Maine’s Changing Voice

Posted Dec. 02, 2009, at 4:58 p.m.

When Mark Woodward began working at the Bangor Daily News in 1971, Maine was described as “rock ribbed Republican.” Yet the year before, liberal Edmund Muskie was re-elected as U.S. senator with 60 percent of the vote. Mr. Woodward, who retires in January as the newspaper’s executive editor, also notes that Maine elected an independent governor in James Longley just three years later. The state continued to change politically, while resisting the sort of typecasting that might be reserved for states like Massachusetts or Wyoming.

A 1996 survey of readers found that most perceived the paper’s editorial position to be neither Democratic or Republican, but rather truly independent. That was reassuring, Mr. Woodward recalls.

Getting a fix on Maine’s political leanings kept Mr. Woodward occupied for much of his tenure at the BDN. He began working on the editorial pages in 1976, then was named editor of the opinion pages in 1982. He remained at the helm of the pages until 1997, when he left to work for newly elected Sen. Susan Collins, before returning to the BDN later that year as executive editor.

The OpEd page, where guest columns, often disagreeing with the newspaper’s editorials, are printed, underwent a transformation in those years. Early on, the OpEd page included Dear Abby, a medical advice column and the crossword puzzle, Mr. Woodward recalls. The paper published almost every letter to the editor it received in those days; today, the BDN often receives three times as many letters as it can print.

And the letters could be venomous. Mr. Woodward and his colleagues worked to change that. “We wanted a more civil tone, a more respectful tone,” he said, in both the letters and in the editorials he and his colleagues wrote. As a result, “More thoughtful people in the community were eager to engage in the discussion.”

The editorials began shifting “toward the middle, more independent-minded, more moderate,” Mr. Woodward said.

A high point was when the paper endorsed adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment. He remembers a woman’s tearful call, in which she expressed “that it meant so much to me that my paper” took a stand supporting the then-controversial measure.

Maine has moved decidedly toward the liberal end of the spectrum, voting for the Democratic candidate in the last five presidential elections. Yet Mainers remain independent and avoid lock-step partisanship, Mr. Woodward said, so environmental protection and fiscal conservatism are both val-ued.

Charting a course on these pages that both reflects traditional Maine values while also challenging them is a demanding goal. It is also humbling. As Mr. Woodward said, he learned that in directing the editorial pages, “You are a custodian of the power vested in the institution” that is the BDN.

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