A Newfangled Journalism Technique Leaps Across the Country

Taking the Los Angeles Times' lead, a daily newspaper in Maine is drawing attention to the plight of a local river in a quirky way.

Throughout the midterm campaign season, most newspapers around the country have monitored the various races using fairly standard tools — telephone polls, Internet surveys, man-on-the-street interviews. One daily newspaper in Maine, however, is using goldfish.

Yup, goldfish.

Recently, the Lewiston Sun Journal invited the state’s five gubernatorial candidates to talk about how, as governor, they would clean up the Androscoggin River, a woebegone waterway that divides the city of Lewiston from the city of Auburn.

Afterward, the Sun Journal posted highlights of the candidates’ remarks on the paper’s Web site along with the latest, greatest invention in online newspaper gadgetry — namely, a goldfish cam.

“Life in the public eye can be like living in a fish bowl,” wrote the Sun Journal. “That’s never more true than now. Borrowing an innovative and highly unscientific tactic used by the Los Angeles Times to highlight water quality issues in its Los Angeles River, we plucked five goldfish in a tank of Androscoggin River water … and put them in front of a Web cam.”

Visitors to the paper’s Web site can now check out regularly updated photos of the goldfish swimming in murky river water — and explanations of what the candidates, if elected, might do about said murkiness.

Kathryn Skelton, an enterprise reporter for the Sun Journal, says that when she first stumbled upon the Times’ goldfish cam back in April, she thought it was a “genius idea,” and one that her paper might “piggyback on” somewhere down the line.

Not long ago, with the gubernatorial election in full swing, Skelton pitched the idea of the goldfish cam to her editors as a quirky way to draw attention to the river’s plight. Skelton says that the issue of what to do about the Androscoggin has been a “hot topic” at the State House in recent times, but so far has taken a backseat in the statewide election to such issues as health care and taxes.

Even after her editors signed off on the project, Skelton says that she remained unsure of how the gubernatorial candidates would react (each of the five goldfish is named after one of the candidates). “They were all really cool about it,” says Skelton. “They were really good sports.”

Skelton says that so far most of the feedback from readers has been encouraging. “If it gets anyone to talk about the river, that’s great,” says Skelton. “That’s the goal.”

So what’s the original inventor of this newfangled journalistic form think about the second coming of the goldfish cam? Reached on Friday afternoon, Times reporter Steve Hymon said he hadn’t seen the Lewiston goldfish cam yet. Even so, he seemed supportive.

“I suppose I’m flattered in some funny way,” says Hymon. “I don’t think readers in Los Angeles or Lewiston or any other town with a goldfish cam should mistake this for serious science. That said, it does suggest something about the quality of the water. And it’s a fun way to engage readers in a serious issue.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.