Down East 2013 ©
Fiscal drivel: In my other job as a political columnist, I often run into people of various partisan persuasions who think they know how to solve the state’s ongoing budget problems.
“Just cut the size of the Legislature,” the more conservative of them tell me, “and get those lazy cheaters off welfare.”
Those of a leftist bent always suggest, “Cut the size of the Legislature, and end corporate welfare.”
And the more moderate types tend to stick to basics. “Everything would be fine if we just had a smaller Legislature,” they say.
I hate to shatter all their dreams, but the Legislature accounts for a little over 1 percent of the current state budget for fiscal years 2010 and 2011. Eliminating it entirely wouldn’t have a noticeable impact on the current deficit.
The Maine media bear much of the blame for the public’s ignorance about how their tax dollars are spent. Rarely does a reporter provide the perspective needed to help the public understand the scale and complexities involved in the state’s spending plan.
Did I say “rarely”? In this round of budget stories, make that “never.” The reporters who covered the Dec. 18 announcement by Gov. John Baldacci of $438 million in cuts, transfers, gimmicks, and wishes did so in as uninspired a fashion as I can recall.
Most of the TV stories I saw on the budget issue were so superficial as to be meaningless, relying on handouts from the governor’s office and comments from predictable sources. WGME-TV’s Kate Barker  did as well as any, but told her viewers the cuts might not pass the Legislature until spring, which must have been news to legislative leaders, who’ve said they’re planning to push a budget bill through early in the new year.
The Bangor Daily News didn’t even offer a staff-produced story in the next day’s paper, instead relying on a perfunctory Associated Press piece  with a few quotes thrown in from interviews conducted by Capitol News Service’s Mal Leary.
Nor did the Bangor paper bother to follow up in its Dec. 21 edition. After all, what’s the rush if it’s not going to be passed until spring?
The Lewiston Sun Journal also ran the AP article, supplementing it with a sidebar from staff writer Rebekah Metzler that informed readers the governor’s proposed cuts to municipal revenue sharing and aid to education would affect local cities and towns. How? Well, it might result in higher property taxes or reduced services or more regional cooperation. Nobody Metzler talked to seemed sure. As for the reductions Baldacci announced in health and human services, natural resources, and other areas, Metzler makes no mention of them.
(Metzler’s story doesn’t seem to be online, but given the muddled state of the Sun Journal’s “temporary” Web site  it’s difficult to say.)
The Times Record in Brunswick, being a p.m. paper, had a deadline problem, but got a brief, staff-produced story  up on its Web site shortly after the governor’s afternoon announcement on Friday.
The paper promised more details on Monday, but didn’t explain why a complete story wouldn’t be published in its Saturday edition. Maybe it was, but nobody updated the Web site to reflect that.
Maine Public Radio did a workmanlike job of initial coverage , but since public broadcasting’s news department takes weekends off, there’s been no further word on the matter to date.
The MaineToday Media papers (Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel) took top honors in this competition. That shouldn’t give them swelled heads.
KJ staff writer Susan Cover produced a competent report  on Baldacci’s press conference and a rundown of the reactions of many of the usual suspects.
It was marginally better than the AP story (a sidebar on a group calling for tax hikes was a nice touch), but left lots of room for follow-ups.
The Dec. 20 Telegram relied on sometimes-State House reporter Matt Wickenheiser  to fill in the holes, but instead, he merely rehashed the ground Cover had already skimmed over, supplying a few new details, but little depth. The article was supplemented by a useful chart on where the budget money goes that ought to put an end to the myth of balancing the budget by reducing the size of the Legislature. But it probably won’t.
Three accompanying pieces by other KJ reporters (I'll call them stories 1 , 2 , 3 ) gave the package the appearance of thoroughness without the reality. Squawking by advocates for programs facing cuts is no substitute for digging into what the reductions really mean, both to those directly affected by the spending plan and those who have to pay for it.
Wickenheiser was back on Dec. 21 with reactions from a seemingly random sample of gubernatorial candidates .
Several of them, particularly Republican Peter Mills and Democrat Rosa Scarcelli, had interesting insights on the shortcomings of the Baldacci plan, making this article the most interesting and informative of the lot.
But that’s not saying much.
Fresh thinking: Freelance journalist Colin Woodard shows what a little creativity and initiative can produce when applied to the sort of news event that tends to result in boilerplate coverage. Woodard did some analysis of the final spending reports  filed by both sides in November’s same-sex marriage referendum and discovered a trend missed by reporters for the Bangor Daily News  and Kennebec Journal .
While the daily papers concentrated on the obvious spending gap between supporters of gay marriage and opponents – with those favoring the law raising $2 million more than those seeking to repeal it – Woodard went deeper. His analysis, posted a day before the story hit print, shows the anti-same-sex-marriage forces may have had a significant financial edge in the final days before the vote. Since that side prevailed at the polls, Woodard’s discovery might be significant in understanding what happened and why.
Which is sort of what this whole journalism thing is supposed to be about.
Dowd is up: The Bangor Daily News reported on Dec. 19 that managing editor Michael Dowd is being promoted to editor-in-chief  on Jan. 4, 2010.
Dowd will replace retiring executive editor Mark Woodward .
The story didn’t explain the title change, but did say Dowd would be “the overseer and manager of the day-to-day operations of the newsroom for both print and online publications.”
Dowd has twenty-eight years of journalism experience. He began working at the BDN as a sportswriter.
The story said he’ll work “closely” with Todd Benoit, the company’s director of news and new media. Benoit had also been rumored to be in line for the top editor’s job.
Stations in bankruptcy court: Citadel Broadcasting Corp. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection  on Dec. 20.
The move was carefully planned to allow the company to reduce its debt and reorganize. Citadel owns eleven radio stations in Maine , including WBLM (102.9 FM), WJBQ (97.9 FM) and WCYY (94.3 FM) in Portland, as well as stations in Augusta and Presque Isle.
According to the company and industry sources, all Citadel stations will continue operating normally, no fire sales are planned and staff will be paid. But considerable belt-tightening is expected in the new year, with less local programming a likely money-saving move.
More info needed: On Dec. 16, the Portland Press Herald ran a column by William McKinley , taking issue with an earlier column by Ron Bancroft , a regular contributor to the Press Herald, that McKinley felt unfairly characterized Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Richardson.
McKinley is identified in the paper as “an attorney who lives in Portland.”
In fact, he’s Richardson’s former law partner, a fact that readers should have been told.
That omission makes me wonder if the Press Herald checks op-ed authors’ backgrounds before publishing their remarks to see if they have obvious conflicts of interest.
And if not, why not?
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org