Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Maine story updates, June 30 edition

Some updates on Maine stories I've been following:

Good news (for once) from Portland's waterfront: Regular readers have gotten an earful about deception, incompetence, and political back-scratching in relation to cruise-ship related development decisions on Portland's Eastern Waterfront. In Parallel 44 - my bi-monthly column over at Working Waterfront -- I've finally got some positive news, as the city makes the first steps towards cleaning up their mess.

Maine. The (understaffed?) Magazine.: A month ago I wrote about eyebrow-raising developments over at the magazine previously known as Port City Life, including the sudden departure of the senior editor Peter Smith and art director Jennifer Muller. Now, with the July issue out, managing editor Chelsea Holden Baker has been reassigned as a contributing editor, which is magazine-speak for "valued contributor." (I have this title at Down East which, I ought to point out, is a competitor.) According to the editorial box, neither Baker nor Smith have been replaced, which makes one wonder who's putting the magazine together. [Update, 4/5/11: Ms. Baker contacted me today to clarify matters: "I resigned as managing editor of my own volition," she wrote, adding she would leave it at that. She's still a regular contributor to the magazine.]

Hiding the Money, Made Harder: The shadowy group that provided most of the funding for the campaign to repeal Maine's same sex marriage law -- the National Organization for Marriage -- has been refusing to disclose its donors as required by Maine's clean elections laws, and even tried to sue out state to avoid playing by the rules. They appear to be running short of options, however, with the Maine Ethics Commission denying yet another request to abandon their investigation and the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling that same-sex marriage opponents have no constitutional right to hide their donors' lists. The attorney on the losing side of the Supreme Court case? NOM legal counsel and spokesman James Bopp, Jr.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Seattle takes interest in Press Herald story

Some in the Pacific Northwest still have at least a passing interest in what has become of the Portland Press Herald and its sister papers, one year after they were sold by the family that owns the Seattle Times Co.

The thoughtful Seattle-based digital news hub Crosscut has republished my piece on the state of the papers -- and the maverick philosophies of new owner Richard Connor -- from the current issue of Down East.

I'm pleased Crosscut has maintained an interest in the story. Some of the best reporting on the state of the previous owners' newspaper empire -- by former Washington Post staffer Bill Richards -- appeared on the site last year.

Maybe Maine needs one of these things.

[Update, 6/29/10: Connor offers a celebratory take on his first year of ownership; Al Diamon responds.]

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In Canada, a fight over research dollars

Facing global competition, many countries have contemplated centralizing public funding for research in a handful of institutions, ensuring they have the resources to stand up to anyone. But what's that mean for the economies of regions and provinces that would be assigned a lower priority?

This is the subject of a heated debate in Canada, where the leaders of the five largest universities have called for greater "differentiation" between the missions of big research institutions (like their own), regional research universities, and what could become small undergraduate colleges. But what's that mean for, say, Atlantic Canada, a region that is home to exactly none of the so-called "G5"universities and where economic development strategies are tied to university R&D and innovation?

My piece from Canada on all this recently posted over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, which just launched a global edition.

Monday, June 21, 2010

On America's other border, security vs community

The 2010 edition of Island Journal is out, including a piece I wrote on how the post-9/11 "thickening" of the US-Canada border is affecting lives in the close-knit, trans-national communities that straddle the Maine-New Brunswick frontier.

Here's a part of the world where people on either side of the border have more in common with one another than with the metropolitan centers of their respective countries, where generations upon generations paid little thought of the invisible line on the map when they looked for mates, doctors, bowling partners, and reliable neighbors, and where buildings, golf courses, and transportation links often straddle the boundary line.

So how's that jive with efforts to "seal the border"? The article isn't available online, so you'll have to pick up the new magazine to find out.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Boss of Maine's largest newspaper chain: "scoops don't matter"

The owner/editor/publisher of Maine's largest newspaper chain, Richard Connor, probably saved the flagship Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram from bankruptcy after purchasing it last year. But can he restore the newsgathering capabilities of this once-decent paper?

As you'll read in my piece in the new issue of Down East, the outlook doesn't look good.

In an hour-long interview, Mr. Connor made it clear that he doesn't see newsgathering or local news as central to his papers' missions. Scoops, he says, don't matter anymore. The papers "don't sell news." Their front section's goal is to summarize the previous day's national and global events -- in practice, by printing wire service stories -- rather than own the local and statewide news of the day.

Connor was charming, frank, and generous with his time, but he was far better at saying what his news philosophy isn't than what it is. The over-arching mission would appear to be to "connect" with the community rather than to aggressively cover it, a major departure for a newspaper magnate.

