Down East 2013 ©
Announcement pronouncements: A political activist recently sent me an e-mail complaining that some Maine media outlets were providing far more coverage to certain politicians when they announced their intentions of running for governor than to others.
I took a look at most of the recent coverage of the 2010 Blaine House contenders. I also checked news reports from the 2002 and 2006 races. After all that, I came to this conclusion:
The activist is right.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the news organizations in question are, as the complainer hinted, making decisions based on personal or political biases. It’s usually more complicated than that.
Covering candidate announcements requires more than arbitrarily deciding every gubernatorial hopeful – no matter how unqualified, unlikely or unaware – deserves the same size story or a particular amount of airtime. Since almost all announcements of candidacy for major office are routine affairs in which the person doing the announcing says little of substance, editors and news directors and even bloggers must take other considerations into account:
Has the average reader/viewer/listener ever heard of this person?
Has the editor/news director/blogger ever heard of this person?
Is there any good reason they should have?
Is the candidate from the paper’s/station’s/Web site’s primary coverage area?
Does the candidate have a reasonable chance of winning?
Even if he or she doesn’t have the remotest possibility of getting elected, does he or she offer something else of news value (a history of innovative thinking, a history of criminal activity)?
Is it likely to be a slow news day?
How many of these damn things do we have to cover, anyway?
Once all these matters have been carefully reviewed, the arbiters of news can make reasonable judgments as to how to play the story. The results may seem arbitrary, because, well, quite often they are.
So, there’s nothing unusual about the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and the Kennebec Journal in Augusta devoting considerable space to Waterville Mayor Paul LePage’s decision to run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination .
LePage is a key political figure in their circulation areas and is considered to have a shot at winning the GOP race.
Nor is there necessarily some sinister motive for Maine Public Radio giving LePage’s announcement minimal coverage. The mayor isn’t well-known statewide, and there may have been more pressing matters in the news that September day.
Democrat John Richardson got big play for the announcement of his candidacy in the Times Record , because he’s from Brunswick and his decision had local implications beyond politics .
Richardson also got good play in the Portland Press Herald  (which tends to relegate most announcements of gubernatorial candidacies to the briefs section), because he was Maine’s commissioner of economic and community development, because he’s a former speaker of the state House of Representatives, because he once represented the largest union at the paper in labor negotiations (a conflict the paper rightly disclosed) and because word of his announcement leaked out on Sunday, the slowest news day of the week.
Is this method fair? Not particularly, but it’s almost universally employed.
Green Independent candidate Lynne Williams rated a medium-size feature in the Bangor Daily News  (she lives in the Bangor paper’s coverage area), the Bar Harbor Times (she lives in Bar Harbor), some online sites  (several of which go out of their way to provide substantial coverage to every candidate , even those least deserving of attention), but little notice elsewhere .
This approach may not suit any given candidate’s purposes – or those of political activists – but the general public doesn’t seem to be complaining.
It’s worth noting that as the race progresses, news outlets tend to become more evenhanded in the amount of attention they devote to all candidates. This can have both positive and negative effects.
On the bright side, nobody gets ignored, even if they have little money, organization of chance of winning.
On the down side, the media often go too far in trying to be “fair” to fringe elements that offer voters little more than a chance to cast a ballot for “none of the above.” These excessive attempts to appear unbiased – coverage of the recent Augusta City Council race  is an excellent example – do a disservice to readers, many of whom would much prefer stories that told them who’s a kook  and who isn’t.
An office to call its own: MaineToday Media is back at the State House. The owner of the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, and Morning Sentinel has, once again, rented office space in the capital complex. The tiny two-person cubicle will be enough to accommodate KJ/Sentinel staff writer Susan Cover (who had been operating out of a sub-let desk in the Bangor Daily News’ office) and an as-yet-undetermined reporter from the Press Herald, who’ll work from Augusta when the Legislature convenes its second session in January.
The newspapers’ previous owner closed the State House bureau  (and bureaus in Brunswick and York County) last year in a cost-cutting move, leaving Cover to hunker down in a competitor’s space and the Press Herald’s Matt Wickenheiser to commute from Portland four days a week (everybody knows nothing ever happens at the State House on Fridays).
Here’s hoping the new digs signal an increased commitment to cover state government – seven days a week.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org .