The search for a buyer of the Seattle Times Co.'s Blethen Maine Newspapers chain of three dailies has narrowed to three possible purchasers, but the only organization to openly declare its interest says it won't be in that group.
C.J. Betit, administrative officer for the Portland, Maine, Newspaper Guild, which represents workers at the Portland Press-Herald and Sunday Maine Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, and the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, said the union has shelved a plan to bid for the chain.
Betit's union is the only prospect to formally declare an interest in purchasing the papers. It hired a negotiator and had been talking with prospective backers. Betit said about a half-dozen groups had indicated they might be willing to discuss backing the union's bid before the union declined to sign a non-disclosure agreement that Blethen Maine requires for access to financial information. Negotiations were called off, Betit said.
"But if the deal falls through," the union official said, "we might be willing to go back at a later time and look at it."
A Seattle Times Co. spokeswoman did not reply to requests for comment.
Charles Cochrane, president and chief executive of the Blethen Maine chain, told union officials at a meeting last week that the roster of potential buyers willing to sign the non-disclosure agreement and bid within the price range set by the Times Co. had narrowed to three.
Betit said Cochrane did not disclose the identity of the potential bidders, nor did he say what price range the Times Co. was seeking for the chain.
Citing financial pressures, Seattle Times Co. Chief Executive Frank Blethen, whose Seattle-area family controls the company, announced plans in March to sell the Maine chain, which includes a Web site, as part of a cost-cutting drive. The Times co. bought the Maine papers in 1998. The company won't say what it paid for the chain, but internal Times Co. records indicate it borrowed $230 million for the purchase.
Like other newspaper companies, the Seattle Times Co. has been struggling as readers and ad revenue move from print papers to the Internet. Blethen has said the flagship Seattle Times expects print revenue to drop by some $33 million during 2007 and 2008. The Seattle-based company cut the staff of the Times by 7 percent, or 125 employees, earlier this month.
The Maine papers are also having problems. According to memos circulated to the three papers' staffs, print revenue at the Portland Press Herald, the largest paper, fell 22 percent in March from a year ago and 19 percent in April from a year ago.
Blethen told the Press Herald in March that he hoped a local buyer from Maine would step forward. He said he was hoping the sale would enable the Times Co. to recoup half the price it paid in 1998.
To date, about 10 potential buyers have examined the chain's financials. Several of those prospects told Crosscut that their primary interest was in the company's real estate holdings, and they later decided not to bid.
One possible bidder, according to several Maine sources familiar with the sale negotiations, is Black Press, Canada's largest privately held newspaper company. The Victoria, B.C., chain owns more than 100 newspapers in Canada and the U.S., including about 20 in the Puget Sound area.
David Black, the company's owner and president, declined to comment on any bid for the Maine chain. "If one is going down that road, and I'm not saying we are, you sign a non-disclosure agreement that prohibits talking about this sort of thing," Black said.
Meanwhile, Betit's union could toss a monkey wrench into the Times Co.'s efforts to sell the Blethen Maine papers to anyone else. Union officials say their contracts apply to anyone purchasing the chain. In a May 21 letter to the union, Maryann Kelly, Blethen Maine's director of labor relations, said the union's position "is completely without merit" and demanded an immediate arbitration of the matter.
"Resolution (of the disagreement) will allow the publisher to determine whether a sale is possible," Kelly's letter says.
Betit said his union rejected any speeded arbitration.