Evaluating the Story-Swapping Deal
Trade grade: About eight months ago, the state’s largest newspapers reached an agreement to exchange some of their enterprise stories with each other on a daily basis. The Portland Press Herald, Bangor Daily News, Lewiston Sun Journal, Morning Sentinel in Waterville and Kennebec Journal in Augusta all agreed to share articles, in an effort that was supposed to save money, free staff to do more investigative work and make the papers more competitive with TV and Internet news sources. The story swap was also designed to put pressure on the Associated Press, the news cooperative that has been criticized for not doing enough to reduce its rates and tailor its product to the papers’ changing needs.
How has the deal worked out?
For readers, it’s been a qualified success. Pick up any of the dailies, and you get a bigger cross section of the state’s news than before. And it’s printed in a more timely fashion. Instead of waiting an extra day for an AP rewrite of the results of an important trial or meeting in some other part of the state (during which time the story was being widely disseminated on radio, TV and the Web), the news is often broken in all five papers on the same morning.
But there’s also been a downside. Some of the papers, most notably the Sun Journal, seem to be relying on the swapped stories to make up for the news they aren’t bothering to cover. On May 14, two of the three pieces that appeared above the fold on the front page of the SJ came from the Press Herald (interestingly, neither piece merited such major play in the Portland paper). The one local story the SJ highlighted was about the apparent closing of a Lewiston comic-book store.
In all, the SJ had more stories in its front section that day from other Maine dailies than it did articles from its own staff.
And the May 14 mix wasn’t atypical. The Lewiston paper appears to be gradually increasing the amount of shared copy it runs each day to the detriment of its own local news.
The other dailies haven’t been quite as lazy.
Portland has rarely used shared copy on the front page and only occasionally on the front of the local section, tending to relegate it to the inside of the paper. Unfortunately, this practice sometimes results in the most important news of the day showing up on page B3. Better editorial consideration is needed.
Most days, Bangor tends to use the other paper’s stories, no matter how newsworthy, as filler in the back pages of its State section. But the BDN has played a swapped piece out front on occasion if it’s particularly significant or if its own crop of news is a little thin. A little more consistency would be nice.
The Sentinel and KJ have always shared stories with the Press Herald (all three are owned by Blethen Maine Newspapers), so the new arrangement hasn’t been as significant a change for them. As before, Portland-produced articles often make page 1, but stuff from Bangor and Lewiston (with whom the two papers’ circulation areas partially overlap) usually gets played inside the local section, regardless of its news value.
If story swapping has resulted in more local news in any of the papers, it’s not readily apparent. In fact, with smaller news holes at most of the dailies, the average number of staff-produced pieces seems to have shrunk slightly since the arrangement was put in place.
Investigative reporting? The recession and the decline in advertising revenue have virtually eliminated the concept at the smaller dailies. Portland and Bangor have done some work that involved serious digging, but far less than they did even five years ago. That can’t be blamed on sharing stories, but it’s clear that any savings that have resulted from the arrangement haven’t come close to covering the shortfall, let alone produced extra cash for long-term projects.
And as for the AP, Lewiston has given notice it plans to drop the service in the near future to save money. If that forces the wire service to further trim its staff in the state, other dailies may also quit. The AP might then consider pulling out of Maine, reducing the State House press corps by two and eliminating a couple of good general assignment reporters based in Portland.
Clearly, the story-swapping deal hasn’t accomplished all the goals established for it when it was launched last September. But, on balance, it has made most of the dailies a little better, and with a bit more editorial oversight and initiative, it could lead to further improvements.
It’s not the fix the industry needs, but it could be the patch that will hold things together until that fix arrives.
Vacancy: The Portland Press Herald’s May 12 story by staff writer David Hench about the sale of the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland, the state’s largest combined hotel and convention facility, contained a glaring omission.
While Hench provided plenty of information about Lafayette Hotels Group, the Bangor-based company that’s purchasing the downtown landmark, he neglected to include the name of the seller, Harper Hotels Inc. of Indiana. Nor did he mention the status of Harper’s other hotel in Portland, the Holiday Inn West, which is still for sale.
For the complete story, one had to turn to Mainebiz’s daily online update, which had all the important information (in a much shorter article).
Unwarranted: In a previous posting, I wrote glowingly (well, semi-glowingly) of a May 7 story by Lewiston Sun Journal reporter Rebekah Metzler in which she appeared to have uncovered an angle everyone else in the State House press corps missed.
I should have known better.
Metzler noted that House Republican Leader Joshua Tardy had voted against a bill to reduce the size of the House, even though he had taken part in a GOP news conference in early April in which he’d joined other party members in calling for smaller government. Metzler wrote that Tardy was unavailable after the vote to explain this seeming discrepancy.
In my posting, I urged Metzler (or anybody else) to follow up on this matter, since Tardy has made no secret of his plans to run for governor and needs to be held accountable. But after a few days of seeing nothing further in the media, I decided to call Tardy myself, figuring I could use a quote from him trying to squirm out of his contradictory statements in my weekly political column.
Except there weren’t any contradictory statements. After talking to him and reviewing printed versions of statements made at the news conference, it seems clear that Tardy’s call for smaller government was aimed at eliminating what he sees as expensive and unnecessary state programs and had nothing to do with a reducing the number of legislators. In fact, that issue doesn’t seem to have been mentioned at the news conference Metzler cited. Tardy was also able to demonstrate that he has a long record of opposing cutting the size of the Legislature because he feels it would disenfranchise rural Mainers.
Metzler’s angle seems to have flattened out.
That’s my correction. I await hers.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.