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.