Down East 2013 ©
A change in the climate?: The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram have lost all their experienced political reporters, but that doesn’t mean the journalists left behind can’t score a major scoop. Or, possibly, a major screw-up.
On July 20, staff writer Dieter Bradbury wrote a story on the presidential race in Maine  in which he stated, “About 39 percent of voters [in this state] are unenrolled, 29 percent are registered as Democrats and 32 percent as Republicans, according to figures from the Secretary of State’s Office.”
The same figures turned up the next day in a story by Elbert Aull, again attributed to the secretary’s office. 
In addition, Bradbury claims, this time without any attribution, that, “Democrats control the first [congressional] district in southern Maine …. Lewiston is in the second district, where Republicans hold the edge.”
This is all big news. If it’s true. Which I don’t think it is.
For at least three decades, Democrats have had more party members in Maine than Republicans. That’s according to the Secretary of State’s Office. If a reporter has evidence that’s changed, he should have made a lot more of that shift than a couple of sentences buried deep in an inconsequential story about John McCain visiting the state.
I called the Department of State today for the most recent voter registration numbers it could provide, which are from the 2006 election. At that time, unenrolled voters comprised almost 38 percent of the electorate, Dems had just over 31 percent and the GOP managed a tad over 28 percent. About 3 percent were Green Independents, who for some reason don’t show up on the Bradbury/Aull scale at all. A Google search turned up some slightly different numbers on various news and political sites, but none varied enough to give Republicans anything close to edge over Democrats.
As for the claim the 2nd District is a GOP stronghold, I await evidence. The northern part of the state voted Democratic in the last four presidential races. The area’s congressional seat has been in Dem hands since 1994. State senators from the region skew slightly to the right, state House members slightly to the left. That doesn’t sound like much of a Republican “edge.”
If the Press Herald has a scoop on this alleged power shift, it needs to call attention to it with a big headline. If the paper made a mistake (or two), it needs to run a correction and stop repeating the error(s).
A change in control?: For an insightful article on who’s really calling the shots at the Press Herald and the other Blethen papers in Maine, check out Bill Richards’ excellent reporting at crosscut.com.
Richards makes a convincing case that banks holding Blethen debt from its $230 million purchase of the Maine papers a decade ago have the final say on business decisions, such as offering employees buyouts. Those banks also seem to be behind the recent announcement that the company would lay off another bunch of people in mid-August.
Left unanswered: How long before the controllers of the purse strings also start meddling in journalistic decisions?
A change in style: I had to double check the byline on an editor’s column that ran in the Lewiston Sun Journal on July 20.
It said it was by executive editor Rex Rhoades, but I could have sworn it was ghostwritten by Press Herald/Sunday Telegram editor Jeannine Guttman.  since it was written in the same self-serving style as many of her weekly columns, in which she regularly fails to address issues of concern to her readers.
Rhoades, whose increasingly rare columns have in the past been honest and straightforward, comes off as a flack for a desperate industry by trying to convince us the economic disruption hitting newspapers isn’t all that big a deal.
“We have a Web site that is growing by leaps and bounds,” he writes, “with unique visitors up 40 percent year to year. When our print and Web audience is combined, our readership may be larger than any time in our history.”
That sounds like something he cribbed word for word from Guttman. No mention of declining circulation on the print side. No discussion of how Web visits don’t translate into advertising dollars the way print readers used to. No explanation for the cuts in quantity and quality at the paper over the last two years.
“Ten years ago, we had 15 local news reporters at the Sun Journal,” Rhoades notes, “we now have 16, and that doesn’t include more than 40 other sports reporters, photographers, editors and designers.”
I don’t know how many editors the Sun Journal had a decade ago, but I bet it was significantly more than today. In the past couple of years, the paper has lost a lot of editorial experience, and it shows in the sloppy work it publishes nearly every day.
Columns like Rhoades’ aren’t why newspapers have financial problems. But they are why newspapers have a credibility problem.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com .