Sunday, October 19, 2014

Maine Press Association “Annual Awards;” Self-esteem, adult journalism variety


This morning, as we chowed down on our Breakfast Sandwich at the Big Top Deli on Maine Street, we browsed through the Portland Sunday paper, in which we learned that:

Press Herald/Telegram sweeps Maine journalism awards

Back in the old days when we subscribed to and read The Ostrich, we used to marvel at how many annual awards this humble little example of journalism regularly won in the annual competition.  We knew that Maine doesn’t have all that many newspapers.  We also knew that for purposes of the awards, they are separated into weeklies and dailies.


Still, the skeptic and cynic inside us surmised that so many awards were given out annually to so few competitors that virtually no still breathing print outlet would go without an award.  We also discovered somewhere over the years that the awards were not given as a result of objective review of the year’s journalistic product in toto, but in stead, like the Oscars, are given to the “best XYZ of the year” from among the nominations submitted.  (Actually, in the case before us, to the top three among the nominations.)

As we’ve clearly stated in the past, ‘best of the year’ is a relative assessment, not an absolute.  Some years, movies produced are better or worse overall than other years.  Yet, there will always be a “Best Movie of the Year,” even if it isn’t half as good as the winner two years ago.  These are not awards of excellence; they are awards of relative ranking.


If these awards only recognized true excellence, some years there would be none in a given category, and other years there would be four or five in the same category.

Enough already; let’s cut to the chase.  We decided to look into the rest of the story.

So we headed to the Maine Press Association web page:

As you will see, the MPA has 7 dailies as members, and 22 weeklies.  Note as well that The Forecaster and the Coastal Journal, two weeklies distributed and widely read in our area, are not listed as members.  We suppose that’s a matter of their choice.

We found the link to the awards for 2013:

While we may have miscounted by a few, our quick tally of the listings came up with 398 total awards.  Handing out nearly 400 awards to a total of 29 members means that on a pure pro-rata basis, each could expect to win nearly 14 awards.


Our conclusion?  Suspicions confirmed.  They give out so many awards that EVERYONE is a winner; some more than others, but EVERYONE wins.  Unless, that is, your efforts are so abysmally incompetent and unworthy that you’re probably already out of business.  Or you simply choose, like The Forecaster, not to join the association.


We’ll conclude this flight of foolishness by making an award of our own.  The envelope, please!


And the Four Backside Award goes to the Maine Press Association for making awards so numerous and so granular as to render their value essentially meaningless.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Especially when you consider that the recipients’ efforts are nearly meaningless, particularly in view of the classic principles of what used to be called journalism

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Brunswick Downeaster ‘sold out’ story line: truth, fiction, or worse?


For some time now, those who carefully monitor such things have reported that something like 90% of the Amtrak Downeaster trains leaving from and arriving in Brunswick are less than 15% full.

This does not sit well with those who define the success of the service strictly in terms of ‘ridership,’ which they report in a variety of convoluted ways so as to discourage parsing and analysis.  We recently reflected on the subject here:

We made these comments:

So we have a question or two to pose.

First, if we purchase a round trip ticket between Brunswick and Portland, but don’t use it, do we he have an effect on ridership totals?

Second, if we do use it, how do we affect ridership totals?  Do we represent an increase of two in total ridership: one for the trip from Brunswick to Portland, and one for the trip back to Brunswick?  Or do we represent an increase of four: one departing Brunswick, one arriving Portland, one departing Portland, and one arriving Brunswick?

We hope, of course, that we don’t represent an increase of six total, the four just mentioned, plus a rider at the Freeport station in each direction.

We have no doubt that the system and NNEPRA are highly motivated to maximize the ridership totals, and their ‘growth.’  But until the same rigor and discipline is applied to ridership figures certified accounting methods required of financial reporting, we simply can’t be sure.

Especially since there is virtually no public disclosure of PRECISELY how ridership information is collected and reported.


The issue of nearly empty trains in Brunswick does not provide good ‘optics’ for backing-up the much trumpeted success of the Downeaster.  So in response, we get the rationalization of NNEPRA’s ED, Patricia Quinn, which in itself is an admission that reports of slim ridership into  and out of Brunswick are accurate.

For example, we find this in a recent Portland Press Herald article:

“The popularity of the train in the southern end of the route makes it hard to fill the train in Brunswick,” according to NNEPRA’s Executive Director. “That’s because many trains sell out farther down the line. So a prospective customer who wants to board in Brunswick and travel to Boston may not be able to reserve a seat because all the available seats for that train are reserved by passengers who will board farther down the line.”


There’s a reason why we call ourselves “The Other Side.”  You know us; we’re a skeptic and a cynic with an insatiable thirst for knowledge.  So we decided to do what we often do; look into things on our own, as any good correspondent could, should, and would.

In this case, we decided to look into the availability of seats on future trains from Brunswick to Boston; and the same from Boston to Brunswick.  We went to the Amtrak ticket portal via the NNEPRA web site, to check the availability of 8 adult seats in each direction.

For purposes of this exercise, we set our search parameters for the dates of Sunday, October 19th, and every day after that until the end of the month – Friday, October 31st.  Here’s what we found.

Southbound Trains - Brunswick to Boston:

This data was compiled at roughly noon today.  Both the early and late departures from Brunswick to Boston had the requested 8 seats available, and at a variety of fare levels.  The ‘mid-morning’ hybrid run, which begins with a bus to Portland, and continues with a train, had the 8 requested seats available on weekend days, and was a cancelled connection on weekdays, in all likelihood because of track repair operations. 

The through trains (early and late) are 3 1/2 hour trips.  The hybrid bus/train run, when it operates, is closer to 5 hours.

So on the basis of that information, we’re raising the Brunswick Sausage flag on claims that the trains leave Brunswick sparsely patronized because ‘seats are sold out further down the line.’

Northbound Trains - Boston to Brunswick:

Later today, in the 5 pm hour, we checked on the availability of 8 adult seats, again for each day from tomorrow, the 19th, through the end of the month.  The early departure from Boston has the requested 8 seats available at a variety of fares on weekends, but is cancelled on weekdays, again, presumably because of track repair work.  The late departure has the 8 requested seats available each and every day, at multiple fare levels.

Here again, there are ‘hybrid runs,’ leaving at the same time as the early run, and varying as to connections.  On weekends, the requested 8 seats are available at multiple fare levels, while on weekdays, one of the connections, which is redundant to the through train departure, has 8 seats available at multiple fares. while the other connecting option, at 5 hours total, is cancelled.


So it appears, at least based on our limited case study, that the notion of no seats available due to sold out trains downstream is, to put it charitably, a fantasy.  Propaganda, marketing hype, excuse making, what have you.


Some might think of the claims from the Downeaster and TrainRiders Northeast as lies, but we won’t go so far as to say that.  Instead, we’ll think of it as another example of how government agencies, and their lobbyists, do their level best to make sure you ‘don’t worry, be happy.’


Add some razzle dazzle production values, distracting moves, flashy duds, and carefully arranged pompadours, and before you know it, you’ll have the groupies and fans screaming for more and calling for the smelling salts to overcome the vapors.

If that’s not enough to explain things, you can always go with more traditional explanations.


And now they want to add New York City to the equation?  Will we never get to rest?

Friday, October 17, 2014

TrainRiders Northeast: Have they (he) lost their minds?


TrainRiders Northeast, the lobbying organization behind NNEPRA and the Amtrak Downeaster, held their gala annual banquet in Portland last night (16 October 2014).

The coverage of the event on their web page featured this breathless report:

TRNE banquet blurb oct 2014

Take careful note of that last paragraph, in which Jeff Reynolds, a Brunswick resident, is emphatically (!) identified as “of the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition (BWNC)!”

Integrity?  What’s that?  Reynolds is NOT, we repeat NOT a member of BWNC or even remotely simpatico with them, as anyone with a bare minimum of knowledge in this general subject area already knows.  Claiming that he belongs to BWNC is at the very least an attempt to appropriate the group’s imprimatur for TRNE purposes, and at the very worst, indicates utter ignorance of reality, and a lack of common sense.  Which  now that we think of it, is just what you would expect from this ‘non-profit’ organization.

Just to make sure their fraudulent assertion got the widest possible audience, TRNE also made the same claim on their Facebook page:


Anyone even remotely familiar with the public debate going on in recent years over NNEPRA’s plan to build a 60,000 sf Maintenance and Layover Facility in the Bouchard Drive neighborhood knows that Reynolds is a vociferous opponent and critic of the group.  He has continually demeaned, demonized, and pontificated against the organization and it’s members in every possible way.   He repeatedly calls them “NIMBYs” and accuses them of “hating trains.”


Associating him with the group is an assertion so far out on the imaginary axis as to be in another coordinate system.  You might even say Reynolds is a leader of the opposition SIITBY contingent: those who say, with nary a qualm, “Stick it in their back yards.”

