The newspaper readers the Blethens left behind

A year ago, the Seattle Times Co. finally unloaded their papers in Maine. Are the papers missing their distant former owners?
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Frank Blethen

A year ago, the Seattle Times Co. finally unloaded their papers in Maine. Are the papers missing their distant former owners?

Reprinted with permission from Down East: The Magazine of Maine.

Just over a year ago, Maine's largest newspaper group was on the verge of bankruptcy. National media carried reports that Portland might become the first American city to lose its daily newspaper altogether, on account of the woes of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, which was losing money, readers, and advertisers at a disturbing rate. Its profitable sister papers — Augusta's Kennebec Journal and Waterville's Morning Sentinel — were being dragged down with it.

The Press Herald, once Maine's newspaper of record, was already a shadow of its former self, unable to effectively cover either the city or the state. Reporting staff had been slashed. Bureaus in Augusta, Biddeford, Bath, and Washington, D.C. had been closed. Newsroom morale was horrid.

Instead of setting the agenda, the paper was regularly scooped by suburban weeklies and alternative papers with tiny staffs. Even then, it pretended the stories didn't exist, or followed them up with a remarkable lack of curiosity.

A huge tear had opened in Maine's civic fabric. Despite the advent of cable television, the Internet, and social networking, daily newspapers still do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to gathering and investigating news of public concern, setting the agenda for broadcasters and bloggers, and giving Facebook and Twitter users something to link to. With the Press Herald foundering, far more stories were going untold at the state house, city hall, and the streets and back roads of southern and midcoast Maine.

"We lost our ability to cover everything, but managers had a hard time saying what we weren't going to do," recalls Greg Kesich, who was a reporter at the paper through the ten-year ownership of the Seattle Times Company. "The whole decade was a constant retreat, and from the last quarter of 2007 it was in dramatic freefall."

But one year ago, the newspaper group found a savior.

Richard Connor, a Bangor-born, Pennsylvania-based newspaperman, purchased the three dailies on June 15, 2009, promising to right their finances and improve their content. "Our newspapers will have more neighborhood news and lots of photographs of local people," he promised in an introductory column. "As the old saying goes, 'You ain't seen nothin' yet!' "

Connor had an encouraging resume: four decades of reporting and editorial experience, including the resurrection of a small daily closed by a massive, violent labor strike (the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader), eleven years as publisher of one of the nation's largest newspapers (the Fort Worth Star-Telegram), and owning and publishing his own paper (the Times Leader again, which he bought in 2006). The Times Leader won a prestigious national prize — the Scripps-Howard First Amendment Award — under his editorship in the early 1980s, while the Fort Worth paper reportedly saw revenue grow from $125 to $200 million during his tenure as publisher in the '90s. His Bangor ties suggested a genuine interest in Maine.

One year on, Connor has stabilized the Press Herald, paid down much of the chain's debt, and printed a lot of photographs of local people. He moved quickly to replace editors and managers, sell the Press Herald's venerable headquarters and printing plant, and consolidate the chain's publishing and distribution in one location. He had the chain's crash-prone Web sites re-engineered, the advertising staff was given wider latitude to innovate, and used the $6 million from selling the buildings to pay down debt. Chain-wide employment has been slashed to about 440 from 560 before the sale.

"Morale compared to what it was a year ago is much better," says Press Herald reporter Tom Bell, president of the Portland Newspaper Guild, the chain's principal union, which negotiated a 15 percent stake in the company for employees. "Connor has proven to be a good businessman and has come through on the things he said he would do."

Connor — who is believed to have bought the papers for about a tenth of the $200 to $230 million the Seattle Times Co. paid for them in 1998 — says all three papers are now on sound financial footing. "All three legs of the stool are now profitable, whereas before only two of them were," he says, adding that advertising revenue is also up. "Based on what we know today, it looks like we'll have a debt-free company a year from now."

"In the final year and a half under the old owners it was like we had cancer," says Mr. Kesich, now a Press Herald editorial writer and union vice president. "This year it's like we're going through chemotherapy."

But while the business side has been stabilized, the Press Herald has shown little improvement in gathering, breaking, or analyzing the news. "They've been so aggressive in cutting jobs and pursuing advertising and in their debt reduction, but it's a thinner paper," says Michael J. Socolow, a journalism professor at the University of Maine. "Connor has a very difficult job balancing journalistic integrity and financial responsibility."

With a newsroom down to 58 — and just 12 news reporters — the Press Herald is still regularly scooped on its home turf by weeklies and on statewide stories by local television and public radio. (In the early '90s it had about 30 news reporters in a newsroom of 160.) "They used to set the agenda for television, but increasingly TV is setting the agenda," says veteran journalist Al Diamon, whose media criticism blog appears on the web site, "That's not because TV has gotten better, but because the Press Herald has declined."

Even basic coverage has suffered embarrassing lapses, like after 500 people joined a well-publicized May 1 march for immigration reform in downtown Portland only a block from the Press Herald's office; the paper didn't run a story until three days later, having already been scooped by the Bangor Daily News, which doesn't even circulate in southern Maine. On March 31, the weekly Forecaster papers broke the news that one of downtown's largest employers, the Pierce Atwood law firm, was considering leaving for the suburbs; Press Herald readers didn't learn about it until May 6.

Last fall, a series of stories in the Forecaster revealed that an aviation firm that was seeking public funds to start operations at the former Naval Air Station Brunswick was in a bitter dispute over a similar project in Sanford; the talk of Brunswick for months, it was soon on television as well, as the firm pushed back through its colorful spokesman, the disbarred celebrity attorney F. Lee Bailey. The Press Herald never covered the story at all.

Matt Gagnon, a Republican political operative who runs the Pine Tree Politics blog, is disappointed with the Connor papers' political coverage in this gubernatorial election year, calling it "a great deal more superficial than substantive. Without a robust press out there, we'ꀙre forced to rely on the candidates themselves to tell their story, and potentially one of them could be a charlatan," he notes.

Connor, who is both editor and publisher of his papers, restored the Press Herald's state house bureau and the second page of its Op-Ed section. But his most noticeable change has been the inclusion of a lot more photographs of local people: happy advertisers and partying socialites on the inside pages, cute local kids holding up weather placards at the top of page one.

"I don't want to sound snarky, but it takes more than weather kids and snapshots to prove you're going to commit to doing local news," says Mo Mehlsak, editor of the four Forecaster weeklies, whose owners also publish the Lewiston Sun Journal. "We do our share of warm and fuzzy stuff, but we're also committed to covering news in the city and surrounding towns on a regular basis. I just don't see that at the Press Herald."

The surprising thing is that Connor doesn't exactly disagree. "I can't be anything other than candid with you: Scoops don't matter to me," he says, seated in the paper's new digs at Portland's One City Center. "The day of the scoop is long gone in my opinion because of the Internet, all-the-news-all-the-time, real 24/7 breaking news. If we spent all our time worrying about what the Forecaster or the Bangor Daily News does, that's going to take us off our game." Breaking stories, he says, is "passé" and a poor barometer of "the quality of our journalism."

Instead, he says, the paper is focused on customer satisfaction. "I think the voters will decide if we're doing a good job or not, and the voters are our readers and our advertisers," he adds, admitting that his news philosophy is out of the mainstream. He says his credo is hard to put into words, but that it has to do with a solid understanding of communities and how to connect a paper to them. "We don't sell news," he adds.

He also disagrees with the prevailing wisdom that since cable news and the Internet provide ample, up-to-the-second coverage of national and international events, a newspaper's top priority should be covering its local area. "I think the A-section of the newspaper needs to be a snapshot of what happened that day in history, because somebody will save that paper," he says. "When I was doing this in the '70s, every story I edited in the paper was local, but now I've reversed on that.

"I know this is working," he adds, citing market research he'd commissioned. "We have a pretty good sense of what people want day in and day out."

Perhaps, but by his own metrics the verdict is still out. The latest audited figures show weekday circulation at the Press Herald in the six months ending in March declined by over 6 percent (to 55,813) compared to the same period a year ago. The Sunday Telegram — which circulates statewide — fell by more than 8 percent to 82,979. (Other Maine dailies saw similar declines, with the weekday Bangor Daily News also losing about 6 percent of its readers.)

Still, Connor promises his papers will soon demonstrate what quality reporting is all about. "I would bet a dollar that over the next three to five years nobody will match the journalism that is done by these three newspapers — nobody!" he says. "It's a rebuilding effort and we've just begun; we don't have enough reporters, but when we start covering things more aggressively, it's all going to work."

The skeptics remain skeptical. "It's not so much how many reporters you've got, it's the quality of editorial thinking you have behind them," Diamon says. "I never thought I'd say this, but the (Seattle Times Co.) had better editorial thinking than the (current owners) do."


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