The Sad Decline of Maine Editorial Pages
Diminishing opinions: The Nov. 28 Lewiston Sun Journal editorial page contained not one bit of local content. The space where the paper’s main opinion piece usually goes was filled with an op-ed on auto emission controls from the Los Angeles Times. There was also an editorial from the Orlando Sentinel on NASA’s budget. Throw in Rich Lowry’s syndicated column and a cartoon from the Columbus Dispatch.
Must have taken all of fifteen minutes to slap together.
It would be one thing if the Sun Journal had cut corners on its editorial page to devote more effort to its news pages. But, as that day’s front page shows, that’s hardly the case. The Lewiston daily relied on an out-of-date Associated Press story for its coverage of the arrests of Occupy Maine protesters at the Blaine House (wrong number of arrests, no names of those arrested, even though other papers with early deadlines had the details correct). Its reporting on a Lewiston man who generated national headlines by accusing an assistant coach at Syracuse University of sexually molesting him was also courtesy of the AP, without so much as a self-produced sidebar. The only staff-generated content on its feeble front page was a feature story on a former Lewiston resident who’s now a big shot at Starbucks.
That particular day’s paper is hardly an anomaly. The SJ managed just five self-produced editorials in the preceding week. Its Sunday edition usually sports an original opinion piece, a couple of local columnists and some op-eds, but that’s an exception. On weekdays, there’s often nothing in the way of local columns, unless some annoyed reader or aggrieved pol demands space. Which is, no doubt, welcome, because that stuff is free.
The Sun Journal’s last editorial page editor departed more than two years ago and wasn’t replaced. Other editors have tried to fill in, but of late they seem to have given up.
A similar decline has been evident at the MaineToday Media papers. The Portland Press Herald used to have two full pages of opinion pieces each day, of which a significant percentage was self-produced. On Nov. 28, the paper had just one page, but no editorial – that space was turned over to a failed mayoral candidate – an outsourcing practice that’s become more frequent since the latest round of layoffs and buyouts in October. A syndicated columnist, a cartoon and some letters to the editor filled up the rest of the space.
At least some of it was local.
One encouraging sign: The Press Herald masthead has a new listing for Greg Kesich as the editorial page editor. In last month’s bloodbath, Kesich was supposed to have been demoted from his old job as an editorial writer to being a reporter, but the elevation of Bill Thompson from head of editorial to editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel seems to have altered the situation. Not only does that seem to indicate that the opinion pages will now have a full-time staffer, but that it will be somebody who, unlike Thompson, has some local knowledge of issues and players.
In the meantime, the KJ and Sentinel editorial pages are nearly as anemic as the Sun Journal’s, although they managed a few letters to the editor on Nov. 28 and feature local columnists about half the time, something their sister paper in Portland has all but eliminated. Kesich isn’t yet listed as being in charge of those spaces, but we can hope.
The Bangor Daily News has experienced cutbacks as well, but it still offers two full opinion pages daily, and at least half the content is usually local. Editorial page editor Tom Groening, assisted by “senior contributing editor” Richard Dudman, produces one or two editorials, a lively letters section, numerous op-eds from interesting local sources and a roster of Maine columnists with something to say. And the Bangor paper clings to the glorious past by still using its own editorial cartoonist.
The situation can’t be characterized as good, but there are a couple of small signs that it might not get a lot worse.
Burned on Burns: The value of editors with lots of local institutional memory was never more obvious than on the front page of the Nov. 26 Kennebec Journal. It featured a story by staff writer Susan Cover on allegations of campaign finance violations against state Rep. David R. Burns of Alfred.
The accompanying photo in the print edition was of David C. Burns, a former state trooper.
The KJ ran a prominent correction the next day, but I have to think that if the company had been more considerate of something other than the bottom line in its wholesale disposal of experienced staff, this mistake never would have happened.
M.D. at MHPC: The conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center’s new news service has reached an agreement with its first contributor. Former Press Herald editorial writer and current right-wing columnist M.D. Harmon will write opinion pieces for Maine Policy News’ website. According to Harmon, the number and frequency of his contributions have yet to be determined, and he expects to continue writing his weekly pieces for the Portland paper.
Hometown takes a hit: Hometown Newspapers, publisher of several central Maine weeklies, has consolidated some of its publications, closed offices and laid off staff, but its publisher insists the company is not in financial trouble.
Hometown combined the SV Weekly and Piscataquis Times into the Highlands Journal earlier this year. More recently, it further cut back by running the same second section in the Highlands and the Bangor-based Citizen Journal. The company recently closed its offices in Newport and Greenville, transferring all staff to Bangor. And it laid off Larry Grard, editor of the Journal.
“We went from a full-time writer,” said publisher Bob Pushard Jr., referring to Grard,“ and reallocated that money to freelancers. Our budget did not go down any. We just needed more flexibility.”
As for the other changes, Pushard said they weren’t indications of problems. “We were never not stable,” he said. “We always look at the business to see how we can get better.”
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.