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Bill Nemitz, a longtime Maine newspaper columnist, hangs up his hat

Bill Nemitz, a longtime columnist for the Portland Press Herald, has just retired.
Shawn Patrick Ouellette
Portland Press Herald
Bill Nemitz, a longtime columnist for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, has just retired.

Bill Nemitz, a longtime columnist for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, announced his retirement this week.

Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz spoke with Nemitz this week about his career in Maine journalism. That career began, 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, in 1977. They showed me to my desk. It was an old Underwood, non-electric typewriter, stack of copy paper next to it. Next to that, a glue pot. And next to that a pair of scissors. So years later, when we started hitting the cut-and-paste function on our computers, I remember thinking, Well, I know what that means. I've been doing that for 20 years, you know, you get a late call from a source and you have to literally cut into your news copy and paste in the quote. So it was very antiquated. The way you did the job, on the other hand, hasn't really changed all that much.

Gratz: A lot of journalism institutions have been in decline. Newspapers, certainly, but also magazines, even major network news divisions don't have as many people as they used to. And yet, people will say now, they just can't escape the news. And I'm not quite sure what to make of that.

I think the definition, or many people's definition of the news has changed. I think what they're saying is that they can't escape a torrent of information. What is news is the question, you know, I mean, news used to be this carefully prepared, carefully curated, packaged product, and it's been splintered to the point now where it's hard, not only to tell what's news from what isn't news, but this is the big discussion we've been having for some time now, and that is what is fact or what is truth, versus what isn't. So I think what you're hearing and I'm hearing the same thing, is the complaint from people that their brains are overloaded, they're getting too much.

Have you seen any positive changes in journalism in the last 40 years?

Oh, yeah, I do. I think just as the technology has been harmful, it has also been helpful. I think it has given people a much clearer sense of the world, particularly in what we'd call, you know, breaking news situations where it's all about immediacy, and you no longer have to wait until 6:00 or 6:30, or whatever, to see what happened. You can turn on your phone, and go to Twitter, or wherever, and it's happening right before your eyes, often being presented by people who wouldn't consider themselves journalists, but more witnesses to think. And I think if you look at, on a broader scale, if you look at what's happening in Ukraine right now, I think that the ability to convey to the world, what's going on there has been pivotal in galvanizing world response to it. So in that sense, I think the tools are much superior to what we had 40 years ago.

So let's talk a little bit about Maine. In the decades that you've been here, what are the things that have changed?

Well, demographically, certainly Maine has changed, particularly the southern part of the state and the coastal part of the state. And with that has come lots of controversy. Of course, the whole debate over immigration and refugees and things like that is certainly crossed into our state. My feeling is on balance, Maine is a much, much better place for that than it was. And I think it's lifted the scales from a lot of old time, traditional Mainers' eyes that we can in fact welcome these folks as new neighbors, and all of us would be better off for it. On the other hand, I think Maine has shown some significant resistance to other social changes. I think back for example, on in particular, the same sex marriage movement and the contortions that we had to go through as a state to finally arrive at the point where we determined it was OK for two people of the same gender to get married. Maine was a leader, I think, in many ways in that regard, in passing that legislation, but at the same time, I think it revealed the underside of a lot of prejudices that just don't go away overnight. 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 that I find actually to be a lot more overt now than it was 40 years ago. We didn't wear our political affiliations quite as much on our sleeves, or maybe I should say on our chests, as we do now.

And some of the things that have endured?

Maine's just unsurpassed environment, I would say, first of all. There's nothing I've loved more over the past 40 years than having to drive up to Millinocket, or having to go up to Milo, or someplace like that chasing a story. But at the same time reaping this wonderful benefit of, you know, traveling three or four hours across the state and just seeing how darn beautiful it is, and still is. And we hear a lot about the old Maine independence, and sometimes I think that's overplayed a little bit. But it is there, it is something that I've always felt distinguishes us. 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, to a person almost dropping everything, when the situation calls for it, and putting someone else's interests ahead of their own. It sounds like a dichotomy, but I don't think it really is. I think there's a sense in Maine that ultimately, we're all in this together. And I think back, for example, to the ice storm, in what was it '98. You know, how the state rallied collectively and it didn't matter who you were, it didn't matter what your politics were, it didn't matter. All that mattered is if, if you were OK, you had this obligation to get out there and make sure other people were okay. And I think that demonstrated Maine at its finest. I came here, right out of college, and I came here because my then girlfriend one night, when we were trying to figure out what to do with our lives in western Massachusetts, said, Maine's nice. And I came up here and immersed myself into this place, not knowing how long I'd be here, not knowing if it would suit me. All those questions that go through a young mind when you're changing your locale. And it's become more than a home to me. I mean, I have developed a love for this place that I've felt for nowhere else in my life. It truly, truly is a unique and special place to work, and more importantly, a unique and special place to live.

Now, Nemitz says he looks forward to spending more time with his young grandchildren and completing renovations on a home he jokes are ten years overdue.

But Nemitz says he's told his former bosses he could be tempted to write the occasional column, especially if it draws on his 45-year history with the state of Maine.