The porn-studio-on-Martha’s-Vineyard story that never was

The Edgartown Lighthouse in Martha's Vineyard. Via m01229/Flickr.

IN MARCH, AN UNUSUAL LAWSUIT was filed in the federal district court whose jurisdiction includes Martha’s Vineyard. The suit, filed by a local homeowner, claimed director Monica Jensen and the production company Mile High Media had used the homeowner’s island rental property, without her knowledge, as a studio to produce porn.

While some of the information in the 24-page complaint was new to me, I recognized most of the details and actually knew a great deal more than was set out in the civil complaint. Three years earlier, as editor of The Martha’s Vineyard Times, a small weekly, I had prepared a story that described how Jensen, a former adult film star and now a director who went by the name Nica Noelle, had relocated from Los Angeles to a quiet island neighborhood to produce gay porn films for the Icon Male Film company.

It was a well-reported story that I knew would be of great interest to the island’s tightly knit, year-round community of about 17,000 people. But the story never saw the light of day. Over my objections, the newspaper’s publisher declined to publish the story, altering the journalistic calculus under which I had reported, managed, and edited for more than two decades.

 

Please do not tweet or otherwise publicly post photos or other information regarding where you are, or announce that you are going to Martha’s Vineyard.

 

I DID NOT ATTEND journalism school. My writing career began in 1990 with a fishing column published in The MV Times. I moved from being a general assignment reporter, to news editor, to managing editor, and for my last two years, editor.

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My responsibilities included composing editorials, editing stories, posting material to the web, and stepping into the reporting breach, particularly on the more complicated stories that benefitted from my institutional memory. All the while I continued to write a seasonal outdoor column.

I quit the Times in 2016, in the wake of what happened with my Jensen story.  I was demoralized and exhausted by the demands of producing a weekly print newspaper, while at the same time feeding the paper’s website maw hobbled by shrinking resources in an ever-demanding environment.

For most of my career at The MV Times, I worked with editor and co-owner Doug Cabral, who with his wife Molly Cabral bought the paper in 1991. Cabral had been the managing editor of The Vineyard Gazette, our local competitor, a job he left in 1980. In 1986, he was recruited to take over the struggling MV Times. He was a solid journalist, and shaped my sense of what a community newspaper ought to be.  Over 25 years, I saw the effect of our reporting firsthand. I learned that local reporting requires careful calibration, and weighing individual privacy against a job that asks you to reveal what’s important to the community.

In 1995, healthcare consultant Peter Oberfest and his wife Barbara Oberfest, longtime seasonal visitors who moved to the island in 1993 and were admirers of the community newspaper, became partners in The MV Times. The paper was struggling in the recession, and the Oberfests’ business acumen and financial resources helped it survive. Peter Oberfest largely stayed out of the newsroom. All authority for editorial decisions rested with Cabral, who set the direction and tone. Cabral and I spoke regularly about newspapers, reporting, and the editing process.

Over the years, stress cracks appeared among the four owners. In late April 2014, I learned that Cabral’s retirement would be announced the following week, that his and his wife’s shares would be bought by the Oberfests, and that I was to be named editor.

The collaborative working relationship I had enjoyed with a man who was a mentor, editor, and friend, and whose journalistic instincts I trusted, ended abruptly. It was replaced by a more distant and less personal working relationship with a publisher and owner whose commitment to journalism was shaped by his philosophical and social attitudes and not his reporting experience.

 

It’s brought a much different flavor to the movies and we’ve noticed the performers are quite different when you get them outside of LA and into the deep woods—like Thoreau’s Walden, but with sex.

 

IT WAS IN THIS CONTEXT eight months into my tenure as editor, that I took a call from a man who asked me if The MV Times reported on controversial stories. I assured him we had never shied away from a story.

He said he was one of several actors hired by Nica Noelle and was uncomfortable making films in one of the the residential communities on the island.

I suspected a personal disagreement underpinned his conscience, but I knew it was an explosive story. I researched all of his claims, and it quickly became clear that Nica Noelle, as she was known, had settled in the Vineyard. In a November 13, 2014, interview with JRL Charts, an industry publication, she acknowledged her move east from California: “We primarily shoot in New England. It’s brought a much different flavor to the movies and we’ve noticed the performers are quite different when you get them outside of LA and into the deep woods—like Thoreau’s Walden, but with sex. We really bond together, and there’s more of a family vibe, more teamwork, more intimacy. Best artistic move I’ve ever made.”

I was provided email exchanges between Nica Noelle and the film actors, who received specific instructions about how to behave after getting picked up by a hired driver at Logan Airport in Boston. “Please be discreet in the car and do not talk about shooting porn,” Nica Noelle emailed. “The driver knows that I work in the entertainment field and we do various projects and photo shoots, but I do not discuss the particulars with him nor mention the name of my company, and I would like to keep it that way.”

