Longtime Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram columnist Bill Nemitz announced his retirement this week.
Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz spoke with Nemitz this week about his career in Maine journalism. That career started, Nemitz said, with a very different set of tools.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Nemitz: The first night I showed up at the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, 1977. They showed me my office. It was an old, non-electric Underwood typewriter, with a pile of copy paper beside it. Next to it is a pot of glue. And next to that a pair of scissors. So years later, when we started using cut and paste on our computers, I remember thinking, Well, I know what that means. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, you know, you get a late call from a source and you literally have to cut into your news copy and paste the quote. It was therefore very old. The way you did the job, on the other hand, hasn’t really changed that much.
Gratz: Many journalism institutions are in decline. Newspapers, of course, but also magazines, even the large network information services no longer have as many people as before. And yet people will say now that they just can’t escape the news. And I don’t know what to think about it.
I think the definition, or a lot of people’s definition of news has changed. I think what they’re saying is that they can’t escape a torrent of information. What the news is, you know, I mean the news was this carefully curated, neatly organized and packaged product, and it’s been fragmented to the point now that it’s difficult, not only to distinguish what’s news from what’s not news, but that’s the big discussion we’ve had for some time now, and it’s what’s fact or what’s truth, for relative to what is not. So I think what you’re hearing, and I’m hearing the same thing, is people complaining that their brains are overloaded, that they’re consuming too much.
Have you seen any positive changes in journalism over the past 40 years?
Oh, yes, I know that. I think just as technology has been harmful, it has also been helpful. I think it’s given people a much clearer sense of the world, especially in what we would call, you know, topical situations where it’s all about immediacy, and you don’t have to wait anymore until 6:00 p.m. or 6:30 p.m., or whatever, to see what happened. You can turn on your phone and go to Twitter, or anywhere, and it’s happening in front of your eyes, often presented by people who wouldn’t consider themselves journalists, but rather witnesses to think about. And I think if you look, on a larger scale, if you look at what’s happening in Ukraine right now, I think the ability to convey to the world what’s happening there has been key in galvanizing the response world. So in that sense, I think the tools are far superior to what we had 40 years ago.
So let’s talk a bit about Maine. In the decades you’ve been here, what things have changed?
Well, demographically Maine has certainly changed, especially the southern part of the state and the coastal part of the state. And with that came a lot of controversy. Of course, the whole debate about immigration and refugees and things like that certainly runs through our state. My feeling is overall, Maine is a much better place for this than it used to be. And I think it lifted the eyes of a lot of old times, traditional Mainer eyes that we can actually welcome these people as new neighbors, and we’d all be better off for that. On the other hand, I think Maine has shown significant resistance to other social changes. I think back for example, in particular, to the same-sex marriage movement and the contortions that we had to go through as a state to finally get to the point where we determined that it was okay for two people of the same sex to marry. Maine has been a leader, I think, in many ways in this regard, in passing this law, but at the same time I think it has exposed the underside of a lot of biases that don’t go away overnight. next day. And of course, with the emergence of Donald Trump and the Tea Party before him and all that, we’ve certainly felt the effect of this political polarization which I actually find much more apparent now than it was there is 40 years old. We didn’t wear our political affiliations on our sleeves, or maybe I should say on our chests, as much as we do now.
And some of the things that lasted?
Maine’s unparalleled environment, I would say, first. There’s nothing I’ve loved more in the last 40 years than having to drive to Millinocket, or having to ride up to Milo, or somewhere like that to pursue a story. But at the same time, reaping this wonderful benefit of, you know, traveling three or four hours across the state and seeing how damn beautiful it is, and it still is. And we hear a lot about the former independence of Maine, and sometimes I think that’s a bit of a stretch. But that’s, that’s something I’ve always felt that sets us apart. And I think when you come to that kind of quintessential New England ethos, I think Maine really captures it in terms of people, on the one hand, maybe wanting to be left alone, but on the other hand on the other hand, to a person dropping almost everything, when the situation calls for it, and putting the interests of others before their own. It sounds like a dichotomy, but I don’t think it really is. I think there’s a feeling in Maine that ultimately we’re all in this together. And I think back, for example, to the ice storm, how that was in 1998. You know, how the state came together collectively and it didn’t matter who you were, it didn’t matter what your politics were, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was if, if you were okay, you had that obligation to go out and make sure other people were okay. And I think that showed Maine at its best. I came here fresh out of college, and I came here because my girlfriend at the time, one night, while we were trying to figure out what to do with our lives in western Massachusetts, said, Maine is nice. And I came here and immersed myself in this place, not knowing how long I would be here, not knowing if it would be right for me. All those questions that cross a young mind when you change places. And it has become more than a home to me. I mean, I developed a love for this place that I haven’t felt anywhere else in my life. It’s really, really a unique and special place to work and, more importantly, a unique and special place to live.
Now, Nemitz says he’s looking forward to spending more time with his young grandchildren and finishing renovations on a home he jokes is ten years behind schedule.
But Nemitz says he told his former bosses he might be tempted to write the occasional column, especially if it draws on his 45-year history with the state of Maine.