Editorial Shift at the Portland Press Herald
Diminished opinions: The Portland Press Herald editorial pages – and those of its sister publications, the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel – took a big hit in last week’s round of layoffs and buyouts. Until the cutbacks hit, the opinion staff consisted of three people: editorial page director Bill Thompson, liberal editorial writer Greg Kesich, and conservative writer M.D. Harmon. They produced or edited the local content for all three papers. Once the dust settles, according to reliable sources, the only one left on that beat will be Thompson.
Harmon is negotiating the terms of his buyout, which may include continuing his weekly column. Kesich is returning to the Press Herald’s much-depleted reporting corps, where he could have a tough time re-establishing his credibility as an objective observer after years of promoting the left-wing line.
Maybe company CEO Richard Connor will write more to fill in the gap.
Speaking of editorials: There was a good one in the Lewiston Sun Journal on Oct. 16. Scott Thistle pointed out the $600 million increase in salaries over the last seven years at the University of Maine System. Thistle based his analysis of the 150 percent hike in payroll on data provided by the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank. But when MHPC released those numbers a few days earlier, coverage in most of the Maine media was limited to an Associated Press brief that did little more than regurgitate the center’s press release.
Thistle’s analysis seemed to show the situation was even worse than the group claimed.
At a time when the state is facing deep financial problems, it seems like a no-brainer for journalists to investigate this alleged overspending. But aside from this single editorial, no one did.
I’d like to think it was something other than prejudice against the MHPC’s right-wing views that caused this collective lack of interest.
I’d like to think that. But I don’t.
We’re so good: The Maine Press Association announced its annual awards this past weekend, and, as usual, the state’s newspapers devoted extensive space to coverage.
The Maine Sunday Telegram carried an article on the awards won by itself and its daily counterpart, the Portland Press Herald, but no mention of any honors that went to other Maine papers.
Which raises this question: If it’s news when you win, why isn’t it news when your competition does likewise?
The Lewiston Sun Journal did better, but only slightly. In two stories – one on the front page devoted to Sun Journal reporter Steve Mistler being named journalist of the year and another on the front of the Maine section detailing all the other awards it won – the Lewiston paper managed to devote one sentence to the Press Herald winning the best daily paper award.
The Bangor Daily News devoted most of its business page on Oct. 17 to its award winners, including a former reporter inducted into the MPA’s hall of fame and numerous other winners, but did have the integrity to mention the major winners from other papers in the final paragraphs.
Mayoral maxes and mush: Coverage of the race for mayor of Portland has been uneven, which is the norm for reporting on politics in Maine’s most populous municipality. But some of the best stuff has been coming from an unexpected source. And the least helpful reporting is showing up in places that usually do better.
Let’s get to the good work first.
The Portland Press Herald and staff writer Jason Singer have done some uncharacteristically solid work in helping readers sort out the field of fifteen candidates. In spite of the Portland paper’s long tradition of producing bland profiles of candidates that provided little insight into character and competence, this series has a bit of edge to it. The Oct. 17 piece on Jodie Lapchick didn’t flinch from exposing her lack of experience and her business failure. The Oct. 14 article on Councilor David Marshall laid out his strengths and weaknesses (although it’s almost inexcusable that this story originally listed Marshall as a Democrat, when he’s a prominent member of the Green Independent Party – it makes one wonder if any editors at the Portland paper actually have a clue about what’s going on), as did the Oct. 12 story on ex-state Rep. John Eder. The online chats with each candidate add depth, although the ones I got through were short on new information.
Overall, though, I hope this is a trend that will continue in future Press Herald candidate coverage.
Equally good is The Bollard’s voters’ guide, which not only provides plenty of juicy gossip, but also solid information on personalities. The piece hits on lots of important issues the rest of the media seem to have missed, such as lobster by-catch, waterfront zoning and zoning for chain stores. Bollard editor and publisher Chris Busby also has the guts to handicap the candidates, something most political observers have been too chicken to attempt due to the uncertainties of ranked-choice voting.
As for the weak coverage that pervades the rest of Portland’s press, there’s little to be said. It’s not enough to ask the candidates questions and simply print their responses without putting those replies in context or checking for accuracy. To that end, the Portland Daily Sun and the normally more aggressive Forecaster come up short.
Longer isn’t better: Maine has a problem with prescription drug abuse, particularly opiates. It affects all kinds of people. It causes crime and Medicaid fraud. And it’s difficult to treat.
The only difference between the preceding paragraph and John Richardson’s stories on that issue in the Maine Sunday Telegram and Portland Press Herald is my little essay is shorter. A lot shorter. Richardson has to date devoted about four full newspaper pages to telling you that same stuff in infinitely more detail. And he has four more parts to publish.
I’m all for raising public awareness about important issues, but it seems as if one or two pieces would have accomplished that. This exercise in wretched excess seems more directed at winning some kind of prize than informing anybody about anything.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.