With last week's news that Portland Press Herald managing editor Bob Crider has been summoned back to the state of Washington to run a Blethen-owned paper there, the countdown to the end of the Press-Herald-as-we-know-it has begun in earnest.
In 2006, the Blethens moved Crider from the Blethen-owned Yakima Herald-Republic, where he had spent nine years as managing editor, to Portland to be the ME here. Now, they're bringing him back to be the top editor in Yakima.
In the advertising and management departments, Blethen family members have already departed; last to go was Rob Blethen, who left his job as director of advertising at the PPH six months ago for a post as the associate publisher of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, another family-owned paper.
This withdrawal is unsurprising, but it lays the groundwork for three possible outcomes: two bad, one uncertain, and all three potentially leaving the city without an established daily paper.
• First up, of course, is the continuing prospect that the Portland Press Herald and its Maine siblings might fold entirely, leaving their buildings to a real-estate deal (see "After the Fall," by Jeff Inglis, August 1, 2008).
Richard Connor, a Bangor-raised Pennsylvania newspaperman, continues to claim he is trying to buy the papers, but of his three 30-day letters of intent to purchase them in the past year, two expired because the needed financing didn't come together. The third, signed February 17 — which, like the previous two, included an escape clause in case the money fails to materialize a third time — is just days away from running out. (No other players are in the running, though Connor and the Blethens could sign a fourth letter of intent if they were so inclined.)
If the paper closes, the buildings it occupies might fetch $30 million for their property value alone (see "Herald or Harbinger?" by Jeff Inglis, July 4, 2008). But that's probably a high estimate, given the Blethens' eagerness to get out of Maine, and the economic collapse, which has led to a drop in commercial-property values.
• The second bad possibility is that the Press Herald will continue publishing in limbo indefinitely, but without effective leadership. While plenty of media watchers around town will say that's been true for ages, the perennially just-over-the-horizon appearance of a new owner (who's likely to signal regime change by ordering top management to pack their desks) will surely vaporize whatever clout Jeannine Guttman, editor at the PPH, and Eric Conrad, executive editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, still hold. Neither is likely to follow Crider to Washington: Both arrived pre-Blethens, in 1994 and 1995 respectively; Conrad left in 2006 for a job in Connecticut but returned to the Blethen Maine fold less than a year later.
• The third outcome — the uncertain one — is what might happen if Connor actually closes the deal. He has been a hands-on editor-publisher in Wilkes-Barre (even writing a 1450-word personal endorsement of John McCain to counter his editorial board's 375-word Barack Obama endorsement; both appeared in the October 26, 2008 issue of that city's Times-Leader).
He is remembered in union circles as a vicious strike-breaker and union-buster (dating back to the late '70s), and though Maine union officials speak of him in positive and even cheery tones, he's driving a hard bargain. His offer: union workers get a collective 15-percent ownership stake in a near-valueless company and the prospect that some of them will keep their jobs, in exchange for a wage freeze, longer working hours, and what even union folk expect will be significant layoffs — on top of the massive staff-slashing that went on in 2007 and 2008.
Whether it collapses, pokes along aimlessly, or takes an all-new form, tomorrow's Press Herald will be nothing like today's.