Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Pirates of the Turks & Caicos: Part 1

I've been in the Turks & Caicos Islands, a British Overseas Territory, where I gave a talk on the history of the golden age pirates at this private resort island.

As told in my book, The Republic of Pirates, Blackbeard, Sam Bellamy, Calico Jack Rackham, and other members of the infamous Nassau-based pirate gang operated throughout the Bahamian archipelago, including the Turks & Caicos (where they enjoyed ambushing Bermuda vessels that came here to rake salt.) I also had an opportunity to compare colonial history notes with my fellow presenters: antique book and map dealer Graham Arader (who let me peruse an original copy of a famous 1655 account of the West Indies) and the erstwhile cocktail aficionado Patrick Costigan (who introduced me to The Hemingway.)

The Turks & Caicos Sporting Club, located on Big Ambergris Cay, is an unusual place: an 1100-acre private island resort with its own international airport, airline, utility company, and desalinization plant. Building lots go for $600,000 to $6 million. It's a world apart from Providenciales, the hub of the Turks & Caicos, where a corruption inquiry has triggered the resignation of the prime minister and prompted the United Kingdom to prepare to suspend the territory's constitution. (More on that later.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A turnaround for North Atlantic Right Whales?

The North Atlantic Right Whale, one of the most critically endangered whale species on the planet, has been in the news of late on account of this New York Times story, which suggests things may finally be looking up for the 400 or so individuals still in existence. The right whale is regularly in the news here in Maine, on account of the controversial regulations imposed on lobster fishermen in an effort to reduce whale mortality.

I've written several pieces on the efforts to save the species, including this piece in the Christian Science Monitor, which described how President George W Bush's Office of Management and Budget was delaying rules aimed to reduce collisions between ships and right whales. (A watered-down rule change was subsequently enacted.) When whales become entangled in fishing gear -- another leading cause of death -- New Brunswick fisherman Mackie Greene is often called to rescue them, as described in another of my Monitor pieces.

In early 2008, I wrote an in-depth feature on the scientists who study the whales for The Chronicle of Higher Education, which shows the problems the whales face, the likely causes, and the unusual bond that's formed between researchers and the individual whales they study and document. (The piece is available online, but non-subscribers may be prompted for a $10 web pass.)

But if you really want to know all there is to know about the species, pick up a copy of The Urban Whale, the definitive resource on the animal.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

More on the future of Maine's biggest newspaper chain

The Portland Press Herald carried an unusually informative article Mar 20 on the current state of Richard Connor's bid to buy the paper's parent, Blethen Maine Newspapers, which have been up for sale for more than a year.

The web version of the article, by Tux Turkel and Matt Wickenheiser, includes a downloadable copy of materials distributed to potential investors by Mr. Connor which reveal that he has negotiated a "bargain-basement price" for the struggling chain, based largely on the value of the buildings they own. It confirms earlier reports by the Statehouse News Service.

For further background on the plight of Maine's newspapers, there's my piece in the January issue of Port City Life.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Seattle Post-Intelligencer goes down, Maine papers' future in greater doubt

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published its last print edition yesterday, the latest casualty in the ongoing U.S. newspaper meltdown. Unlike the Rocky Mountain News, the Post-Intelligencer (born: 1863) will continue to exist in online form, but with its news staff reduced to 20 from 165.

As in Denver, the city will still have a daily newspaper, but it may not for long as The Seattle Times is also in crisis. So are the Maine-based newspapers it owns. In fact, the future of its Maine papers -- including what was once the state's newspaper of record, the Portland Press Herald -- are in more doubt than ever after their primary suitor, Pennsylvania newspaper publisher Richard Connor, revealed his primary investors have only committed $1.1 million to a potential purchase.

Mr. Connor's bid suddenly appears very weak. He showed up in Maine last week to try to convince a public employees' pension fund to invest millions more than his own investment partner, HM Capital Partners of Texas, is willing to put on the table. He also declined to show them the books. They declined his offer. (Kudos to Christopher Cousins, the one man show at the Statehouse News Service, for getting the story.)