Nica Noelle also set specific ground rules with respect to social media. “Please do not tweet or otherwise publicly post photos or other information regarding where you are, or announce that you are going to Martha’s Vineyard.”

Not all of her actors followed the Twitter prohibition against referencing Martha’s Vineyard, nor did Nica Noelle, who frequently referenced her fondness for life on the island and posted video clips to her Twitter account.

When I called Nica Noelle in February 2015, she denied making films. She accused me of invading her privacy. Ultimately, she said I would be hearing from her lawyer and business partner.

That call occurred on a Tuesday night. Our publishing deadline was the next evening. I worked overnight and into the morning. The headline read: “Adult film director bases studio on Martha’s Vineyard.”

On Wednesday morning, publisher and owner Peter Oberfest received an angry telephone call from Nica Noelle. Had I planned to say anything to him before I published this story, he wanted to know? He was rightly angry with me. I had no good answer, because the truth is I suspected what came next.

The story was put on hold. The next week Oberfest said he did not think it qualified as a news story, that it was a private matter, and that there was no reason to draw attention to what Nica Noelle was doing, other than for its salacious quality. She was not breaking the law. By drawing attention to it we would be making it into a story—something, I pointed out, newspapers do all the time.

Oberfest told me the story did not serve the interests of the paper or the community. I objected. I insisted that by any measure of what a community newspaper ought to report, it was a news story.

I said nothing to the staff. I was the editor and I needed to keep them motivated. My frustration sat in the pit of my stomach.

I considered resigning, but I had a daughter in college and was not at retirement age. As time went on, I intermittently sparred with Oberfest over the language of editorials and the value of hoisting half-baked stories to the web—something I objected to. But ultimately there comes a point when a reporter or editor knows his or her time has come.

At a meeting in July 2016 to discuss future policies, Oberfest, invoking the privileges of ownership, asked that I not publish pieces concerning President Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to the Vineyard that might cause him embarrassment in front of his friends.

I asked for specific examples. Among three, he cited a story, “Island ambulance service bears the cost of Obama vacation.” That article told the story of objections by two of the island’s volunteer ambulance services that balked at picking up the costs associated with following the president’s motorcade on outings. Oberfest said a description of those activities—golfing and dining out—was only meant to embarrass Mr. Obama, the implication being that my more conservative views had dictated the inclusion of those details, which were entirely accurate.

I was flabbergasted. I did not question his right to have his newspaper reflect his views, but I knew I could no longer work under those parameters. The next day I told Oberfest it was evident that we were in a bad marriage and the time had come for me to leave.

 

THE NICA NOELLE STORY became an interesting anecdote. But life is funny. On March 27 of this year, my wife sent me a text about a headline on the celebrity news site Blast: “Woman Sues After Her Martha’s Vineyard Rental Home Was Used for Gay, Transsexual Porn Shoot.”

That evening, The MV Times reported news of the lawsuit on its website, under the heading “Martha’s Vineyard rental used for porn.” The news story refers to this line, from the legal complaint: “Ms. Jensen was contacted by a reporter/editor from The Martha’s Vineyard Times on or about February 15, 2015 to confirm a telephone report that she was secretly ‘shooting porn,’ or words to that effect, on the Vineyard.”

The MV Times report did not name me, although readers would have easily concluded who it was. To my astonishment, it reported that The Times did not publish my story “because it could not be substantiated.”

I fired off an email to the new MV Times editor, George Brennan. Based on my detailed notes of my reporting, and on the completed but unpublished story itself, I told him that the “unsubstantiated” line was “categorically untrue.” The revised story states: “The Times did investigate, but never published a story about the allegations.”

The Boston Globe and the Daily Mail picked up the porn-studio-on-Martha’s Vineyard-story, as did many, many others. I was pleased that the story was now seeing the light of day, but I remained troubled that I had not met my original commitment to the caller who started me on this story, who I assured that I did not shy away from tough stories.

In a parting essay published the week I left The MV Times, I wrote:

In many ways I feel like a country doctor leaving his patients—in my case our readers—whom I have gotten to know, and who have come to me over the years to ask me to report on the stories they thought needed telling.

I worry about their future care. I worry about the changing nature of journalism and the rush to post news to the web, often leaving context and storytelling behind. And I think about the stories that would not have been told but for The MV Times.

I regret I was unable to tell the Nica Noelle story. My concerns for the nature of in-depth community storytelling remain.

Editor’s note: Peter Oberfest, publisher of The Martha’s Vineyard Times, responds to CJR’s story here.

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Nelson Sigelman is a freelance writer, occasional shore-fishing guide on Martha’s Vineyard, and a part-time shellfish constable for the Town of Tisbury. He recently published a collection of columns, Martha's Vineyard Outdoors: Fishing, Hunting and Avoiding Divorce on a Small Island.