Venturing: A voice from the past

Posted Wednesday, May 25, 2011 in Opinion

Venturing: A voice from the past

by David D. Platt

The past should instruct the present on occasion, if only to help the new folks avoid the old folks' mistakes. I know what I'm talking about - from 1986 until 1991 I edited the 'old' Maine Times, overseeing nearly all of its content, writing all the editorials and generally keeping things on course.

I was the paper's third editor, succeeding Peter Cox who had succeeded John Cole. Peter was around and wrote a weekly column; John, after several years off (he and Peter hadn't gotten along) came back and wrote a few pieces for me. I learned a lot in those years and therefore believe I have a bit of knowledge to share. I hasten to point out, however, that being a newspaper elder doesn't entitle me to be listened to with any degree of respect or awe; in fact what I have to say should be taken with a grain of salt because so much has changed.

Maine Times, the old one, was founded as an alternative to the daily newspapers of its day. Cox and Cole had gotten to know one another at the Brunswick and Bath papers, combined today as the Times-Record and published in Brunswick. I¹m sure they'd done some good work there, and relations with the Niven family, which owned the Brunswick paper, were sufficiently good to prompt Peter and John to print Maine Times there. They tried a few printing alternatives here and there over the years, but the job was still being done in Brunswick when I took over in 1986, nearly 20 years after the old Maine Times came into existence.

I remember a lot about the Maine Times of the 1970s, which were the years when I first subscribed and began to read it regularly. The first was the range of topics it covered - politics, the arts, gardening, trends in building, design, the media, scandals, history - the list was long and varied, and compared with the daily newspapers in Maine at the time, it was all wonderfully refreshing. Old MT was seldom predictable; I would call it enlightened and challenging, without being consistently 'left' or 'right'.  I know that the paper's editorial mix of those early years disappointed somewho expected it to reflect their own views, be they liberal or conservative. But John was too opinionated for that, and Peter was interested in too many things to put out a predictable paper.

The second characteristic I remember was the paper's courage. John took on the politicians and just about anyone else who offended him; he had the best-developed sense of moral outrage I've ever encountered, and he could skewer someone with real art. Peter was ready to go to the mat for his beliefs too, taking on conflicts of interest, outrages in state mental institutions, and even a small telephone company that abused its monopoly­bound customers. When a powerful state senator sued the paper for libel, Peter and Maine Times' attorney, Angus King, stood their ground in court - and won. It was heady stuff.

Third, the old MT was great to look at. Its tabloid format, three-column pages, spot-color covers, ragged-right type, interesting artwork and creative photography stood out from the other printed publications of the time. MT was cold type from the start, set on IBM Selectrics in the early days before computers. At the Press-Herald and the Bangor Daily News in those days, lead type and six columns were still the rule. MT always looked fresher.

As far as Maine was concerned, old MT redefined news reporting. Sure, MT reporters covered the statehouse and sat at meetings, but they didn¹t race to fires or cover murder trials. The paper didn't run obituaries. Instead of the daily diet of police stories, political handouts and press releases everyone was accustomed to in those days, MT gave us a weekly diet of analysis, investigation, profiles and reports on offbeat topics. Early on there was a weather report - not a prediction of tomorrow's conditions but a rundown on how various regions of the state had fared over the previous week; an almanac of sorts. There were thoughtful reviews of plays, books and musical performances.

There were special reports - Peter oversaw a groundbreaking investigation of Pineland, "Maine's Snakepit." While I was at the helm we looked at Hydro-Quebec and the price it was exacting in Canada so Maine could import electric power. We looked at L.L. Bean, the Irving
companies, the competition between Hannaford and Shaw¹s and the state's cozy relationship with the paper industry. A lot of the old MT's reporting, in fact, focused on businesses and how they affect everyday people's lives. And we did some great political coverage, beginning back in the days when lobbyists and corporations dominated politics even more than they do today.

What made it all work? Two things, I would suggest: first the collective imaginations of Peter, John and the talented staff they assembled, who together questioned all the assumptions that had dominated Maine journalism for decades. Second, MT was able to tap in to a new readership among those who moved to Maine in the 1960s and 70s - countercultural immigrants, back-to-the-landers who came to Maine to homestead and live differently than their parents had in the suburbs. Demographically the state changed quite dramatically in those years, and the old MT seemed to meet their needs.

I said at the outset that I'd try to help the NMT avoid the old MT's mistakes. I can think of a few missteps we made in the years I was at  the old MT. While the crew worked hard to keep the loyal advertisers happy, I guess they didn't work hard enough because the advertisers began to slip away. In a traditional newspaper at least (I can't really speak to a web-based one), people and businesses that buy repeat display ads are coin of the realm. You can't pander to them, but you can cultivate them and look for new ones with all your energy.  We didn't keep a close enough eye on our readers -  we knew they were a well-informed, high-income group, but we didn't take into account how gray they were getting. The hippies were becoming yuppies (now these same people are retiring baby-boomers) and the changes happened without our really taking notice. Their interests were changing, and the old MT wasn't keeping up. Finally, the newspaper business itself was shifting dramatically, away from the dominance of subscription-based local daily newspapers to a vastly increased number of small weeklies, free papers, alternative papers like the old MT, specialty magazines, lifestyle publications - you name it. We'd been part of the vanguard of this change, but we hadn't kept up.

Over the past 25 years the gathering, editing and disseminating of information has changed as dramatically as the ways we receive our
information. The old MT pre-dated the Internet, e-mail and just about every other method in common use today. The very idea of news being vetted or edited to ensure its quality seems quaint.

So I wish the New Maine Times all the best, and I hope to play a part in it.The name carries with it a set of real challenges. It¹s a tough act to follow.

blog comments powered by Disqus