Back in 1999 someone shot nine moose and two deer in Soldiertown township, an isolated wilderness region west of Moosehead Lake, and left them to rot in the woods. The animal massacre was never officially solved despite thousands of hours of investigation. Last year sources within the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife drew Roberta Scruggs, a well known and highly respected outdoors writer who had worked for the Maine Sunday Telegram and the Lewiston Sun Journal newspapers, into a story that started with the killings and ended as a massive indictment of the leadership and investigative skills of the Maine Warden Service.
Unfortunately, the story Scruggs wrote was more than 20,000 words long, far too long for any newspaper to publish and far too complicated to be cut down to a more commercially palatable size. It was also so critical and controversial that she could find no media outlet in Maine willing to put its imprimatur on it as it was written. Scruggs had a great story and nowhere to print it.
So last January she printed it herself on the Internet.
In the months since, her Scruggsreport.com Web site has become the go-to place for inside information about outdoor Maine and the agencies that regulate it. Scruggs' critical appraisals of the warden service and state wildlife officials have earned her snubs at public functions, praise from sportsmen and -women, a tense confrontation with aides to Governor John Baldacci at the State House, and appeals for more investigative efforts from people both inside and outside state government.
Along the way, Scruggs has also added a new dimension to Maine journalism and become part of a national trend. At a time when investigative reporting and lengthy journalistic explorations of Maine events and trends have all but disappeared from the state's daily news media, Scruggs is showing that a reporter doesn't have to depend on a front-page byline or the lead story on the 6 p.m. news to have an impact and to get great stories in front of the public.
Nor is Scruggs alone. Acclaimed investigative reporter Terrilyn Simpson self-published an exhaustive twenty-eight-page newspaper report of the Logan Marr child-abuse case back in 2002, but her work really reached a broad audience only after it appeared on a series of wildly disparate Web sites in Maine and then around the country. Chris Busby, former editor of the now-defunct Casco Bay Weekly, an edgy, attitude-filled newspaper that once served the Portland peninsula, is resurrecting the publication in spirit, if not in name, with his thebollard.com at less than a tenth of the cost of a print version.
Scruggs and the others are not operating blogs, those Internet diaries full of opinion and questionable wit. They are professional journalists — Scruggs has won a raft of reporting awards, Simpson was the winner of the 1998 PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award — who have turned to the Web as an outlet for their work.
"After Maine Times ceased to publish, I was stuck with all this information about environmental issues and nowhere to go with it in a timely fashion," recalls Phyllis Austin, of Brunswick, who earned a top-notch reputation for her environmental reporting during her twenty-five years at the now-defunct alternative weekly, which made its reputation in the 1970s and 1980s for its investigative articles about oil refineries, the Maine Youth Center, and state politics. Austin turned to the Maine Environmental Policy Institute Web site, which has published her articles on topics ranging from the state's lynx population to logging in Baxter State Park. "After all those years of having so much freedom to report, I couldn't see myself going to a much more formal [newspaper] setting where I'd have to be careful of the political sensitivities of editors and boards of directors," she explains.
"This is like having a Maine Times without the delivery trucks, the distribution and printing headaches, even the need for a central office," declares Scruggs. "You just put it up there on the Web site and let people read it."
Scruggs considered herself all but retired from journalism after leaving the Sun Journal in 2002. She was tired of churning out the two or three stories a day and fluffy weekend features that were part of daily journalism, even though she enjoyed working for the Lewiston paper.
"I didn't want to do that kind of reporting anymore," she explains. "It had become too formulaic. I felt programmed to write a certain way. So I stayed home and re-roofed my barn for a summer. I was going to write a novel and free-lance. I even worked on the Baldacci campaign.
"Then the Soldiertown thing came along."
Scruggs ended up putting in fourteen unpaid months of hard-core investigative work unraveling the highs and lows of one of the worst cases of poaching in the state. She uncovered bungling and questionable actions at the highest levels of the Maine Warden Service, as well as indications that evidence collected by field-level wardens had been ignored or misinterpreted.
At first warden service leaders and other wildlife officials welcomed her attention. But by the end of her work, as she and they realized that she would inevitably disclose how bureaucratic infighting and missteps and lack of experience had allowed the crime's perpetrators to go free, the cooperation dried up. Scruggs resorted to multiple Freedom of Access law requests. She finally had to complain directly to the Maine Attorney General for compliance.
The result was an exhaustive report chronicling the investigation and its aftermath. Scruggs tried to market the piece to a number of Maine publications, including Down East. "I tried cutting it back to 3,000 words, and it just died in my hands," she recalls. "It was lifeless, too short — and that was only the first installment."
Late last year Scruggs and her husband, George Krohne, decided to turn to the Internet, and by late January the Scruggsreport.com was up and running. "We immediately got a wave of people reading the articles and checking out the site," Scruggs says. "In April, after the annual Sportsman's Congress, we started charging for access beyond a limited public area."
Scruggs didn't know what to expect. Two Maine daily newspapers, the Biddeford Journal Tribune and the Sun Journal, charge for access to their Web sites beyond a certain minimum amount of free content. But Scruggs had only word of mouth and the limited exposure of a few public appearances to generate traffic to her Web site.
"There was this interesting difference," she explains. "In a newspaper, all the reaction is immediate, the day the story comes out. On a Web site, you get a few readers, then a few more, then suddenly there are tons of people there over a matter of days and weeks.
"When I moved the Soldiertown story out to the free area, we could see people move through the three parts of it, reading it section by section. And often, when they finished the third part, they ended up subscribing. They recognized they were reading something here they can't find anywhere else."
