behind the news

The Portland Press Herald‘s longform look at ethnic inequality in Maine

"Unsettled" takes a deep dive into Native American history
July 10, 2014

Since late June, The Portland Press Herald has been running daily installments of “Unsettled,” a 29-piece series that chronicles the local Passamaquoddy tribe’s fight for equal rights in the face of institutionalized racism. It’s a startling story of injustice and defiance, and a masterclass in serialization–each chapter ends with a hook that has readers coming back for more.

“Unsettled” has run on the Press Herald‘s front page since the series was launched on June 29. Managing editor Steve Greenlee said the paper hasn’t published anything like it in recent memory. “We are publishing a book as a newspaper story,” he said. “We didn’t go into this saying let’s do a serial. We went in looking for a good story.”

Staff writer Colin Woodard was working on an enterprise story about corruption and rule of law in the Passamaquoddy tribe when he decided to do a little more digging, eventually unearthing a story so long and complex that Greenlee and executive editor Cliff Schechtman suggested turning it into a serial. He spent over a year reporting and interviewed more than 70 sources, from tribal elders and activists to policemen and government officials.

“Unsettled” begins in the mid-1960s with the story of George Francis, chief of the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy reservation, who campaigned against laws preventing his tribe from hunting and fishing on their land, and left them helpless as more and more of their treaty lands were seized from them. When a group of Passamaquoddy were arrested for protesting a land grab, Francis convinced Don Gellers, a young lawyer from New York, to represent them, and set off a chain of events that altered the legal standing of every Native American in the state.

“[With serials] you never really know if you’re putting people to sleep or they’re eating it up,” Greenlee said, but “the reader response has been overwhelmingly positive.” The paper has published letters from readers praising the series, and Greenlee said he has received emails from people who say they can’t leave for work each morning until they’ve read the latest installment.

News outlets often think that “quick snacks and bites” are the only things that generate traffic, Greenlee said, but that’s not always true. “This story has been the most-read thing on our website this week. It demonstrates that people hunger for longform journalism if it’s done well,” he said.

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“Unsettled” also incorporates various multimedia elements alongside Woodard’s writing, including maps, photographs (some were shot with a pinhole camera for an unusual, spectral quality) and brief video interviews with sources. “We had the visuals and interactivity very much in mind as we reported this thing,” Greenlee said. “We wanted it to feel different from everything else in the paper,” he said. “We wanted it to have a distinctive style.”

The Press Herald, which has a daily print circulation in the low 40,000s, has heavily promoted the series, previewing its prologue on the paper’s website a few days before it appeared in print, arranging an interview with Woodard on the local NBC affiliate, and taking out ads on the sides of buses.

Woodard said that although people worry about the survival of newspapers, series like “Unsettled” are reminders that legacy outlets have the ability to tell big, dense stories that grab readers’ attention. The largest paper in the state despite falling circulation, Greenlee said that the paper nonetheless hired 12 journalists in the past 18 months.

Still, the paper isn’t likely to produce another “Unsettled” any time soon. “You can’t do a serial every month. You really need a special story. It has to be compelling all the way through,” Greenlee said.

Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu