Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Press Releases: PPH almost sold. Now what?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The long-floundering Portland Press Herald is about to have a new owner. At least, all signs suggest that the money necessary to seal the deal will come through by the end of the year. There are financial details to be finalized, and there's a slim chance the money won't materialize, but involved parties tell the Portland Phoenix that pens are very close to the financial paper, and that the financing may include an employee-ownership component.

As many had speculated, the likely new owner will be Maine Media Investments — owned by the governor's brother, Bob Baldacci; former US senator and defense secretary Bill Cohen; his son Kevin, a former Turner Broadcasting executive; housing and real-estate developer Mike Liberty; and Pennsylvania newspaper publisher Richard Connor (who was born in Bangor). Soon, this group will no doubt be making public what they plan to do to recover the paper's dying circulation, plummeting advertising revenue, and rock-bottom newsroom morale.

Connor himself was recently heard to say — while out and about in Portland — that he could see why the paper was struggling, since it was "so thin it blows off the front porch in the morning." That might signal an inclination to expand the news coverage, which has shrunk considerably in recent months, but it's unclear who would do that work: the employees union is "bracing" for significant layoffs after the deal is finalized, according to Portland Newspaper Guild acting administrative officer Kathy Munroe.

The new owners will have to navigate the complicated quagmire of determining what their readers actually want. The biggest dispute among the audience appears to be where a revamped Press Herald would strike a balance between local coverage and national and international news.

Some hints can be found in independent blogs. A poster named MediaDog at AsMaineGoes wants less wire-service copy, saying in an August post, "In this Internet era most wire news is stale by the time the papers reached readers' doorsteps."

At MediaMutt, Phoenix columnist Al Diamon's blog on the Down East magazine Web site, one commenter suggested last week that a more major overhaul is needed: "The newspaper has limited value in terms of keeping readers informed. I don't think I've ever seen a shallower newspaper than the version that is being published today."

Perhaps the best way to gauge the reaction from the Press Herald's audience, though, is to look at the comments on the paper's own Web site — specifically, those talking about the sale itself.

"I'm getting the Friday, Saturday, Sunday [subscription package] deal and the news is the same in all three papers," wrote one person, who said she is canceling her subscription.

Another commenter promised to "buy this rag IF it had some substantial US/world news," while simultaneously lamenting the lack of "real investigative journalism" and follow-up on "real issues." But that person did, apparently, agree with Connor's perception of the paper as too thin: "Once you dump the flyers and classifieds you don't have enough to line a bird cage!"

Other posters suggested: "Report from the middle of the road and tell me what is going on locally," and "focus in-depth on local news, and leave national and international news to the larger papers, television, and the Internet."

But one commenter just might have hit on a key element of any new owner's strategy: "I want to ask Maine Media Investments, if they can use a NO COST Reprter. I am much more then willing to volunteer my time and expertise. I can do indepth stories on Social needs, for free."

Of course, the citizen-journalism approach being experimented with by many struggling daily newspapers has several hazards, some of which are apparent in the posted offer just quoted — to cut down the costs of covering the news, grammar and spelling may no longer be worth paying for.

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