Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sitting pretty: The guy with the cash can play a waiting game if he wants

Published in the Portland Phoenix

There are two players in this daily-newspaper game: the Blethens, and whomever Richard Connor is working with. Connor has cleverly cornered the market on the Portland Press Herald and its sister papers, and is now in what can only be called the catbird seat.

By keeping his interest in buying continually in the public eye, and by occasionally signing letters of intent that lock out other buyers for 30-day periods, Connor has blocked any other prospective suitors (a few were reportedly considering making an offer back at the beginning of the sale process), and he is now in a position to wait. And wait. And wait.

For what? For anything he wants. He's only putting up $250,000 of his own money, and his "financial backer" is only pledging $1.1 million more. Frankly, he could wait until the Blethens are so broke they will accept that pitiful amount as the total purchase price for something they bought 10 years ago for $230 million. That day may not be far off.

And he can wait until more newspapers shut down, which is happening about daily now. That strikes fear into the heart of the Blethens and the Maine employees. Connor, a union-buster from way back, has already gotten the Maine unions to agree to slash salaries and staff numbers for the sake of preserving at least a few union jobs — if they get more worried, they'd probably take almost any carrot Connor might dangle before them, even if it's a rotten one.

If he can line up investors to offer a price the Blethens will take, everyone's happy. If he can't, and waits until desperation sets in even more deeply with both the current owners and employees, the price will drop — as will the prospective salaries, benefits, and employee numbers the unions will accept. He can basically name his price, and pick his time. And if he can't find a deal he's happy with, he can walk away with no penalty and watch the Press Herald die.