Editor’s Note, August 15: Maine lost a highly respected journalist Aug. 15 when Chris Cousins died of a heart attack at age 42.
After finishing college, Chris Cousins was living in his girlfriend’s basement trying to figure out how to make a living.
It was the late 1990s and he got two job offers: He could make $9 an hour working construction or $8 an hour working at the Advertiser Democrat, a weekly newspaper in the Oxford County town of Norway, about 20 miles northwest of Lewiston. He chose journalism. And after learning his trade from the ground up, including time running his own freelance writing business, he is now Statehouse bureau chief for the Bangor Daily News.
“I live life walking around going, ‘That would be a good story, that would be a good story’,” said Cousins, 42. After 20 years in the business, “I still think journalism is crucial in society.”
Cousins was inspired to pursue a career in news by a teacher at Oxford Hills High School. He worked on the school paper and did the same at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire.
That teacher instilled in him the belief that being a reporter means being open to hearing and reporting all sides of an issue. Cousins describes it as a “desire to seek out the truth.”
After his time at the Advertiser Democrat, Cousins spent several years at the Times Record in Brunswick, both as a reporter and city editor.
Subsequently, he was selected for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard and later joined the State House News Service, which provided coverage of state government for 11 different newspapers. From there, he landed the job at the BDN.
While other reporters may run into sources at the grocery store or elsewhere in the community, Statehouse reporters like Cousins are stationed at the capitol – essentially embedded with the politicians, bureaucrats and legislative aides they cover.
“Most of them know what they say or do could end up in a newspaper story,” he said. “I try to do it fairly and treat everyone fairly.”
Cousins does worry about the continuing erosion of legitimate news and the popularity of sites that look like news but are often outlets for partisan viewpoints.
“More and more American people are gravitating toward news sources that line up with their own ideologies,” he said. “It just makes it harder and harder to find readers when they are used to seeing partisan blogs that are reinforcing what they already thought.”
Then there’s the outright media bashers who criticize the press regardless of the story. “It’s very easy to defend yourself when they are just trying to shoot the messenger,” he said.
Social media has added to the pressure of the job, requiring journalists to keep up with Facebook and Twitter, all while trying to sort out sometimes complex news stories as they happen. Cousins said journalists are being asked to do more and more when they cover an event, such as providing live video, tweeting updates and taking photos.
That’s why you’ll see Cousins or his colleagues juggling a laptop and cellphone, ready to push the Publish button as soon as an event ends. It’s part of quickly and accurately telling a story, while keeping up with the emergence of other types of media.
POSITION: Statehouse bureau chief for the Bangor Daily News
YEARS AT CURRENT EMPLOYER: About 8 1/2 years
YEARS AS A JOURNALIST: Professionally, 20 years this summer. He also was editor of his high school and college newspapers.
FAVORITE SOURCES FOR LOCAL NEWS: Bangor Daily News, MaineToday Media, WCSH.
FAVORITE SOURCES FOR NATIONAL NEWS: A very wide variety, much of it social media driven, but definitely The Washington Post and The New York Times. I also enjoy Politico, Vox and 538.
ANY ADVICE FOR BEING A SMART NEWS CONSUMER: Use a variety of sources and guard against any information that is coming from an organization with a bias in either direction. They won’t give you the whole story. A lot of publications fill their stories with links to primary documents and other reports that provide important context. Click on those links. Read the source documents for yourself.
Susan Cover has been a journalist for 24 years, working at newspapers in Kansas, Rhode Island, Ohio and Maine.