How Much Coverage Is Too Much?
by Al Diamon
Over-rider: Starting on August 8 with a piece headlined “Rides go wrong for poor,” and continuing on August 9 (“Amid troubles, some ask: Why revamp ride system?”), August 10 (“Complaints about MaineCare ride brokers may exceed limit”), August 13 (“Doubts arise over need to revamp MaineCare system”), August 14 (“Legislators criticize revamped program”), August 15 (“State won’t drop broken rides system”) and August 19 (“MaineCare ride complaint reports fail to add up”), MaineToday Media reporter Joe Lawlor has devoted thousands of words to covering problems with a state program to provide transportation to low-income people.
As Lawlor noted in his very first piece, MaineCare (the state’s Medicaid program) had to change the way rides were dispatched to meet new federal guidelines, but giving the duties to two out-of-state contractors has resulted in many clients missing important appointments and necessary trips. That information is clear from the first article. The second piece covers much of the same ground before discussing why the system had to be changed — a matter that was touched on in the initial story. Third episode: There have been lots of complaints, perhaps more than allowed by the rules. That, too, was in the first installment. Fourth chapter: Maybe no changes were needed. That idea had been previously raised in, you guessed it, the first story.
And so on. Each day’s additional column-inches contained interviews with new people saying much the same things that had been said by others already. What little fresh information was offered was material that could have been obtained before the first story ever appeared. In short, Lawlor and MaineToday were repeating themselves in an effort to … well, I’m not sure. Keep the issue alive? Fill space on slow summer days?
Make no mistake, this is a real story about an important issue. But it could have been covered in one or two pieces that should have been more concise, more complete and more powerful. Spreading this information out over so many days not only dilutes the impact, but also calls into question the editorial judgment behind MaineToday’s decision.
A footnote: In all the space devoted to this matter, MaineToday has yet to address a criticism raised by one of the experts quoted in Lawlor’s stories. As reported by the Maine Wire, Kathleen Nolan, director of state policy and programs for the National Association of Medicaid Directors, wrote a letter to MTM on August 15 claiming her comments were taken out of context. I’m quoted in that posting saying that such assertions should be dealt with thoroughly and publicly. I don’t know about the former, but MaineToday definitely hasn’t managed the latter.
Wire us the money: Speaking of the Maine Wire, the conservative news service run by the Maine Heritage Policy Center, its reporter, Steve Robinson, appears to have run into a financial blockade after filing a freedom-of-information request with legislative Democrats.
In May, Robinson asked for all e-mails and other documents relating to the majority party’s plans to institute a new school-rating system to counteract the one used by Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Ana Hicks, chief of staff for House Speaker Mark Eves, responded that they’d get back to him with a cost estimate and a timeframe. Nothing happened until July, when Robinson asked for an update. Hicks replied that staff had devoted about 20 hours to compiling 10,000 documents and would give him a cost estimate soon. On August 12, Hicks sent Robinson a letter informing him the search was complete, and he could stop by to review the material – after paying a fee of $1,432.50 ($15 per hour for 95.5 hours of staff time).
Robinson asked that the fee be waived, since the story he planned to write would be in the public interest, a not uncommon request from the news media when confronted with allegedly excessive fees for obtaining public documents. He has yet to receive a response.
Skewed to the Max: WGME-TV in Portland, owned by the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, has on at least one occasion aired a story produced by Newsmax, a right-wing website and magazine with a decided anti-Obamacare slant.
According to a viewer who saw the piece, it featured an interview with an African-American pediatrician who opposed the health care plan. The interviewer asked softball questions and presented no contrasting information. A search of Newsmax’s site found numerous similar articles with nary a positive thing to say about the president’s plan.
Political opinion should be labeled as such. For Channel 13 to use this material without clearly identifying the agenda behind it is irresponsible and unethical – and part of an unfortunate pattern of such behavior at the station.
More last-place news: For decades, WMTW-TV in Portland and Auburn has tried to compete for news viewers with top-rated WCSH-TV and runner-up WGME without success. Several years ago, Channel 8 virtually conceded the race, cutting its evening newscast from 90 minutes to 30. The predictable result has been even more dismal numbers. After Hearst bought the station in 2004, there was speculation the news effort would be beefed up, but except for adding a weekend morning show in 2010, that didn’t happen.
Now, it might be. WMTW announced last week that as of Sept. 9, it will be adding an hour-long 5 p.m. newscast, displacing Dr. Phil, which will move to 3 p.m.
Will that addition finally shake Channel 8 out of third place? Doubtful, but news – even last-place news – is a moneymaker for local stations, so although it might not boost the ratings, it could increase the bottom line.
Fiddlehead fiddle-dee-dee: On August 15, the Bangor Daily News ran a story on the demise of the weekly Fiddlehead Focus in Fort Kent. Most of the piece, by staff writer Julia Bayly, was filled with the usual stuff that makes up newspaper obits: not enough advertising, declining circulation, etc. But Bayly also included this remarkable claim: “According to [owner-publisher Andrew] Birden, traffic on the paper’s website is currently at an all-time high with between 2 million and 3 million page views every month.”
Analytics of measuring page views vary widely and are often suspect, but this claim is so far-fetched it should never have gone unchallenged. According to Compete.com, the Bangor Daily itself averages less than 450,000 unique visitors each month, so a few million page views is likely. But the same site said the Fiddlehead Focus had so little Web traffic that it was difficult to measure, making the multi-million page-view claim suspect, if not absurd.
Fuller disclosure: Mike Tipping, political analyst extraordinaire, gave me some constructive criticism last week. Tipping said that while I routinely disclose possible conflicts of interest in stories that deal with news outlets that carry my other work, I don’t always mention these connections when discussing competitors of those operations that pay me. I replied that deciding who was competition and who wasn’t could be difficult. Tipping suggested I include a full list of the companies that employ me at the end of each posting, so readers could judge for themselves. That’s a smart idea that I’m implementing with this posting.
In addition to serving as The Bollard’s media critic, Al Diamon writes a weekly political column that runs in the Portland Phoenix, the Downeast Coastal Press, the Daily Bulldog, some Mainely Media weeklies and some Current Publishing papers. He also writes columns for a couple of Current’s magazines. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.