Friday, February 27, 2009

Newspapers: Rocky Mountain News closes; who's next?

The Rocky Mountain News published its final edition today, less than 24 hours after Scripps announced it was closing the 150-year old Denver paper.

It's a disastrous time for daily newspapers and, by extension, American democracy, as daily newspapers still do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to keeping tabs on the people and institutions that shape our lives. The fewer papers there are, the less news there is for television, radio, magazines, and the blogosphere to interpret, repackage, criticize, or to comment or follow-up on.

The Hearst Corporation recently announced that it may close both The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The San Francisco Chronicle (a paper I write for as a foreign correspondent). The Tucson Citizen is expected to close in March. Here in Maine, the Portland Press Herald and its two sister dailies are also threatened with extinction if their sale to Maine Media Investments cannot be completed.

The Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal are all losing money, while the American Society of Newspaper Editors has canceled its 2009 convention because "the challenges editors face... demand their full attention."

So what is to be done? One idea that's gaining currency: turning some newspapers into endowed non-profit organizations (see this too), a model that's created top-notch reporting at the Poynter Institute's Saint Petersburg Times. "Enlightened philanthropists must act now," warns one commentator, "or watch a vital component of American democracy fade into irrelevance."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Pirates: why the Royal Navy made the Golden Age piracy outbreak worse

Fans of The Republic of Pirates may be interested in my feature on how the Royal Navy responded to the rise of the Golden Age pirates in the new issue of Military History Quarterly.

"Quelling a Pirate Revolt," (Spring 2009, pp. 9-19) shows how Admiralty policies helped provoke the piracy outbreak and hampered the Navy's ability to respond to the threat. Based on previously unpublished accounts from the letters and logbooks of naval officers, the article sheds new light on how Blackbeard, Charles Vane, Sam Bellamy, Calico Jack Rackham and other pirates managed to destabilize three Trans-Atlantic empires. There's also a sidebar on the parallels with the recent Somalia piracy outbreak.

The piece isn't available online - they'd like you to subscribe to the magazine.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Maine: The Malaga Island story, this Friday

Readers of The Lobster Coast may recall the story of Malaga Island, whose African-American residents were evicted -- and imprisoned at a state mental health facility -- by the State of Maine to make way for tasteful summer resort in 1912.

My Salt Institute colleagues Rob Rosenthal and Kate Philbrick have just completed a radio/photography documentary project on the Malaga story, and it opens in Portland, Maine on Friday (6 to 9pm), complete with historical artifacts and a guest panel discussion. The radio portion of Malaga Island: A Story Best Left Untold will be broadcast on local alternative station WMPG on February 26 at 7:30.

[Update, 7/16/2010: I report on some new developments in the Malaga story.]
[Update, 9/14/2010: The governor apologizes to descendants for his predecessors' actions.]

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Maine newspapers: a (full-text) update

Blogospheric rumor has it that Maine's largest newspaper chain, Blethen Maine Newspapers, really is about to be sold to the investment group led by Richard Connor of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The chain, which includes the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the [Augusta] Kennebec Journal, and the [Waterville] Morning Sentinel, has been in a financial and editorial crisis for many years, as discussed in my recent story in Port City Life magazine.
The good people at Port City Life have kindly given permission for me to post the story here. The piece explores how Maine's daily newspapers are weathering the ongoing crisis in the industry, focusing on their success in delivering their core product: quality news coverage. It features input from past editors and publishers of the Press Herald, the executive editor of the Bangor Daily News, the editor of the Lewiston Sun Journal's Forecaster weeklies, and other veterans of Maine's newspaper scene.

Blethen Maine's owner, The Seattle Times Company, declined to make any of its officials and senior editors available for an interview, including then-Blethen Maine publisher Charles Cochrane and Press Herald editor Jeannine Guttman. After the piece came out, however, the executive editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, Eric Conrad, wrote Port City Life to draw attention to the merits of his statehouse correspondent's coverage and to dispute that his two papers have suffered steep circulation declines.

