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.

4 thoughts on “Journalism Takes a Hit

  1. I’ll give Cole credit for freely stating it’s all slanted journalism. Few things rankle me more than the pretense of “fair and unbiased,” and let’s be clear, the thoroughly unfair and biased CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, AP and UPI were at it long before FOX showed up to steal their mantra. It’s up to the reader to not swallow any of it, but to think carefully before accepting any of it.

    Alternative or small papers are always on the financial ropes, although the Maine Times seemed to be pretty well-heeled back in the 1970s. I don’t think Portland is big enough for more than one, and without the corporation backing such as the Phoenix has (like the old City Papers or locally the Tampa Bay Times) it’s hard for them to ever have financial sustainability. But they can be fun if you don’t have bills to pay. PJ O’Rourke wrote a couple of humorous pieces about his days running a counterculture paper back in the 1960s, collected in Age and Guile Beat Youth and a Bad Haircut.

    The BDN article about the lawsuit is a hoot. “Not only did [Marshall] not bring that information to our company, we had no use for it,” he said.

    So you’re suing someone for not bringing you useless information?

  2. Wow, you went there indeed! I like strong opinions, so I’m all for it. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing, but above all, am sad to see Dig go. I would love to see the Phoenix incorporate some of those writers you mention, recognizing that giving their voices a platform is more important than this pissing war.

  3. @LP
    Yes, the alt-weeklies and similar publications have often been endeavors pieced together by duct tape and baling wire and a little bit of spit, too. Your assessment is the same one that longtime publisher of The Bollard indicated, that the city of 60,000+ isn’t able to support more than one weekly like either the Phoenix, or DigPortland. I don’t necessarily agree, but obviously, the current attempt by the Boston group coming in with Dig, weren’t as well-prepared as they thought they were. Of course, they probably didn’t believe they were going to be sued, either, although, I’m wondering if this isn’t some contingency that others might have considered? I don’t know.

    Without getting into all the details, the Phoenix is no longer owned by the same group that backed the Boston, Portland, Worcester, and Portland papers, which got whittled down to just one last fall.

    The current ideation of the Phoenix is now being published by Marc Guerringue, the previous owner of the Portland Daily Sun, which he’s basically folded into the “new” Phoenix, at least that’s how I see it. I believe that Guerringue is based in Conway, N.H., and publishes other free dailies in the Granite State. He’s worth keeping an eye on.

    Yea, the “suing someone for not bringing you useless information thing caught my eye,” too.

    Ultimately, it was Guerringue that was able to accomplish a successful end-run, using the legal system, to eliminate his major competitor. I probably should have indicated that I’m no fan of Lawrence and Shepherd, who came into Portland from Boston, and also share blame for creating a real mess, at least on the side of things where alt-weeklies in town are concerned. I still am waiting for my check for the natural gas story I wrote, and I’m not planning on ever seeing it, at this point.

    @Kate
    Obviously my comment about the Phoenix and their editor, rankled some people. One person lashed out on Twitter, Big deal.

    What is a big deal to me, and I tried to represent it in this post, is that right now, for people who might have been on the fence about alt-weeklies in Portland, they’re wondering, “what the hell is going on?”

    For those of us who actually seek out one of the street boxes, or know that I can get copies of both papers (along with a host of other neighborhood weeklies, and others) at the lower level of the building where Videoport and BullMoose are, we’ll still pick up the Phoenix. But hardcore fans of alt-media, even in ultra-hip, and oh-so-cool Portland is a very small percentage of the overall population. Most people I know don’t know who Nick Schroeder or Dan MacLeod are. I’m guessing most don’t even know who Sam Pfeifle is, even though he was a former editor of the Portland Phoenix, back in the day and has been a longtime music writer in town.

    Back to MacLeod for a minute and his take on what went down, titled “About that alt-weekly war…”, he mentioned both Nick and Caroline O’Connor by name, stating he “felt bad” for them. Does he feel bad enough to give them space to write for the Phoenix. In picking up the paper the past few weeks and seeing the entire Daily Sun crew occupying the pages, it doesn’t look like there’s room for Schroeder or O’Connor, or anyone else to have a byline and space for an article. I haven’t bothered to pitch anything for that reason. Plus, the amount of work to put together a news-oriented feature, even a shorter one is labor intensive, and I’m finding other publications pay more.

    Blogging, as you know, is so different than writing for publication and running your articles by editors (at least most of the time). While I use my blog less now than ever before to launch a screed, or stand on a soapbox, from time to time, I can’t help myself and I feel like I have to state an opinion, or two. It’s why I got into blogging back in 2003, in the first place.

    Anyways, I always appreciate you dropping by and taking a minute to weigh-in and leave a comment.

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