Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Beats moving: Press Herald editor heading south

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In a tiny item buried in the Portland Press Herald’s “Business Briefcase” column Wednesday, April 12, and not posted to the front page of the paper’s Web site until the Associated Press moved its version of the story online in the early afternoon, was the announcement that Eric Conrad, the paper’s managing editor for the past five years, is leaving May 1 to become the editor of the News-Times in Danbury, Connecticut, where he starts May 22.

“The last year or two in the back of my mind, I’ve been thinking I wanted to be a top editor,” Conrad says. He has been trying to find a “good paper” in a “good company” that would offer him a top post and the opportunity to live in a community where it would be good for him to raise his two daughters, one of whom is finishing second grade this year, and the other of whom will start kindergarten in the fall. He wanted the new job to be in New England as well, which “limits your options,” Conrad says.

In part as a result of that limitation, Conrad is moving to a paper about half the size of his existing employer. The newsroom at the Press Herald (daily circulation: 70,000) employs about 100 people; the Maine Sunday Telegram’s circulation is 110,000. Conrad’s new paper has about 50 people in its newsroom and serves 30,000 daily readers and 35,000 on Sunday.

“For me, I think that’s a good thing,” Conrad says, explaining he is a “hands-on” editor. He has moved to a smaller paper before, leaving the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in Florida to come to Maine as the Press Herald’s city editor in 1995. He has also served as assistant managing editor for news and assistant managing editor for sports.

The News-Times is owned by Ottaway Newspapers, which calls itself “the community newspaper subsidiary of Dow Jones & Co.,” which owns the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and the Far Eastern Economic Review, among others.

Ottaway’s holdings in New England are the York Weekly and the York County Coast Star in Maine; in New Hampshire: the Portsmouth Herald, the Hampton Union, the News-Letter in Exeter, and the Rockingham News in Plaistow; in Massachusetts: the Cape Cod Times, the Nantucket Inquirer & Mirror, the Barnstable Patriot, and the Standard-Times in New Bedford; and in Connecticut: the Spectrum in New Milford, and the News-Times. The chain’s flagship is the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, New York, with a Sunday circulation of nearly 89,000, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s report of the third quarter of 2005.

Press Herald Editor-in-Chief Jeannine Guttman could not be reached for comment directly, but her assistant, Jennifer Lizotte, forwarded a company-wide memo Guttman issued April 11, lauding Conrad’s “no-nonsense style, strong leadership and . . . aggressive approach to news.” Guttman’s memo also says Guttman will begin a search for a replacement “as soon as possible.”

Portland Newspaper Guild Vice-President Tom Bell, who helps lead the union representing reporters at the paper, says the union has no response to Conrad’s departure, but among staff “there’s some anxiety about who will replace” Conrad, who was known for being “smart, capable, and intelligent.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me if the paper gets better when I’m gone,” Conrad says, anticipating that the management change will bring new vision to the paper. It has been struggling with “declining circulation and flat advertising revenue,” according to a 193-word business brief buried on page four of the business section on October 21, 2005. The paper imposed a hiring freeze “for all but critical positions” back then, and projected staff cuts “of some form.”

The Ottaway papers’ revenue was up “slightly” in the fourth quarter of 2005, with a one-percent increase in ad revenue, even as ad-sales volume declined six percent. Operating costs climbed as well, spurring promises of “increasing profits at Ottaway in 2006,” according to financial statements and data posted on DowJones.com.

In his new post, Conrad will also oversee the paper’s Web site, which is a different arrangement from what he had at the Press Herald, where “MaineToday[.com] and our newsroom are separate things,” Conrad says. There’s a chance for reunification: MaineToday.com editor Scott Hersey, who, along with other company brass, took lots of heat when the site started requiring user registrations, was quietly let go, or just left, in January, leaving the site leaderless even now.

Conrad’s wife, special projects writer Barbara Walsh, will be going with him to Connecticut. In a move unnoted in the pages of the paper, she left the paper “a couple weeks ago,” according to Conrad, to work on a book project. Bell says she took a leave of absence a few months ago, and recently formalized her departure to work on the book, about a Newfoundland sailing disaster.

Walsh has been one of the Press Herald’s claims to fame, on the basis of her contributions on the staff of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune when that paper won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for general news, for its reporting on the Willie Horton scandal in Massachusetts, which drew attention to problems in that state’s prison system and hurt the election chances of former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who was running for President.

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