If the sale has indeed been finalized, Maine's largest newspapers will be run by Mr. Connor, who has said he is organizing financing of the deal from HM Capital Partners of Dallas, Texas. He recently claimed that his partners in the deal, Bob Baldacci (the governor's brother), Michael Liberty (a controversial Maine developer), and William Cohen (the former US Senator and Defense Secretary), will heretofore have minor roles.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Iceland's Hydrogen experiment

My feature on the current state of Iceland's plan to completely eliminate fossil fuel use by converting its vehicle fleet to hydrogen ran in yesterday's Christian Science Monitor.

Icelanders already generate almost all their electricity from (renewable) geothermal and hydroelectric plants. The plan is to use their "green" electricity to fuel their cars, buses, boats and airplanes by 2050. The article looks into how the global recession (and the Icelandic economic crisis) is expected to affect those plans.

Lesser known fact: the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island is also interested in using renewable energy to power a hydrogen vehicle fleet, as I reported in the Monitor in late 2006.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Salt Institute term underway

Among my many projects, I currently teach the writing track at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies here in Portland., where classes started this week.

Salt, which also trains aspiring documentary photographers and radio producers, moved into a swank new space on Congress Street last fall, complete with all the 21st century gadgetry. Its hallmark is a prolonged documentary field experience, often involving cross-track collaboration with photographers or radio students. It's a fifteen-week program and, while Salt doesn't award a degree, credits earned there can be transferred to institutions that do.

My class is essentially a crash course in the basic nuts-and-bolts skills of journalism, the structural, investigative, and field skills of the narrative or literary journalist, and an intense magazine writing seminar all rolled into one. Several Maine-based editors have been kind enough to come to speak to my class, and many of them have ended up publishing student's stories.

As I need to be in Portland most weeks, expect more New England dispatches and fewer foreign ones over the next three months.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ocean's End: now on Kindle

My first book, Ocean's End: Travels Through Endangered Seas, is now available as an Amazon Kindle book.

Ocean's End, released in 2000, was one of the first books to demonstrate the global nature of the environmental crisis in the world's oceans. I traveled to Antarctica, the Central Pacific, the Belize barrier reef, Newfoundland, Louisiana, and the Black Sea to provide firsthand accounts of the (then pooh-poohed) effects of climate change, poor fisheries policies, nutrient pollution, and the mismanagement of river and flood control engineering in New Orleans. (Five years before Katrina, sources described their concerns about a hurricane striking the Lake Pontchartrain levees and the efficacy of the planned "vertical evacuation" to the Superdome.)

You can find excerpts from reviews of the book at my website, and updated reporting on the situation in the Black Sea, U.S., Greenland, and other locales via the articles section.

Ocean's End is also available in paperback (Basic Books) and in Mandarin Chinese (Yiwen).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Maine: On the Waterfront (in Portland)

Last month the developers tapped to build a controversial hotel and office complex on Portland's city-owned Maine State Pier pulled out, the morning after my public presentation of the background to the deal (the timing was surely a coincidence.)

Now Portland will have to return to the drawing board, rethinking how it might best ensure that our port possesses at least one large deep-water berth. Several readers have expressed an interest in my past reporting on relevant waterfront issues here. So....

The following stories provide a primer on the shortcomings of the past decade of waterfront planning in Maine's largest city:

First, my cover story in the local alternative monthly, The Bollard, on how the city managed to build a new cruise ship terminal without (a) doing a study to determine the economic benefits of such an investment and (b) building a cruise ship berth, so the ships could actually use the facility. An examination of evidence suggests the actual benefits of the cruise ship industry are far less than its proponents have been claiming. (The story starts on page 14; a sidebar on the city's cruise ship partners on page 20, and a companion story on the container port on page 21.)