Reynolds has railed against the group and its members and supporters in every possible way.  He’s spoken stridently at public town meetings and legislative committee hearings.  He’s had columns doing the same in both local and other in state newspapers, including one just recently where he railed against Sen. Stan Gerzofsky for his work with the BWNC.  He submitted numerous comments critical of them in response to the Environmental Assessment process conducted by NNEPRA for the Federal Railroad Administration.


He even wrote to the Brunswick Town Council to express his disgust with BWNC representatives, a memo which TRNE excitedly published on their web site.

Now he’s the star of a video presented at the TRNE annual banquet.  Let’s be clear; on the face of things, he couldn’t be more antithetical to BWNC membership and purpose.  Instead, he looks for all the world like a captive insider of TRNE leadership, at least by affinity, if not actual dues paying membership.

As shown in this series of posts - - Jeff went so far as to suggest that those who differ with him on the MLF subject live on a different planet than he does, which you can take any way you wish.

One of Jeff’s favorite ploys is to claim he is ‘one’ with BWNC when it comes to effects of the  proposed MLF project, since he ‘lives in the same neighborhood’ as those who are so strongly opposed.  He takes that position in the banquet video.  Let’s examine that claim.

Redwood Bouchard area

This is an aerial shot of the general neighborhood, with the existing track area clearly shown near the top, and the Bouchard Drive neighborhood adjacent to the site just below.  Further down you should see a marker labeled 36 Redwood Lane, which is where Reynolds resides.

The distance from the site of the proposed Maintenance Facility to Reynold’s home is approx. 1200 feet.  The distance from the facility to the closest Bouchard residences is on the order of 300 feet.  So Reynolds lives four times further away, and has three streets, five rows of residences, and untold numbers of trees and general vegetative barriers between his abode and the MLF.

These simple factors…both the distance and the intervening structures and vegetation…attenuate the noise, vibration, and other environmental consequences of the proposed project to a remarkable degree.

We’re checking on the specifics, but we believe the sound and vibration levels vary inversely with the square of the distance from the source, which mean that Reynolds would experience levels one-sixteenth of those experienced by the Bouchard Drive residents closest to the facility.

That, readers, is not one with the others in the area.  In fact, so far from it as to be an absurd claim.  Chez Reynolds simply is not vulnerable to the same detrimental consequences as BWNC members, and any claims that it is are bogus.

We could go on and on with the other falsehoods that Reynolds has pawned off on the general public, including claims that the diesel engines used on the Downeaster are not ‘older’ models, when the truth is that they do not meet present day EPA regulations.  But we have neither the time, the space, or the inclination to bore you with the details of the propaganda he has strewn across the rhetorical landscape.

Instead, we think a call for action is appropriate.

So what should TRNE do about publishing these misrepresentations about Jeff Reynolds and the BWNC?  First, they should renounce their claims, and correct the statements on their public pages, including Facebook.

Then they should apologize to the public, and in particular, the BWNC, for going so far overboard in an attempt to gain some sort of perverted advantage in the public relations domain.


The larger message here is that some people will do anything for a slice of birthday cake, won’t they.

Side?  We won’t even listen unless Frosty’s finest are in the offing.  But you knew that.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Ostrich…always there for you….

We thought this item from yesterday’s edition deserving of ‘headline of the month:’


The burning question for many will be whether Brunswick councilors, anxious not to be outdone by their nearby neighbors, take up a motion to leave.  Any bets on how the vote will come down?

We hope Johnny Protocols will be there for the roll call, because if he’s not, several other councilors will be verklempt, and could quite possibly vote against their conscience, or whatever takes its place these days.

Then there’s this item in today’s edition:


If you read carefully, you’ll see this text; do take note of the ‘earlier this month’ assertion.

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority wants to expand service to and from Brunswick and Freeport. But to do that, it needs more than just a proposed train shed planned for the West Brunswick area. 

To do that, it needs money, but their most recent grant application to the U.S. Department of Transportation — for $14 million — was rejected earlier this month.

Followers of Other Side got the memo about the grant rejection some time ago, in this post -

On September 12, to be exact, which was the date the results were posted on the US Department of Transportation web site -  Not to mention our extensive reporting on the application documents before the decisions were made, including dissection of the numerous ‘letters of support’ that were included.  As you may recollect, many, in truth, were embarrassments.


News travels slowly, though, on the underground world wide sand tunnel web.  And not everyone has the same blazingly fast, broadband access.


Sometimes, though, there are deeper issues at play, such as sorting out which month is which, and when one ends and the next one begins.


