Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Union seeking rich person to purchase daily newspaper

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Newspaper employees, 600 +/-, and their labor union in search of rich, secure sugar daddy (or mommy, or daddies, or mommies, or some of each) for long-term relationship to provide stability, income, employment.

The union representing most of the employees at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and its sister paper, the Waterville-based Morning Sentinel, is hoping to find a wealthy local resident (or more than one) to put up the cash that would enable the union, Portland Newspaper Guild Local 128, to buy the papers (and the Augusta-based Kennebec Journal, whose workers are in a different union) from the Seattle Times Company, controlled by the Blethen family, which has owned the Maine papers for the past decade.

The union took out a color ad in Sunday’s paper, asking for people to “invest in local news.” Union officials wouldn’t say how much they paid for the ad, but admitted the paper gave them a discount from the “open rate,” which is the rate charged to one-time advertisers who walk in off the street. The cheapest possible rate, according to the Press Herald’s official rate information, is the 53-percent discount given to the paper’s largest contract advertisers, which would have totaled $3907.50 for the union ad.

At a union press conference Monday — attended by several Press Herald reporters, none of whom took notes — Local 128 administrative officer CJ Betit (a former sports staffer at the paper) said the union is “hopeful in partnering with local investors,” though neither Betit nor other union officials, nor the consultant the union has hired to help construct a bid, would say how much money they’re seeking from contributors.

But the consultant, Chris Mackin, said anyone who comes forward would have to be looking for lower profit margins than Wall Street has sought from publicly traded newspaper stocks in recent years. “I think we’re really headed into a new era of newspaper ownership,” said Mackin (president of Ownership Associates, a Massachusetts firm specializing in employee-ownership arrangements), an era in which private investors partner with employees at newspapers and other media organizations to keep them going, at more modest rates of return than the double-digit newspaper profits of the ’80s and ’90s.

The union’s bid is moving slowly — Mackin said they have not yet signed a non-disclosure agreement, which would allow him to see confidential Blethen financial information that would inform a bid price. Such an agreement, Mackin said, might include a provision that would bar him from disclosing specific details to Betit or other union leaders. Mackin said he had made similar arrangements when representing unions in other deals.

James Oldershaw, vice-president of Dirks, Van Essen & Murray, the New Mexico-based broker the Blethens are using to handle the sale, refused to comment “on any aspect of the sale,” including whether the company would allow union representatives to see internal financial information, or any timetable for further progress toward finding a buyer.

Also on Monday, the union signaled its intention to play a role in any deal, sending to its members a copy of a letter Betit sent last week to Press Herald labor-relations director Maryann Kelly, warning that any prospective buyer would have to agree to the terms of the union’s contract — which was negotiated earlier this year and runs through May 31, 2011 — and citing a 2007 federal arbitrator's ruling that a Connecticut newspaper’s buyer had to preserve the union contract as a condition of the sale.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Press Releases: Staying focused

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Now that the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and its four Maine sister papers (two dailies and two weeklies) are looking for a new owner, the speculation is rampant about who might buy such an operation, and how much they might pay.

Sure, there are a few snickers along the way, at things like PPH editor Jeannine Guttman’s March 23 column describing the sale announcement as a tear-jerking session with family patriarch Frank Blethen, ending with PPH managers “spontaneously” giving him a standing ovation after he announced the paper was for sale.

But a week before that meeting, before she knew the paper would soon have a new owner, Guttman alluded to a relationship other media outlets have with her paper (and other papers around Maine and elsewhere). In a March 16 column defending the paper’s latest layoffs (“Cuts Won’t Affect Paper’s Mission”) she wrote, “What you see on television and hear on radio often is a pickup of news and information that we have reported first ... We have more journalists, more boots on the ground, than any other news organization in Maine."

Guttman told the Portland Phoenix in an interview that she wasn't accusing the broadcasters of stealing, but rather alluding to the Associated Press's "AP Broadcast" wire service, which transmits to broadcast outlets stories from the Press Herald and other AP-member newspapers.

Her point is a good one. Newspapers are under tremendous pressure, due to radical shifts in their business models. Without newspapers, a huge portion of the news that consumers take for granted would not be available.

It's too bad there's not some kind of service that goes the other way, though.

Last week, all three local TV stations scooped the Press Herald on a major local story, one that happened right across the street from PPH headquarters.

The PPH and the TV folks have been closely following the play-by-play of Portland's budget problems, which came to a head on Thursday, April 3, when city manager Joe Gray announced the elimination of 98 city jobs, 22 of which were vacant, and 76 layoffs, including one of the city's highest-profile officials, transportation director Captain Jeff Monroe, who oversees the waterfront and the airport, and has testified before Congress on port-security issues.

NBC affiliate WCSH (Channel 6) had the story Thursday evening; ABC affiliate WMTW (Channel 8) and Sinclair-owned CBS affiliate WGME (Channel 13) had it Friday, including interviews with Monroe. Not until Saturday did the Press Herald tell its readers about Monroe's pink slip (a Friday story was thin on details, saying layoffs were "expected," but with no mention of Monroe).

Guttman called Channel 6's work "a really good scoop" for which "they are to be congratulated." She also said she wants "to take the long view," accepting that sometimes even the state's largest newsgathering organization will get beaten. And though regular readers of this column may be shocked to find me granting the Press Herald two points in a row, she is right.

But there is a problem. It's not the terrible luck that perhaps the "boots on the ground" just needed to traverse a crosswalk, from PPH HQ at 390 Congress to City Hall at 389 Congress, to get this particular story earlier. The real hard part is timing in the larger sense.

Because it’s up for sale the paper needs to perform at peak level, to keep readers, advertisers, and, yes, prospective buyers interested. Reporters and editors need to dig even deeper at this confusing time of tears and applause; it's their chance to prove how vital they are to Portland. This city needs a strong daily paper staffed with people who know the territory. If current PPH newshounds don't stay sharp, they might as well be writing on the wall.