Next: the new terminal is now losing Portland taxpayers over $300,000 a year, but that number would skyrocket to nearly half a million if its only real customer -- The Cat ferry service to Nova Scotia -- were to cease operations. As this story shows, high-speed ferries like The Cat are extremely vulnerable to changes in fuel prices. (Fortunately, the fall in oil prices that accompanied the global financial crisis has saved The Cat for now; it's returning this season.) The city will continue to lose money until they build a $7 million deep-water berth for the terminal.

The Cat used to tie up at the city-owned International Marine Terminal, Maine's principal container port. This Working Waterfront story shows how IMT's dependency on the pulp and paper industry led to a suspension of operations nearly a year ago.

(After this story came out, Maine Port Authority director John Henshaw claimed that IMT had not seen merely "modest growth" in container traffic over the past decade. With the help of Maine's "right to know" laws, I procured the actual data from the city: as I reported here, IMT actually saw a modest decline over the decade, undermining part of the city's rationale for moving passenger operations to the eastern waterfront.)

Part of the reason the Maine State Pier development has been so controversial is that no other property owners are allowed to build such things on the waterfront, on account of zoning rules designed to protect the working waterfront. As my 2007 Bollard feature showed, such a development would have knock-on effects for the entire waterfront (the feature starts on page 8.) Note also that in this story, Ocean Properties' Bob Baldacci admits that his company had been trying to build a hotel on another property before bringing the idea to the city. (In other words, the Maine State Pier project has been developer driven from the outset.)

Most Portlanders probably know that Bob Baldacci is the governor's brother; they may not realize that he is also closely related to his Maine State Pier partner, former U.S. Senate majority leader (and current Middle East peace envoy) George Mitchell. This piece in Working Waterfront sketches out the genealogical relationships between these families and major development deals proposed in the state.

Last year, Baldacci and other Ocean Properties officials. family members, and hirelings also made campaign donations to campaigns of several city council candidates who subsequently supported their bid to develop the pier. (Tracing their past relationships with city councilors is now impossible because the city clerk has destroyed campaign finance disclosures prior to 2006) Baldacci is a member of the team seeking to buy the Portland Press-Herald and the rest of Maine's largest newspaper chain.

As the city considers future developments on the eastern waterfront, they might wish to draw on the area's enormous historical significance. As this Bollard feature shows (pp. 18-25), the area is arguably the most historic in all of Portland.

Finally, for those writing the fishing sector off: be aware that many experts say U.S. fisheries policy has finally turned the corner. In the long-term, we may be one of the world's few sources of high-end fish.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Book publishing: and you thought newspapers were in trouble

Last November my then-book publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced it would stop buying new trade books altogether, an unprecedented move that one commentator compared to a butcher announcing to the world that they had stopped purchasing fresh meat. The head of the trade division resigned in protest. Mass layoffs followed. Industry observers predicted the move - made by the billionaire head of the Cayman Islands-registered investment group that bought the companies in 2007 and 2008 -- would only weaken the company.
The observers look to have been correct. According to a recent article in the Boston Globe, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is now in deep trouble, as sales in their textbook division dry up. "It wasn't about the books," a former Houghton vice president is quoted as saying. "It was about the owners." The article describes how an investor on a buying spree managed to bring down two century-and-a-half old publishing houses in a single year.

As an author, I'm saddened by the recent turn of events; I had a very positive experience at Harcourt with my most recent book, The Republic of Pirates. Personally, there is a silver lining: my next book will be published by Viking-Penguin, who were great partners for The Lobster Coast.

Maine: update on destruction of campaign finance reports

Last month I broke a story on how Maine towns and cities have been destroying the campaign finance disclosures of local elected officials within as soon as two years after an election....and doing it on the advice of state officials.

This story is also the subject of my bi-monthly column, Parallel 44, in the new issue of Working Waterfront. Since that piece was filed, I understand some state lawmakers are working on a bill that would prevent the destruction of these documents. [Update, 4/30/09: legislators oppose efforts to fix the problem.]