Whether this is the future of the news business, it would seem an abandonment of the traditional function of the daily paper in a democratic republic: giving citizens the information they need to make informed decisions, especially about the officials, agencies, and interests shaping laws, decisions, policies, and events. If the Press Herald and its sister papers no longer see this as their prime directive, I'd argue that something else needs to step up to the plate here in Maine, and quickly.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Witnessing the Romanian miners' attack, 20 years ago today

I was looking at the calendar and realizing that my real, professional journalism career began with twenty years ago today, when the Communist retreads who'd seized power during the Romanian Revolution deployed an army of miners in Bucharest to beat the crap out of unarmed protesters, university students, and the opposition political parties.

Having gotten caught up in the 1989 events while an exchange student in Budapest, I'd returned to the region on a modest undergraduate summer research grant with a 21-year old's conceit that the truth about the Romanian Revolution could be uncovered with a couple month's field work.

When I reached Bucharest at the beginning of June, hundreds of ordinary Romanians were camped out in a tent city in the middle of University Square to protest the less than democratic behavior of Ion Iliescu's National Salvation Front, which seized power under mysterious circumstances after Nicolae Ceausescu fled the capital in an overloaded helicopter. (He and his wife were quickly betrayed, tried by a kangaroo court for their many (genuine) crimes against his people, and machine-gunned to death by their captors.) I rented a room from a working class couple in the city's outskirts -- among the kindest people I've ever known -- and through them and their friends and neighbors got to see Romanian life from the ground up on this and future reporting trips. During the day, I'd interviewed students, protesters, intellectuals, and opposition figures in the center, by night I'd hear stories of the trials and travails of day-to-day life under Ceausescu's Orwellian dictatorship, many of which were still very much present.

When the miners stormed the capital -- beating people half to death with clubs, crowbars, and other tools and trashing university and opposition offices -- I was in Brasov, the city I'd visited in the waning weeks of the Ceausescu regime. I saw the television footage of cars burning and detachments of helmeted miners clubbing their way through the capital, called my friends, and headed back on the next train, intending to stay away from the miners in the city center. Instead, I found myself face to face with them. When my train pulled into Gara de Nord, dozens of miners were waiting on the platform for us to disembark, smacking clubs in their hands and looking for likely victims. They were a grimy, wild-looking lot, behaving like caged animals who'd escaped from their subterranean prison and were looking for people to blame. Foreigners, perhaps, the sort with glasses, cameras, and notebooks. I felt lucky to have not been picked out as we walked the gauntlet to the subway entrance.

I returned to the center a day or two later, after watching Iliescu thank the miners at the national stadium on television. Opposition politicians showed me around the remains of their offices, where miners had spent the time to bash every typewriter to bits. At the University of Bucharest, students showed me through buildings where the miners had sacked everything, smashing even the porcelain toilets in every bathroom. Angry protesters returned to the streets, observed by lines of very frightened-looking army conscripts, guns at their side. Most of them had probably been caught up in the fighting the previous December and weren't looking forward to a sequel. I wound up covering it all for The Chronicle of Higher Education, kicking off my journalism career, which would have me based in Eastern Europe for much of the transition period.

Twenty years on, some of the mysteries surrounding the events of 1989-1990 have been solved, but many others have not.

Photographs (c) 1990-2010 Colin Woodard.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Tea Party favorite wins Maine gubernatorial nomination

It's official: the Tea Party is the dominant force in once-moderate Maine Republican Party.

Yesterday, Republican voters chose the Tea Party's preferred gubernatorial candidate, Paul LePage, by a staggering margin, giving him nearly 40% of the vote in a hotly-contested seven-way race to be the party's nominee. He got more than twice the votes of the GOP establishment's choice, Les Otten, and nearly triple the support of the candidate who had the best chance of winning in the general election, Peter Mills.

The Tea Party upset comes on the heels of their seizure of the Maine GOP platform at last month's convention, a document Dana Milbank of the Washington Post has called a "manifesto of insanity." Mr. LePage, who doesn't believe in global warming, but thinks creationism should be taught in schools, has catered to this crowd, causing worry among even sympathetic analysts.

On the Democratic side, the establishment candidate, Libby Mitchell, edged out her competitors for the nomination, setting up a "Politics as Usual" vs "Politics Disturbingly Unusual" race for the Blaine House.

Prediction: the results bode well for independent candidate Eliot Cutler, who can occupy the valuable middle ground.

[Update, 9/10/10: The AP's analysis story agrees, while even the New Yorker devotes some webspace to LePage and, yes, Marden's....]

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

On the Border

I'm currently on assignment in New Brunswick, Canada and Eastern Maine, researching pieces on tidal energy, Canadian research and innovation strategies, and a wayward nuclear power refit. More on those things later.

For now, a brief missive on Maine politics: An utterly unscientific survey of roadside campaign signs suggest that Washington County's Republicans will elect either Bill Beardsley or Les Otten to be their candidate for Maine governor, with Steve Abbot as a dark horse. (They've apparently never heard of Peter Mills or Bruce Poloquin.) Democrats -- outnumbered 30 to 1 'round here -- prefer Steve Rowe or Rosa Scarcelli. (Having driven a couple hundred miles of roads across the county, I saw but one Libby Mitchell sign.)