Which is why staff at our local print media establishment can appear so perplexed.  Even after they’ve rubbed the sand out of their eyes.

Time for a little trim there, big guy, we might add.  Unruly hair can be a distraction from your eyes,  the primary assets in your role as ‘government watchdog,’ remember?

Look; if it’ll improve your spirits any, we’re going to grant you permission to view up to 3 articles a month free here on Other Side.  Anything more than that, and we’ll have to start charging you.

We reserve the right to define ‘month’ any way we damn well please; you do understand, don’t you?

Good.  Now nighty-nite and sweet dreams.

Tell the ‘sand-man’ hello for us.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Amtrak Ties and Woes…..

As we were out crawling under rocks today, looking for news stories that could increase our revenue potential here at Side, we noticed something out of whack with respect to Downeaster service, that cherished cornerstone of Brunswick’s place in the pantheon of historic and consequential New England villages.  Collecting news this way can be such a bear.

It appeared that the 12:30 pm arrival in Brunswick was late by well over an hour.  A backup Brunswick Taxi van was waiting patiently near the Church Road crossing to pick up  a crew and transport them back to Portland, at a cost of $250 or more, if we had to guess.  And we do have to guess, because no one in a position to know will speak up about the real cost.

Then we noticed that the Maine Eastern leaf-peeper tourist train was sitting at Maine Street Station, apparently awaiting the hordes of passengers that would disgorge from the arriving Downeaster to help it survive as a small railroad operator.

Given the perfect conditions, we concluded this was not a weather related anomaly.  So when we got back to the editorial offices, we had our staff do a quick search of the news wires to see what they could find.  And this is the result (

Construction Alert

10/10/14 Update

Beginning Tuesday October 14, mid-day trains to/from some locations may be modified or cancelled due to tie replacement on the railroad.

During construction periods:

  • Trains 680, 682, 685, 687, 688 and 689 will NOT be impacted. 
  • Trains 681 and 684 will operate on a modified schedule to some stations with discounted fares available.
  • Trains 683 and 686 are will to be cancelled.

Weekend trains will not be impacted.

Don’t you just love attention to detail?

So take note, if  you are will to be taking a train, cancelled you could be, but with some possibility are will be discounted fare.

Which leads to the back story, and our obligation to apologize for yesterday’s item ( in which we said there is a 22,000 tie problem.  The problem is 28,000 ties, more than any of us could possibly wear in a long and formally garbed career.  Let alone afford.

Notice the off-handed and casual reference to “tie-replacement on the railroad,’ as if they’re just changing light bulbs in the passenger coaches.

We remembered the same sort of cavalier comments in that story from August.

From that post:

Now the worst part.  In a classic ‘oh, by the way’ comment buried several paragraphs down in the story, we find this nugget:

Beeler said he expects the number of delays and cancellations will diminish after this week. However, more disruptions could occur this fall when Pan Am Railways is scheduled to replace another 28,000 ties. The work will be concentrated in a few areas, so it is expected to proceed more quickly and there should be fewer cancellations than what occurred this summer, he said.

Invited Guests Onboard the Inaugural Train

“Could occur???” These are the kinds of pronouncements we’ve come to expect from some of our local benefactors, shown here in happier days aboard a celebratory Downeaster run.  The same sorts of ‘public servants’ are often nowhere to be found when things go all to hell, as it were.  Or, when pressed, adopt the same passive voice and other rhetorical dodges.

Which is why you’re glad you have us.  If 2,000 ties needing replacement were enough to cause something like 2 months of service disruption, we can only guess what trauma replacing 28,000 ties, or fourteen times as many, might cause.  Even if the work is more ‘concentrated.’  Anyway you look at it, we find it absurd to believe that replacing 28,000 could “cause fewer cancellations than what occurred this summer.”

The photo just above seems to fit the circumstances perfectly, now that we muse on it.  Johnny Protocols looks for all the world like he’s trying to sell a former Maine Senate President on the idea that regular train service will cause a major economic boom for local florists and water bottlers.  We might even suggest that look on her face is one of disbelief.

She looks for all the world, frankly, like she’s had more than her fill of his pronouncements. 

Haven’t we all; haven’t we all.  Imagine if you will what it will be like when he ascends to the Chairmanship of the town council in a few months.