Maine media critic Al Diamon has obtained a copy of the document Connor did share with the pension fund's board. [UPDATE: on Mar.20 the Press Herald posted the document on its website.] It shows he's likely offering the Seattle Times Company around $20 to $30 million for the Blethen Maine Newspapers, or about what their real estate property is worth. That's roughly a tenth of what the Seattle Times' owners paid for the chain a decade ago.

The fact that Connor has so little capital lined up after months of effort caused one of Connor's greatest admirers, the anonymous blogger T. Cushing Munjoy, to lose faith.

So if Seattle, Portland, and other cities find themselves without a real daily newspaper, what will take its place? The essay that's been generating the most blogospheric buzz of late argues that, well, nothing will.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Republic of Pirates en Español...in paperback

The Spanish edition of my most recent book, The Republic of Pirates, is now available in paperback from Editorial Critica of Barcelona.

La Republica de los Piratas, released in hardcover last year, was excerpted in the Spanish daily La Razon and has received favorable attention from Madrid's El Cultural magazine, the Madrid daily ABC, Argentina's Revista ñ, and Spain's sports paper AS. Now you can get it for less than €20.

The most thorough account of the lives of the great Caribbean pirates is also available in Danish and in English as a BBC America audiobook, an Amazon kindlebook, a Sony e-book, or in Harcourt hardcover or paperback.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The future of Maine's seabird nesting islands

Those living in the Gulf of Maine region may be interested in my cover story in the current issue of Down East magazine, "Nature's Refuge."

The piece describes the challenges facing a little-known federal entity -- the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge -- which has played a central role in helping puffins, terns, and other seabirds regain a foothold by protecting the islands they breed on. Much of the work is done on a shoestring budget and in collaboration with other charitable organizations.

Factoid of the Day: among the fifty island currently in the refuge's possession is Seal Island, a former military gunnery range still contaminated with unexploded bombs and artillery shells. Another, Machias Seal Island, is claimed and occupied by Canada.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Iceland looks to its universities to weather crisis

My article on how Iceland's universities are weathering that country's financial meltdown is in the week's Chronicle of Higher Education.

Iceland sees its higher education system -- which is essentially free for its citizens -- as an essential part of its response to the crisis. "We want the higher-education sector to be able to provide alternatives to people who have lost their jobs and to use it to increase their skills while they are looking for a job," one top official says.
(The piece is available online, but non-subscribers may be prompted to purchase a $10 web pass.)

To read other dispatches from my recent trip to Iceland, click the "iceland" tag at the bottom of this post.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Best of Portland nominee

From the Department of Vulgar Self-Promotion:

I've again been nominated for the Portland Phoenix's Best of 2009 competition, in the "Portland Author" category. If you're a fan of Lobster Coast, Republic of Pirates, or Ocean's End, consider dropping by the paper's website to vote. If you hate these books, you might want to support one of my co-nominees -- Ron Currie (a fellow native of Waterville), Phillip Hoose, Lewis Robinson, and Jan Watson -- or the write-in a candidate of your choice.

Last year the honor went to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo, but he's not on the ballot this time, perhaps because he actually lives two hours away in Camden. (Thank goodness!)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Portland, Maine Campaign Finance Disclosures Now Online

Residents of Portland, Maine have had a hard time accessing the campaign finance disclosures of candidates for local office. First the city clerk's office removed the documents it had posted online. Then it came to light that they had destroyed all disclosures -- both paper and electronic -- dating prior to 2006, on the advice of state officials.

As transparency is vital to the democratic process, I have collected as many disclosures as possible and posted them on this Portland, Maine Ad Hoc Campaign Finance Disclosure Homepage at colinwoodard.com. Included are the campaign contributions schedules for all candidates for city council in the 2008, 2007, and 2006 election cycles, plus the disclosures for Political Action Committees and Portland school board candidates for 2007. Disclosures reveal who bankrolled a given candidates' campaign -- or who is behind the PACs that did so.

Do you have copies of better quality, more complete, or missing disclosures? If so, consider donating them to the public by visiting the contact links on the page.

Residents of Bangor, Lewiston, Augusta, Waterville, and other Maine towns and cities with a population of 15,000 or larger should be aware that their clerks may also have destroyed records more than two years old.

[Updates on this issue here.]