Down East 2013 ©
During the Great Recession, Maine daily newspapers’ editorial pages shriveled up like slugs exposed to salt. Opinion editors left and weren’t replaced. Staff-produced editorials became a rarity, with syndicated – and sometimes irrelevant – pieces from major-city dailies taking their place. Local columnists all but vanished, and those who remained often worked for nothing or next to it.
The Portland Press Herald’s editorial staff shrank from three to one. The space devoted to opinion was cut from two pages to one, although it was later restored to a page and half. Few local columnists survived the purge, and those that did produced little that provoked and much that appeared to be self-serving.
At the Press Herald’s sister papers, the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, it was even worse. Both ran the Portland paper’s editorials, supplemented with national columns. Neither publication offered an opinion on local controversies in Augusta or Waterville, because there was no longer anyone on staff to write them. A handful of homegrown columnists managed to make it through, although the majority of them were non-controversial and unlikely to offend any advertisers.
In Lewiston, the Sun Journal has limited local columns to Sunday and local editorials to days when one of the editors has time to write them. Which isn’t often.
I don’t see the Times Record or Journal Tribune with any frequency, and their online offerings are limited, so I can’t comment on their editorial pages with any authority. But the last time someone mentioned something exciting from the opinion pages of the Brunswick or Biddeford papers to me was … well … I think John McKernan was still governor.
The Bangor Daily News suffered from the economic downturn much like everyone else, reducing its editorial staff from two to one, although it kept on Richard Dudman  as a part-time “senior contributing editor” until this month. Unlike the other Maine papers, the Bangor Daily managed to retain most of its columnists and two full pages of opinion each day. And starting earlier this year, it began to remake its editorial offerings in ways both traditional and unprecedented.
Many of the changes appear to be the work of Todd Benoit, the paper’s director of news and new media, arguably the most powerful staff person at the BDN. According to sources at the paper, Benoit was influential in the hiring of former Morning Sentinel reporter Erin Rhoda  as editorial page editor, a shocking departure from the Bangor habit of promoting from within. With the departure of the 94-year-old Dudman and 80-year-old columnist Kent Ward , Benoit and Rhoda have been busy filling the holes left by the old-timers with younger – and in some cases, hipper – replacements.
Chris Busby – editor of the Bollard, a Portland-based monthly – is turning out a weekly column  aimed at southern Maine readers, as well as snarky video clips  more in tune with what one might expect to find on the Daily Show than in the Daily News.
TV political analysts Democrat Ethan Strimling and Republican Phil Harriman are churning out a weekly offering of predictable babble , a sort of electoral version of Click and Clack, minus the wit. But there’s plenty of original thinking in the regular contributions, both online and in print, of pollster and political science Professor Amy Fried  and political strategist Matt Gagnon .
While some of the above marks a departure from the Bangor Daily’s historical practices, not all the old ways are being tossed out. On July 7, the paper revived its tradition of presenting a full page of Maine political analysis on Saturdays in a manner that compared favorably to the glory days of the 1980s, when the page featured the insightful and humorous Davis Rawson, the wildly prejudiced John Day and the younger and snappier Ward. This time around, the filler is provided by Strimling and Harriman, but political reporter Matthew Stone has some sharp analysis , while Rhoda shows she’s got chops in her new column/blog, “Arguably.”
Assuming the Saturday page can maintain the high standards set by Stone’s and Rhoda’s initial offerings (possibly by replacing the two TV talking heads with something more thought-provoking), the Bangor Daily News is set to claim the crown for best editorial pages in Maine.
Now, if only it had some serious competition for the title.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com .