Things are generally pretty quiet in the State House at this time of year, but down in the press corps’ end of the building things are downright morguelike.
So quiet, in fact, that I swear there was an echo when A.J. Higgins answered the phone in his office there Friday.
Higgins, formerly the Bangor Daily News State House reporter, is now the State House bureau chief for Maine Public Broadcasting Network.
“Yeah, it’s pretty lonely where I am,” Higgins said.
Higgins cut his teeth in the hustle and bustle of the BDN newsroom. That was when one of the finest skills of a good reporter was not only his ability to crank out a decent, factual story on deadline, but also to do so in the absolute chaotic clamor of the pre-computer newsroom.
Most reporters thrive on noise and calamity anyway. Too much quiet is more disturbing than inspiring.
I know some former editors who never really recovered from the loss of the clang of the typewriter keys. They complained about the muted hum of the computer until the day they died.
Today a discussion about the muting of the newsroom is much more disconcerting and a heck of a lot more serious.
When Higgins started as a State House reporter in 1993, there were 13 other reporters assigned there. There was literally a “corps” of journalists from every major Maine newspaper and radio station.
Today there are four: Higgins, two from The Associated Press and Mal Leary of Capitol News Service.
The public has long had a love-hate relationship with the press. Actually, I think they pretty much hate us except for when we are exposing misbehaving politicians or putting their kids’ picture in the paper.
Both seem to be a bit more at risk as news staffs at newspapers and other media outlets shrink along with ad revenue.
This week the Portland Press Herald-Maine Sunday Telegram announced its fourth round of layoffs in the past year. Many of the dozens of cuts have come from the newsroom. They included the closing of several news bureaus, including at the State House.
The paper is up for sale.
If you think that doesn’t have implications for you, you’re wrong.
“If you think of the Governor’s Office and both branches of the Legislature as, say, a big garden, well let’s say there are a lot fewer people pulling weeds,” Higgins said.
Call me biased, but I’m a firm believer that there is no journalism like print journalism. There is some reason to be hopeful, as newspaper executives and journalistic think tanks search for ways to remain economically viable in this day of fast-paced technology. For many it’s working, but it’s a complicated and often painful transition.
Newspaper reporters poke and prod and are generally a pain in the butt. As they say, we “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
And we do it so very well.