Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Press releases: Nice to meet you

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Rich Connor, the mercurial new co-owner and editor/publisher of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Waterville-based Morning Sentinel, and the Augusta-based Kennebec Journal, is a curious figure, who himself seems a good candidate for interesting copy in the coming years. Here are a few scenes from his first couple weeks of ownership:

• The press conference at which Connor announced his purchase of the papers (you can see the full video at featured lavish praise for his wife, Deborah. And understandably so, as he went on to admit that, while he ran several papers in Texas for six years, THEY WEREN'T PROFITABLE UNTIL HE LEFT to run the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader in Pennsylvania, and Deborah took over the Texas operation.

• During that press conference, he recalled that a friend, a rich woman in Texas, told him that he shouldn't buy the newspapers if he couldn't get a local bank to support it. Perhaps someone should lend him an atlas — he ended up BORROWING THE MONEY FROM BRITISH TAXPAYERS. Citizens Bank, whose Portland office did the paperwork, is owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which was taken over last year by the British government during the banking crisis. Maine is part of New England, but, c'mon.

• He also promised to assume that "the customer is always right." Of course, if you define "customer" the way Connor does — someone who is either an employee, a reader, or an advertiser — it's easy to imagine a situation where there are THREE GROUPS WHOSE INTERESTS CAN BE SIMULTANEOUSLY "RIGHT" AND WILDLY DIVERGENT. Here's just one: Should a reporter stay up very late at night, away from her family, to cover a contentious city-council meeting, during which an advertiser's business plan is at stake?

• Perhaps most troubling, he is USING THE PAPERS' MAIN NEWS SPACE IN WAYS HARDLY BEFITTING A SERIOUS NEWS ORGANIZATION. First there was the 1500-word June 21 lead story (it was clearly marked "opinion") describing the astrological projections, as well as the reminiscences of the last time he lived in Maine (more than 40 years ago), that led to his purchase of the paper. Two days later, the lead "story" was about a newspaper promotion that no doubt surprised those "customers" who had paid for their papers: the Press Herald and its sisters are giving away free copies at various locations in their coverage areas. And last Friday, he printed large color photos of his biggest advertisers grinning awkwardly with their Press Herald sales reps on the back page of the front section. (Not to mention his giddily obsequious and boosterish column in Sunday's "Insight" section.)

But Connor was serious when he said, before the assembled cameras (and his bankers): "We will be profitable this year."

What that will look like is unclear. He plans to keep all three papers open (the Sentinel and the KJ are in better financial shape than the Press Herald), and hopes to pay off some debt by selling the Press Herald's downtown-Portland real estate.

There will, though, be significant cost-cutting. Connor's cagey about where, but we have two clues. First there's the press conference's Freudian slip: Confirming that there will be as many as 100 more layoffs in the near future, he added, "we're hoping it will be more than that."

And there is the praise he offered for newsroom staffers who worked until midnight one night and came in at 5 am the next morning. "We didn't ask them to do that," he said. Those employees just took a 10-percent pay cut, and face at best a 75-percent chance of keeping their jobs, so maybe Connor is suggesting he needs volunteer labor.