PS: for the chronically curious, we are attaching here a query we made to the cognizant NNEPRA individual back then (Brian Beeler II,) and his response:

Aug 20

Good afternoon Mr. Schaeffer,

Thank-you for your inquiry. Here are the answers to your questions:

1) Presumably, if 28,000 more ties need to be replaced, slow orders covering the relevant track sections must still be in place.  Is this true?  My assumption is that ties would not be replaced if the relevant track sections are approved for passenger operations at the Downeaster's desired operating speeds.  Can you provide some insight into the location of the slow orders, and how many individual such orders are still in effect?

Slow orders can be caused by a number of factors, some of which are dynamic and can change based on track conditions existing on any given day.  Crews continually maintain the track to address conditions causing slow orders as they arise.  There are currently no significant slow orders in place due solely to tie conditions. The tie replacement program scheduled for this fall is part of a regular preventive maintenance program to replace ties that are nearing the end of their useful life but have not yet failed.  Just as tires on cars are replaced before the tread is worn and the car is no longer drivable, ties should be replaced before –not after- they reach the point where they are the cause of slow orders.

2)  Does detailed information exist on exactly what track sections are involved in the need to replace 28,000 ties?  I assume it must, or there would be no way to clearly and effectively specify the work to be done, and oversee its successful completion.  Further, what is the estimated date for mandatory work completion based on expected weather conditions?

Track inspectors determine the exact ties to be replaced. NNEPRA monitors work being completed and verifies that all ties purchased for the project are installed in the locations identified. There is no mandatory date for the completion of the work.

3)  I understand from a knowledgeable professional that railroad ties are in short supply, so much so that the 2,000 ties replaced along the Downeaster route in recent months were 'borrowed' from Amtrak inventory.  Is this true, and if so, what is the outlook for obtaining the 28,000 units required to complete the necessary work in the next 3 months or so?  If the work cannot be completed before weather interferes, how badly will remaining slow orders interfere with Downeaster operations per published schedules?

There were approximately 1,000 ties borrowed from Amtrak for the tie project earlier this summer. NNEPRA currently has an order in place for the 28,000 ties to be delivered this fall. We anticipate Pan Am will install most or all of those ties this season and do not anticipate tie-related slow orders to interfere with operations this winter.

Again thank-you for your email and I hope I have clarified your questions.


Brian Beeler II

Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority

Manager of Passenger Services

Breaking News: Crooker and Sons sold

Topsham-based heavy construction company sold

Harry C. Crooker & Sons, founded in 1935, has been purchased by Thomas C. Sturgeon and a group of local investors.

A Topsham-based heavy construction company has been sold.

Harry C. Crooker & Sons, founded in 1935, has been purchased by Thomas C. Sturgeon and a group of local investors. Sturgeon, who had been the company’s chief engineer, will lead the company as president and CEO, according to a release from the company. All of its 150 employees are expected to be retained and operations remain the same.

The company had been owned for nearly 79 years by the Crooker family, including Harry, Frank and Ted Crooker.

In its release, the company affirmed its commitment to high quality engineering, paving and a construction services, as well as its commitment to Maine communities. Crooker & Sons is well known in the midcoast area for its philanthropic efforts.


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Monday, October 13, 2014

“Amtrak Woes:” An article of interest

Just by chance, we came across an article recently that if you read it carefully, including the reader comments that follow it, tells you a great deal about the state of rail service in this country.

Especially considerations that effect the competition between freight and passenger rail.  It’s clear, of course, that passenger rail has been overwhelmed by other modes of human transport, namely the personal auto and commercial aviation.  Freight rail, on the other hand, has not been similarly transformed.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

Last year’s freight congestion that was snarling Amtrak service in the upper Midwest has shifted east, and it’s gotten so bad that Amtrak has resorted to putting passengers on buses.  (Buses?  What’s up with that??)

Congestion on Norfolk Southern in recent weeks has delayed Amtrak trains from Chicago to Detroit, Boston, New York and Washington.

And one near the end:

But it’s not even winter yet, and if Amtrak’s experience east of Chicago is any indication, things have already started to unravel.

You’ll find the article here:


No matter, there are still those who believe 2 + 2 = 5, and who will do anything to see that unaffordable and unsustainable passenger trains visit our community, so that we can all brag about it.


Don’t forget that NNEPRA has a bit of deferred maintenance to oversee before winter sets in: 22,000 ties need to be replaced,  equivalent to about 7 total miles worth.

Given it’s a holiday today, we’ll leave things at that, other than to leave you with a few visuals that are worth a thousand words, or if you’re into games of chance, more than 22,000 ties.


Or for those a little slow on the uptake, like Side sometimes is, this one, which you might have seen arriving and departing at the Brunswick Departure Center.


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