Lost In The Bangor Daily News Website
Online off course: In my part of the state, the Bangor Daily News and Portland Press Herald don’t arrive until mid-morning most days. That means that if I want to know what they’re covering, I’m dependent on their websites.
With the Press Herald, that’s not a problem. All its staff-produced stories are online long before I wake up. And the site is organized much like the print edition, so it’s easy to find what I want. While major breaking news may bump some articles further down the home page later in the day, it’s rare for an important piece to disappear.
It’s a whole different situation at the Bangor paper’s site. A story that runs on the front page of the print version may end up buried six pages deep in the “see all news” section, behind notices of garden club meetings, inconsequential routine police reports, and national and international pieces. When that happens, there’s no way to know something important may be lurking in the site’s nether regions.
On April 19, for instance, the top story on the BDN’s state page in print was about a bill sponsored by a Bangor legislator to curb fundraising abuses. It wasn’t on the site’s home page. Nor did it show up on the online statewide news page (which, in spite of its name, is often clogged with out-of-state wire stories) or the one devoted to politics. To find it, a committed reader would have had to check the Greater Bangor regional page. This game of journalistic hide and seek happens nearly every day, making it tough for those of us in the boondocks to keep tabs on the Bangor Daily’s scoops. I called BDN online editor Will Davis to ask him why.
“We don’t usually leave the same stories on the front page of the website for very long, unless it’s a huge story,” David said. “The website isn’t a carbon copy of the newspaper. The paper is a roundup of all the day’s news. The website is more of a snapshot of what’s happening right now.”
Davis said he tries to leave all new stories on the web’s front page for “a couple hours, at least,” but with a hundred and fifty articles a day cycling through the online edition, that doesn’t always happen. He said he’s working on improving the regional pages to make finding current articles easier.
“[P]eople want to know what's happening right now,” Davis wrote in a subsequent email, “and to that end visit the site several times a day on average. To accommodate those readers, who make up the majority of our traffic, we'll leave a few big stories out on the front page but generally try to cycle through many other stories to keep the front page fresh.”
The BDN’s approach doesn’t strike me as unreasonable, since it helps the paper develop a separate identity for its online version. But it does make it difficult for those of us outside its primary circulation area to find out what’s in print today.
It seems as if there ought to be a way to correct that problem (unlike the Lewiston Sun Journal and the MaineToday Media papers, the Bangor Daily is not yet offering an app making the print edition available on tablets such as the iPad) without interfering with the up-to-the-minute nature of the home page.
News from Augusta via Ellsworth: Arguably the most significant news story in the print edition of the April 19 Press Herald wasn’t on its website and wasn’t produced by a staff writer or a wire service reporter. It was a piece by Alan Baker, publisher of the Ellsworth American, on a hearing the previous week on legislation to end the monopoly on teachers’ health insurance held by the Maine Education Association’s MEA Benefits Trust.
Baker said his weekly and the Portland daily have a “very informal” story-swapping arrangement. So informal, apparently, that this is the first time I can recall seeing a full American article in the Press Herald.
Good thing it showed up, though, or readers in southern Maine might never have known about the more than $80 million the Benefits Trust has accumulated in fees from insurance companies and the claims of some municipalities that it’s costing them more to buy through the MEA affiliate than it would to negotiate their own deals.
In somebody else’s words: There’s editing and then there’s heavy-handed meddling. The editorial page editors at the Press Herald slipped over the line between the former and the latter on April 11 when they published an op-ed piece by Teresa Swinbourne of South Portland opposing Central Maine Power’s Smart Meter conversion. In a letter to the editor (scroll down, it's the next to last letter) published April 20, Swinbourne complained that an entire sentence (“And now, CMP has received the backing of the Public Utilities Commission, which in a ‘tentative order’ from its two active members says it will not review the smart meter plan or study the effects of the meters themselves on people.”) was added to her column without her permission.
If the Press Herald’s editors felt this information was crucial to understanding what Swinbourne had to say, they should have either called her and discussed the addition or placed the material in an editor’s note at the end of the article. There’s no excuse for making a change of this magnitude in an opinion piece without giving the author more consideration.
When facts aren’t enough: Times Record staff writer Beth Brogan collected a lot of information for her April 19 story on the auction of the assets of a Brunswick heating company that had closed without refunding customers’ prepayments for fuel.
It appears Brogan attempted to speak with everyone involved in the controversy and reviewed all the documents available. But she could have gone a step further to make her article much clearer to anyone unfamiliar with the complex laws governing bankruptcy.
She could have gotten some analysis and opinion from experts in the field.
Without that, it’s difficult to understand what’s going on, since there’s no one to explain the difference between secured and unsecured creditors, as well as why it’s unlikely a company that’s already liquidated all its assets would bother to declare bankruptcy. While lawyers directly connected to this case may not want to comment, it’s not difficult to find other experienced attorneys willing to give general information on how the process works.
If Brogan or her editors had thought to do that, they’d have provided reader with real insight into the problem and boosted this story from merely competent to first-rate.
Foul ball: A headline from a sports story in the print edition of the April 19 Bangor Daily News:
“UMaine needs to play unselfish”
Unselfish refuses to play UMaine until its grammar improves.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.