Thursday, April 16, 2009

A changing of the guard on this page


To most of us, it's nothing but a blur of numbers.

The state budget runs hundreds of pages, each one a jumble of charts and lists detailing the collection and disbursement of billions of dollars. The totals make headlines once in a while -- a tax increase here, a deficit there -- but most of it is crafted and voted upon with hardly anyone knowing what's going on. Everyone is affected, but few understand it.

That's true of government at any level -- eyes glaze over when the talk turns to appropriations or bond ratings, but this is where much of our daily lives is decided. How much we pay in taxes, whether we'll get help on student loans, how we can lure businesses and jobs into the area -- it's all hashed out in semi-anonymous subcommittees and printed in documents few of us ever read.

What we need as much as ever are people who can make sense of it all; people who have the time, inclination and ability to wade through the press releases and cascades of numbers to translate them into real-life consequences. This week, the Connecticut Post is saying goodbye to someone who does this better than anyone else. His name sits above mine in the upper-left corner of this page each day. Editorial Page Editor Stephen J. Winters is retiring on Friday.

Before moving into his current role, Steve was the Post's editor, and before that he delved into the ways of Hartford as this paper's Capitol reporter. There he honed the abilities that continue to serve him well, and mastered the intricacies of public policy.

The media universe today doesn't offer much reward for these skills. (Try fitting a budget analysis into your average Twitter post.) Everything is about immediacy. If a major news site is 10 minutes late posting a developing story, it's considered an embarrassment.

People in government have long tried to sneak things by without anyone noticing. The bills they pass are too long and dense for the lawmakers themselves to read in full, let alone anyone on the outside. That's why it's imperative to have people keeping watch; not just reporters to track the day-to-day activities (though that's vital), but people with the knowledge and background to tell readers what it means in their lives.

This is Steve's specialty. He tells us what the comptroller is talking about; he can assess whether the mitigation package before the Assembly will accomplish anything, or if it's all just political posturing.

It's no secret this business is changing. Some of the new tools of journalism offer abilities never thought possible. Some aspects of what we do, though, don't need to be replaced. Some of it you can't get from a news aggregator. The policy wonk is not much in fashion these days, but those skills are more valuable than ever.

This isn't one of those "journalism is dead" pieces that show up every so often in these dark days for the newspaper industry. But it's a fact that when people with decades in the business step aside, the product suffers. Our knowledge suffers.

Steve's interests go far beyond government, of course. Anyone in the building with a question about, say, folk music, or the Cardinals bullpen, or what it's like to perform dentistry in a war zone, knows exactly where to go first. For me, he's been as good an editor, mentor and friend as I could have asked for.

This isn't meant to sound funereal. Steve is retiring as editorial page editor, but he will continue to write a column that will appear regularly in these pages. His office will be in the capable hands of our current managing editor, Michael J. Daly.

But his departure marks an ending, and with so much bad news about the world in general and the journalism industry in particular, it won't be an easy transition. His work is a reminder that no matter what changes, immediacy isn't everything. We will always need people to burrow into those numbers the government churns out every day, picking through the rows and columns, and checking out those subcommittee reports to get a real glimpse of what's going on.

I know when the state budget is finally printed this summer, I'll be keeping an extra copy around in case he wants to stop by and have a look at it.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at

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