Internet and social networking can help, hurt newspaper

by Jen Lynds

For more than 15 years, readers have been seeing a different Bangor Daily News.
No longer is the paper just in print. We have a website, numerous Facebook pages and Twitter feeds maintained by reporters, bureaus and departments, along with Apps for mobile devices and more. No longer is writing a letter to the editor or an editorial the only way that one can express an opinion. A reader comment section under each article offers one the forum to do that, along with space on our Facebook pages. Such changes have allowed readers to become more engaged with reporters and the stories they have written.
Along with these positive changes have come some drawbacks. Online reader comments on the website and on Facebook can be inappropriate, offensive and hurtful. While they are monitored, what is offensive to one isn’t always seen that way by another.
As most everyone in the state knows, the Bangor Daily News last Wednesday filed Freedom of Access Act requests to law enforcement agencies and municipalities seeking information about concealed weapons permits holders. The information was to be gathered as part of a two-year reporting project on domestic violence and drug crimes and Anthony Ronzio, director of news and new media, said that the paper would not be publishing personal information about permit holders.
On Friday, the newspaper rescinded its FOAA request.
An emergency bill that was passed through the Legislature and signed by Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday will allow personal information from concealed weapons permits to be kept from the public until the end of April while lawmakers debate another bill that would make that information private permanently.
Until Tuesday, anyone could have requested the same information the BDN was seeking.
A number of people were angry over the paper’s decision, even after the request was rescinded. Several of my colleagues and I fielded angry phone calls, emails and remarks, many not understanding that reporters don’t make management decisions.
Over the past few years, there has been a lot of talk about how public discourse has become less civilized and how political rhetoric has become more heated.
In some ways, the Internet has helped contribute to this.
Shortly after news of the BDN’s request began circulating, people began discussing it online. There were concerns about privacy, security, Second Amendment rights, fears that lawful CWP holders would be painted unfairly and more, all of which were valid discussion points. Some began threatening to cancel subscriptions, boycott the paper and businesses that advertised in the paper and make the addresses of BDN employees public so that people could do things such as picket in front of our houses. An editor’s note was posted on the BDN website to try and clarify intentions. Reader comments under the piece were heated, and the statements on other sites grew uglier.
One of the most frustrating things was seeing how such sites were used to keep spreading misinformation. A number of posters repeated a glaring inaccuracy involving the BDN’s publisher, and it was shared countless times on Facebook.
The paper’s publisher is Richard J. Warren. Warren’s great-grandfather, J. Norman Towle, bought the paper in 1895 and it has remained in his family ever since. The paper is not owned by S. Donald Sussman of North Haven, a wealthy financier and one of the state’s leading philanthropists. Sussman is the husband of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. Through his company, Maine Values LLC, he owns a 5 percent equity stake in MaineToday Media and has a seat on the board of directors. MaineToday Media owns and operates The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and the Coastal Journal in Bath, as well as digital properties.
Along with not making management decisions, reporters also do not get a say in which letters to the editor or editorials are published, the views of columnists or which candidates the paper endorses during elections. We write stories, and bureau reporters also take photographs and edit videos.
The BDN was also repeatedly criticized for being too liberal and “anti-Republican.” Just as the industry has grown and changed, however, so have the paper’s political views. Take this quote Richard Warren gave to Bangor Metro during a 2007 interview when he was asked about the paper’s role politically.
“I think in my grandfather’s and father’s generation, there was a definite conservative Republican bent to the paper, and it was known as pretty conservative,” he said. “We’ve moved a little more toward the center, and the fact is, I think for the first time we endorsed a Democrat for president in the last presidential election. We endorsed Kerry. That’s pleased some people on the Democratic side of the ledger, but it’s also riled up some of the old conservative folks who think we should stick to our roots.”
In concert with the inaccuracies, some online posters said they wanted the newspaper to go out business.
In Maine right now, people are struggling to find jobs, having a difficult time making ends meet and young people are flocking out of the state at an alarming rate. Should we wish that hundreds of people from across the state lose their jobs? How much thought is behind that, given the ripple effect felt when any business closes? People without jobs don’t go out to eat, buy new clothes, take vacations or purchase houses and cars. Because of that, businesses that sell such items suffer, too.
In Dec. 2012, Forbes Magazine named Maine the worst state for business for the third year in a row. Should we do things that could make that worse, or work together to make things better?
Sometimes, I think people forget how much a newspaper contributes to a community. We have learned that all too well when other newspapers in Maine have folded. The BDN is owned by Bangor Publishing Co, which also owns Northeast Publishing Co. in Presque Isle, publisher of three weekly newspapers in Houlton, Presque Isle and Caribou. They BDN also publishes The Weekly, Marry Me magazine and numerous sports, business and education supplements.
Over the years, the stories my colleagues and I have written have shined light on investigations into people and organizations, raised money for children and families needing medical care or conducting fundraisers, brought readers sports action from across the state, printed feature stories about interesting or heartwarming people and innovative business owners, detailed arrests, outlined the actions of municipal and school boards, provided an in-depth look at growing problems such as drug and child abuse, unemployment and welfare fraud, showcased columnists and editorial writers and highlighted countless images from talented photographers. Obituaries, wedding announcements, letters to the editor, cartoons from George Danby and others have found their way into scrapbooks and keepsake boxes.
Going forward, the Legislature will be debating several bills dealing with gun legislation. Is it right to call opponents or proponents of the legislation names? Is it okay to bully people interested in the news stories in online comments hidden behind an anonymous screen name? Should you wish hundreds of people ill will simply because you don’t agree with a decision made by their employer? Should you lump members of any profession together and ridicule or degrade them? I think most people would say “no.”
The BDN will have continuing coverage of this and other legislation from Augusta. In Maine classrooms, pupils are being schooled to refrain from name calling and educated in a culture of anti-bullying. Both on and offline, we as adults are in the best position to show them how its done.