On Friday, I learned that I’m not the only one who can count.
The previous day, we had run a column in this space by state Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, about his plan to link a proposed expansion of MaineCare to a commitment to outsource the program to managed-care organizations.
Within 24 hours, I received my first clue that people were paying attention – not as much to the substance of the piece as to its length, a sprawling 1,005 words, 255 words more than our stated maximum.
When I turned down a column from Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew on the grounds that she had just had one published seven days earlier, I got this from her spokesman, John Martins: “Clearly, rules can be bent and overlooked. The (column) that is pro expansion is 1,000 words today – well over your 750-word limit.”
Later in the day, I was reminded of the column’s length by Peter Steele, Gov. LePage’s communications director (who also called me “supercilious,” a word that sent me scrambling for a dictionary. It means “disdainful”). Then I heard from David Sorensen, spokesman for House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, who brought up the Katz column when I asked a Republican lawmaker to shorten hers to 750 words.
This became a story on The Maine Wire, a blog for the right-wing Maine Heritage Policy Center. My newspaper was accused of “censorship” and political bias because the company’s owner, S. Donald Sussman, is a leading Democratic donor. I was accused of having an “alleged word limit” that I enforced only on pieces with which I disagree.
Far be it from me to tell conservatives about free enterprise, but when an editor in the private sector says “no,” it’s not “censorship,” it’s “editing.” Over the years, Donald Sussman has given me wise counsel about where to get good Chinese food, but he has never told me how long a column should be. And enforcing the word limit is not partisan.
There’s a simple reason we let the Katz piece go long: It was newsworthy enough to make an exception. Most other pieces we get are not.
I’m not brushing off the revolt of the “Katz-counters,” however. They remind me that people think of the newspaper as more of a community resource than a business, and they feel entitled to use its pages.
And I want them to feel that way. I’m aware that – like Greater Portland – our editorials lean to the left. I’m sensitive to the fact that all of the recent complaints come from Republicans (just like Katz, but that doesn’t seem to count). I think readers want to hear from all sides.
I do have a bias: I think 750 words is the right length for a column. That’s about as much as you need to express one idea. A column that has to be much longer than that is probably trying to say too much.
More often than not, the ideas expressed in Maine Voices columns don’t even need that many words. They would be better read as letters to the editor, which tend to be written with more precision and discipline than longer pieces. If you think your idea is too big for 300 words, tell Abe Lincoln, a Republican who managed to bring in the Gettysburg Address at 272.
I have another bias: I’m not worried about complaints from government officials. The governor, members of Congress, legislators and department heads all have ways they can reach the public, including in some cases blanketing homes with direct mail written by public employees and sent postage-free. We have too many columns written by lawmakers on these pages, and I’ll almost always prefer one written by a knowledgeable reader.
We have some rules that are based on common sense – no pieces that are obscene or libelous. We have others dictated by our print layout – only two names in an “About the Author” box. We don’t publish poetry, and I can’t remember why. It’s just a rule.
As the critics point out, most of these rules have been broken at one time or another, but I don’t consider any of those to be precedent-setting. As my former colleague M.D. Harmon used to tell people who complained when we ran a letter that was a few words over the limit, “Just because we made a mistake yesterday doesn’t mean we have to make the same mistake today.”
Ultimately, the rules exist to serve readers, and I will break them when I think it’s in the readers’ interest to do so.
And when I do, I’m sure that someone will be counting.
(I know this column is 770 words, but I’m OK because Leonard Pitts always comes in nice and tight.)
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: