Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Press Releases: Herald or harbinger?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Those of us fascinated by the rapidly deflating balloon that is the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram have had a lot to chew over from a lot of sources lately. (Not surprisingly, one of the worst sources of information on this topic was the PPH itself.) Here’s a roundup of what you might have missed in the flurry.

Layoffs Effective July 1, 31 fewer people work at the Press Herald (including reporters Paul Carrier, Kevin Wack, Tess Nacelewicz, Seth Harkness, Josie Huang, and Jonathan Kaplan). Some of them took "voluntary severance" packages, while others were just laid off. Six already-vacant positions were eliminated, and five more layoffs are in the works. All four of the paper's satellite news bureaus were closed — including the ones watching the Maine State House and Washington DC. Also gone? The day and night editors (Andrea Nemitz and David McNabb) and a copy editor (Gary Christian).

Critiques Those who remain are again subject to the sometimes-withering criticism of the pseudonymous "T. Cushing Munjoy" at the PressingTheHerald blog (see "Pressure Is On," by Jeff Inglis, March 12). He quit posting when the papers went up for sale, figuring it made little sense to attack a retreating enemy, but returned to the fray when the sale was delayed.

Low bids According to media watcher (and Phoenix political columnist) Al Diamon, none of the Press Herald's three potential short-list buyers offered enough money to make owner Frank Blethen happy. Let's take a stab at a rock-bottom price: the major properties — land and buildings — the company owns are assessed by tax officials in their respective cities (Portland, South Portland, Augusta, and Waterville) at a total of nearly $30 million. That leaves out multi-million-dollar printing presses and "intangible assets" such as the newspapers’ names, Web site addresses, customer and advertiser databases, and what is called “goodwill” (the reputation the company has in the community).

Who's in? Possible buyers named by Crosscut Seattle (at, a must-read Web site for PPH watchers) were Black Press, which owns more than 150 newspapers in the US and Canada, where it's based; Gatehouse Media of New York state, owners of nearly 400 daily and weekly newspapers across the US; and Wilkes-Barre Publishing Holdings of Pennsylvania, whose flagship paper is the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader.

Union woes The Press Herald has sued its employees' union over the workers’ insistence that any buyer agree, as a condition of purchase, to take over the existing union contract, which runs through 2010. In the suit, the Blethens ask for a federal judge's ruling that no such promise is required. Court documents include a letter from one Blethen executive expressing concern about “whether a sale is possible” if the contract must be preserved.

Red ink According to the lawsuit, the Blethens need the money from selling the Press Herald quickly, “to reduce bank debt and to avoid the dire consequences of being in default.”

Weak contentPPH editors won't even use top-notch material when it's free. In mid-June, the McClatchy Newspapers’ Washington DC bureau put out an incredible multi-day series on conditions, management, and the innocent detainees at the US government's offshore prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. (McClatchy owns 49.5 percent of the Seattle Times Company, and the PPH has been running McClatchy News Service copy for months.)

The series would have run days after a replica of a Gitmo cell visited Portland (see “A Night in Guantánamo,” by Jeff Inglis, June 13), and just as a US Supreme Court decision on detainees' rights made international headlines.

But the PPH missed its chance to lure readers with excellent, exclusive journalism on a topic current to Mainers, and of great relevance to Americans.