By late summer Scruggs was already nearing her first-year goal of 500 paid subscribers, the bulk of them paying $29.95 for a year's subscription. She acknowledges that she isn't supporting herself with the site, "but it's only the first year, too."
We want to offer a very specific take on Portland news," explains Chris Busby of his new free Web journal, thebollard.com, "a real hard look at the police department and the city council, for instance. We want to do the sort of journalism that isn't happening here in Portland anymore."
Busby's model harkens back to the original Casco Bay Weekly, an often irreverent, usually skeptical, and occasionally outrageous newspaper that rarely accepted face-value explanations for anything, from the condition of the restrooms in popular nightspots to budgetary shenanigans in City Hall. The original street-paper version, while never a financial success story, failed after a new owner took it away from its hard-edged roots. A reporter and then editor for the paper before he left in a shake-up in 2002, Busby returned to Portland two years ago after a sojourn in upstate New York and worked for the Portland edition of the Forecaster, a Falmouth-based weekly.
"All along I had this dream of practicing CBW-style journalism again," he offers. "The Web was the best way to do that."
Busby admits he's "not a Web guy," but his enthusiasm grew as he discovered its advantages. "If I had tried to start a conventional city paper, it would have begun as a low-quality printed paper with little color and poor graphics," he explains. "On a Web site, you can post clear, sharp photos, pull up wonderful graphics, and have the ability to update stories instantly. We can even put up MP3 files to accompany music reviews."
There was another big reason for moving to the Web, Busby allows. "It's cheap. I was looking at a minimum of $100,000 to launch a print publication. I'm doing this for less than a tenth of that." Unlike Scruggs, Busby is offering the Web site for free and hoping to support it and himself with advertising, again like the original Casco Bay Weekly.
Terrilyn Simpson has come to the Web reluctantly, dragged along by the surprising reach that the Internet has given her investigation of the Logan Marr case, where a young girl died while in the custody of a former Department of Human Services caseworker. A copy of her printed report, a newspaper called the Common Sense Independent, ended up in the hands of a national children's advocate who called and asked if the article was online. A friend suggested that Simpson contact Scott Fish, owner of asmainegoes.com, a conservative political discussion board.
Fish posted the entire series, and interest exploded. Simpson says she has been contacted by readers from all over the country who want to learn more, ask her advice, or in one case beg her to travel to Oregon to investigate a similar case there.
"I hadn't actively sought that kind of exposure before," Simpson explains. "My background is in good old-fashioned print journalism, and has been for twenty-five years. But a lot of people seem to have found me on the Web."
Simpson is now setting up her own Web site, a goal that has taken on new urgency since the second edition of her paper was temporarily banned from Bangor city offices in August because of its critical examination of the state human services system. "I started the Common Sense Independent because I was becoming increasingly frustrated," she explains. "There is not a lot of investigative reporting going on in Maine anymore."
"There's this enormous, pent-up volume of stories that can't be told in newspapers and magazines," Scruggs agrees. "I feel awfully guilty because I can't do all of them."
Maine newspapers are still exploring ways to meld the cyberworld and conventional journalism, and editors such as Rex Rhoades at the Lewiston Sun Journal are optimistic about the Internet's ability to expand the paper beyond its traditional boundaries. The Portland Press Herald recently unveiled a new interactive Web-print section in its Monday edition. Rhoades speaks enthusiastically of a recent music review on the Sun Journal's Web site that includes an audio clip and how the electronic version of the paper could offer additional photographs and information to accompany a series of articles about the Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
Rhoades is aware of Scruggsreport. com and considers it well done, but neither the Sun Journal nor any other mainstream media outlet in Maine has picked up the Soldiertown story or any of the other reports Scruggs has written. That doesn't surprise Scruggs. "I have a couple of outdoor writers who visit the site regularly," she notes, "but I don't see much effect on conventional journalism in Maine yet. When I finished the third part of the Soldiertown piece, George Smith of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine said it was sure to be picked up in the papers." It hasn't yet.
Scruggs understands the reluctance of conventional media outlets to pursue a story as complicated and controversial as the Soldiertown investigation. "I spent fourteen months on that story," she points out. "Newspapers these days can't afford that kind of investment in time and money."
And Scruggs says there can be a reluctance by some to antagonize the agencies and people who reporters rely on for regular information and access. She had to jump through hoops recently just to acquire copies of the regular weekly division reports put out by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W). She routinely must use Freedom of Access law requests to force IF&W to release documents and data.
"I've had e-mail from reporters saying they can't afford that aggravation," Scruggs says. "Besides, who has the time to do this [at a newspaper or television station]? A reporter needs to have a serious interest and the time, and there aren't a lot of places that let them do that anymore."
Additionally, outdoor writing by its nature hasn't seen much investigative reporting, and Scruggs has brought a rarely seen level of attention to the subject and to IF&W. "The folks at IF&W were not used to being looked at this closely," she explains, recalling one instance where then-warden Colonel Parker Tripp "suddenly screamed 'I hate you. Why won't you go away? Other reporters go away.' "
Scruggs is enthusiastic about the idea that the Web offers both reporters and the public the ability to see news that "regular" media are missing, although she's not sure where the trend is leading yet. "I really think we're inventing this as we go along," Scruggs muses. "I did a story recently on how nonresident sportsmen and women are treated in Maine, and I started by asking my subscribers how they had been treated. I got an enormous amount of response. I'd never started a story that way before.
"I've tried to look for stories other people aren't doing," she adds. "This whole experience has been kind of crazy, but it sure isn't boring anymore."