Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Press releases: New faces

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and its sister papers announced at 4 pm last Friday that an effort was under way to bring in new owners to take over the papers, in the wake of Richard Connor's abrupt departure back in October.
Led by Chris Harte, who back in the pre-Blethen 1990s was president of the Press Herald, the prospective investors say they want to add capital to the papers, and talk nicely about committing to the community. (Personally, Harte has long been a generous giver to causes in town and around the state.) But the announcement also mentioned "disciplined management," which could be corporate-speak for additional cuts.
Releasing news late on Friday afternoons is often a way to limit aggressive reporting on controversial announcements, because fewer reporters work weekends, and because sources can safely claim to be out of the office, and thereby avoid tough questions — at least until the initial round of stories comes out with the news itself.
In any case, there are plenty of important details to be fleshed out over time.
First, there's the deal itself, which is not yet done — rather, the existing owners and the new investors have agreed "terms" under which the investment would happen. So it's really an announcement of nothing except what most Press Herald watchers assumed was happening: talks with potential investors about who is going to run the company now that its only media-experienced leader, Connor, is gone.
Next, the prospective new investors haven't yet met with the union representing most of the company's workers. That's actually two problems. The union is a part owner of the company, and apparently hasn't had any say in the terms of this deal; it is a minority owner, but being denied a seat at the table for discussions like this is a serious blow to the union's claim to a voice in management. And it raises extremely big questions about worker compensation; while the union trumpeted the fact that in September it reached a contract that did not include wage or benefits cuts, that's only true because the new agreement punted talks about pay and extras to the middle of 2012.
Those are the most pressing questions, but there are others. Harte, an heir to the Harte-Hanks newspaper fortune, is a major investor in Current Publishing, a group of community weekly papers covering the southern and western suburbs of Portland. (I worked at Current Publishing for four years, ending in 2005.) It will be interesting to see whether his involvement will lead to increased competition — or perhaps collaboration — between the weeklies and the Press Herald.
Harte politely declined to comment for this piece, saying it was "too early" to say anything. But over the years, in previous conversations with me, he had always specifically denied there was any substance to the recurring rumors that he was interested in purchasing the paper. Perhaps it was a much lower cost than ever before that got him this time, or public-spiritedness on the part of a longtime newspaperman. It's certainly not without bitter awareness of the risk; when the Minneapolis Star Tribune exited bankruptcy in 2009, he walked away empty-handed, leaving millions in investments behind.
Other major investors' effects on the paper will be worth watching, too. The group includes greeting-card executive Aaron Kushner, who told Boston magazine in 2011 that he would not guarantee editorial independence from owners' influence if he were able to purchase the Boston Globe from the New York Times Company.
And there's Jack Griffin, often described as former Time Inc. CEO — but he held that post for just five months before being booted in February 2011 because "his leadership style and approach did not mesh with Time Inc. and Time Warner," according to an email to Time employees from Griffin's boss at the time. Before that, he had been head of the Iowa-based company publishing Better Homes and Gardens,Family Circle, and Ladies' Home Journal.
As for Connor, remember the houses he transferred into his wife's name the day before abruptly tendering his resignation? The Falmouth one (oceanfront, with six-bay garage) is on the market, asking $2.7 million.