We still have the Islander … and that’s a good thing for MDI

SOMESVILLE – Does your daily routine include consumption of news and information sources? If so, which ones?

I start with local news – the Greenwich Time and Mount Desert Islander online – and work myself up the ladder, PressHerald.com and BangorDailyNews.com – before the national papers, WSJ.com, NYT.com, WashingtonPost.com. I google sports scores, stock market futures and weather forecast. Before you know it, it’s 9 a.m. and I haven’t even taken out the garbage. On Friday I buy the print edition of the Islander. On Sundays I buy the print editions of the Times, Globe and Press Herald.

But by far the most important of these is the Mount Desert Islander. Since April, when I started this blog, I have received many compliments but some laced with indirect shots at the local paper.

“You’re a breath of fresh air compared to our local paper in Bar Harbor …”

“Why do I need the local paper when your reporting is so much better?”

I admit a certain tug at my vanity when I get these emails. But they are missplaced.

I enjoy the luxury of digging deep into a subject. I am a seasoned journalist who knows how to hone a subject matter and delve into multiple dimensions of a story.

But I am not a replacement for a newspaper. Not even close.

Newspapers, like many local institutions of reliability, suffer from the proximity syndrome: they are still here, so they can’t be any good. Banks, hospitals, hardware stores, grocers. They are all targets of our daily ire, every time they get an order wrong or misspell a name or are slow to process a deposit.

But they carry the oxygen which makes our community breathe. They are the reason MDI is not festooned with chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s and and extensions of a hospital group instead of our own independent MDI Hospital, and banks where I know the names of every teller.

Which brings me to our local paper.

Newspapers are seldom compared across the country, or even across counties. There are some terrible newspapers in Maine. You don’t have to drive far to find them. And for much of the state, there are no local papers at all.

Not too long ago there was an actual newspaper war on MDI. The Islander was the upstart. In 2001, the owner of the Ellsworth American launched a broadside on the Bar Harbor Times, which was founded in 1914. The Ellsworth paper was purchased in 1969 by James Russell Wiggins, a former editor of the Washington Post. Along with the Vineyard Gazette on Martha’s Vineyeard, the two papers set the standards among American weekly newspapers. The Vineyard Gazette was purchased by James “Scotty” Reston, legendary New York Times columnist who turned the paper over to his son Dick Reston. Dick Reston sold the paper in 2010.

Wiggins made profound changes to the Ellsworth paper and turned it into a cultural beacon by adding poetry, essays and deep coverage about the artists and musicians in the area.

By the time I started coming to MDI in 1984 the Ellsworth American was already a prize-winning weekly paper with excellent writing across its super wide format. It covered Maine’s waterfront like the Washington Post covered politics. Wiggins knew the major touch points of his audience. No other paper I know of covers regattas off the coast the way the American does.

I only have faint memories of the two papers on MDI from 2002 to 2012 when the Bar Harbor Times finally threw in the towel. The American won its war of attrition. It could do things with the scale of two papers that the single Bar Harbor Times could not. It could share content of common interest, like coverage of commercial fishing, and culture. It could offer significant geographic pull for regional advertisers like furniture stores, banks, retailers – from Blue Hill to Tremont – at extremely competitive rates. It also owned its own presses and could manage the printing and paper cost efficiently under two titles.

Today’s Mount Desert Islander is still a very good local newspaper that does it job with no fuss and little drama. It doesn’t over-reach and expects its highly educated audience to come to their own conclusions. The “just the facts, ma’am” journalism may strike some as quaint but I find it refreshing in an era of overwrought cable news.

Example: three years ago the Islander reported dutifully about a contretemp over a proposal to demolish an existing motel for a new inn in Bar Harbor. Nearby B&B owners lobbied against the proposal, claiming that planning ordinances forbade the construction of a hotel under the guise of a B&B. After a year’s debate, the proposal was approved and the Inn on Mount Desert opened in 2018.

But that’s not the end of the story. When the pandemic hit in April, complaints surfaced that the inn had violated Gov. Janet Mills’s edict and the town council’s own orders that lodging could only be occupied by essential workers. No less than both the Bar Harbor police department and state health inspectors were involved in an ensuing investigation.

In June the inn was cleared of the accusations. It told investigators there had been only one incident where a guest “lied” about his status, to try to get a room.

Now here is an important nugget: Stephen Coston is part owner of the inn. He is also on the town council and voted against the lodging suspension. As the Islander reported March 30, “Councilors Jeff Dobbs, (Gary) Friedmann, Joe Minutolo and Jill Goldthwait supported the action and Councilors Matt Hochman, Stephen Coston and Erin Cough dissented.”

Wait, there’s more. On July 14, in the municipal elections, Coston was ousted from the town council. The top three vote getters will serve until 2023. Coston lagged far behind the pack.

Goldthwait, Jill 28.8% 1452
Peacock, Valerie 20.7% 1043
Cough, Erin 17% 857
Coston, Stephen 11.5% 578
Strout, Christopher 11.3% 570
DesVeaux, Kevin 10.6% 534

As a citizen I was given all the information and facts by my local newspaper to draw a reasonable conclusion.

I suspect the Costons were victims of zealous competitors who did not want their new inn to chew into their market share.

I also suspect they were victims of a whisper campaign and were rightfully exonerated.

But I believe Stephen Coston should have recused himself from voting on a measure when he obviously was conflicted between his own interest and that of citizens. For which he paid a price.

If you are a thorough reader of the Islander as I am, you will come to the obvious conclusion that for 77 cents a week for a digital subscription, or $2 for the print weekly (I get both), this is a necessary civic action, like wearing face masks to protect each other.

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