A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Where the News comes from

We have two newspapers in Portland. You probably know about the Press Herald, the big daily with a staff of hundreds. But the Press Herald's local coverage is rivaled by a much smaller weekly, the Forecaster. In spite of its small staff, the Forecaster frequently writes about interesting news stories - like the one about Second Wind Farm on Chebeague Island - several weeks before the Press Herald prints their own features on the same topics.

So what do these two newspapers have to do with streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine? Well, for one thing, the Forecaster has meticulous coverage of local development stories - including an article last week on our success in funding a new streetscape plan for Franklin Arterial.

But the differences in these two newspapers are also indicative of their cultural and physical geographies. Last night, I learned from a friend of mine who used to write for the Forecaster that their offices are located in the suburban slum strip along Route One in Falmouth - a neighborhood almost indistinguishable from those found along the frontage roads of Houston's freeways. The Press Herald's offices, on the other hand, are located smack in the middle of downtown Portland, across the street from City Hall.

So how can a newspaper whose offices are so isolated compete in local news coverage with a newspaper whose offices are in the middle of everything? I think that it's because where you live, and who you know, is more important than where you work. Many of the Forecaster's writers are young journalists at the beginning of their career, and many of them live in or near downtown Portland. Even if they spend their 9 to 5 days in no-man's land, they spend their evenings and weekends hanging out here. So they hear gripes about neighborhood issues or gossip about a new restaurant long before it's in any newspaper. Once an idea for a new story germinates, it matters less if the desk where it gets written, edited, and fact-checked has a view of the ass-end of Wal-Mart.

The Press Herald, on the other hand, generally has an older, more suburban staff (with some exceptions). Unless there's a formal public meeting, they leave Portland at 5 pm most evenings and generally don't hang out with any of the entrepreneurs or neighborhood activists that I know of. Stories that spring from chance encounters seem relatively rare.

I suspect that the Forecaster, with a much smaller staff and 1/7th of the editions, can compete with the Press Herald because their writers spend more time in Portland's public spaces and are more integrated with Portland's social capital. Chance encounters on the sidewalk, in the coffee shop, or at weekend house parties are more important than a downtown office. Although it's telling that a third newspaper - MaineBiz, a monthly - has both a young, urban staff and a downtown office, and blows all of Maine's newspapers out of the water for statewide business coverage.

This implication isn't just true for journalists, either. All sorts of information-age businesses thrive from the informal networking that walkable cities with a healthy public realm can provide, from design consultancies to investment banks.

Here's my prescription for better Portland journalism: the Press Herald could improve itself quickly by hiring a young journalist or two with civic ties to downtown Portland to cover city and neighborhood news stories. The Forecaster should distribute its offices to smaller spaces located closer to the downtown communities they cover. The Forecaster should also update its 1995-vintage website - a Wordpress database is a free and easy-to-use framework that would also make the Forecaster Maine's first newspaper to syndicate its stories via RSS. Come on, Forecaster editors: I dare you.

1 comment:

Don said...

Re - working on Rte 1 in Falmouth. Ironically, I just rode my bike through Falmouth last night, and even though the strip mall landscape dominates for a stretch of Rte 1, the bike lane is as wide as the car lanes and I felt incredibly comfortable and safe on that part of my ride back to Portland. A short blip down Veranda Street to the boulevard and I was home. So, that suburban slum strip is located in a place that offers quite an easy commute to Portland. If we could just get rid of Wal-Mart..
Bike lanes! We want bike lanes!