing. Keep in mind that reading and what I like to read is highly subjective.

I don’t begin my reading year with any grand plan. However, I do set a goal to end the year on the plus side of 30 books. Having done this now for more than 15 years (with many of these coming pre-blogging), it’s not unreasonable to expect to read 3-4 books per month. In fact, that’s generally been my output at the end of the year when the numbers have been tallied. Continue reading

Holiday Break

Today is the day before Christmas. It’s also Wednesday, the day after my usual Tuesday posting day on the blog. If you noticed, I didn’t have anything new up by midnight.

I’m taking a short blogging holiday.

I won’t be back with anything fresh ‘til next Tuesday—that’s when I’ll be coming at you with my end-of-the-year reading wrap. There are a boatload of books to talk about. In fact, some of my time over the next few days of downtime will be spent reading, padding my book total.

I’m thoroughly enjoying my current read, which offers a look back at those crazy days back in 1972—more to come on that front.

To readers and those just stumbling upon my site, I wish you a Merry Christmas and the Happiest of Holidays.

Merry Christmas from the Nixons--1972

Merry Christmas from the Nixons–1972

Turning 31

Mark is 31-years-old today. It’s sounds clichéd to say it, but it feels like only “yesterday” that I was driving Mary to the hospital like countless other nervous fathers-to-be before. We were living in Indiana at the time, 1,500 miles from family and familiar surroundings. To a then 21-year-old dad-in-waiting, this was terrifying. It was also one of my high-water life experiences

Young Jim and Mark

Mark at 18 months (I think).

I enjoyed being his dad. I still do. Continue reading