Blethen's Last Gasp
Self-destruction: As Maine prepares to bid goodbye to the Blethen Maine Newspapers, it’s worth noting that the financial disaster that befell the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel – thereby forcing the sale of the papers, likely to a partnership headed by Pennsylvania publisher Richard Connor – wasn’t inevitable. According to a comprehensive and well-researched article in Seattle Business magazine by reporter Bill Richards, the Blethen family brought most of the pain on themselves through a series of poor business decisions.
According to Richards, family patriarch Frank Blethen was more concerned about healing family wounds than running his newspapers in Washington state and Maine. Richards quotes a Harvard Business School case study of the Seattle Times Co. that says that in 2000, Blethen devoted 40 to 50 percent of his time to “building family cohesion.” Among the cohesive decisions he made – at the urging of his son Ryan – was to spend $230 million in 1998 to buy the Maine papers. So eager were the Blethens to own the publications that then-board member Tony Ridder said they ended up bidding against themselves when other interested buyers withdrew.
Meanwhile in Seattle, Frank Blethen made a serious of strategic blunders in dealing with union problems. This led to a long strike in 2000-2001, which cost the Times so much money it had to renegotiate the loans it took out to buy the Maine papers. Even so, Blethen rejected a 2005 bid by Knight-Ridder, then the Seattle Times minority shareholder, to buy the entire company for $500 million and the assumption of $250 million in debt.
“In the end,” writes Richards, “it is hard to avoid using the word ‘irony’ in describing the Times and the Blethens’ stewardship of the company.”
Debt division: While there’s been a lot of speculation about the price Connor will pay for the Blethen papers – best guess seems to be around $28 million, roughly the value of the real estate – little has been said about how much of the company’s debt he’ll assume. That debt isn’t just what’s left over from the Blethen’s original ill-advised purchase in 1998 (roughly $100 million). It also may include the unfunded liability in the Seattle Times pension fund, a multi-million dollar figure that, under federal rules, will come due in 2011. It’s not clear how much, if any, of that red ink will stick to the Maine papers when they’re sold.
Quitting time: One thing about the Connor version of the Press Herald seems certain. The paper will have a new editor, probably Connor himself, and will be run by a new managing editor picked by Connor. That won’t leave any room for current PPH editor Jeannine Guttman.
Guttman’s departure has been a given for some time. According to a reliable source, the Portland Newspaper Guild made it a condition for renegotiating its contract to cut costs. “Everyone sort of figured Connor would come run the show himself and let Guttman go,” the source said in an e-mail, “but [the union] wanted to leave nothing to chance.”
Guttman has already submitted a draft of her letter of resignation to PPH publisher Rob Bickler, the source said.
Copy this: On May 25, both the Bangor Daily News and the Bar Harbor Times posted nearly identical stories on their respective Web sites about a Trenton man who suffered injuries when he fell from a tree stand he was working on. An alert reader called the similarities to my attention and wondered who was cribbing from whom.
Plagiarism? Yes, but as it turns out, not of each other. Both papers copied large amounts of their coverage from a news release put out by the Maine Warden Service. Except for the first paragraphs, the articles track the release almost exactly.
The release: “Harrison Sawyer, 56, of Trenton set out at approximately 6:30 yesterday from Pittston Farm, canoed across the north branch of the Penobscot River and trekked to the location where he has hunted for several years.”
The Bar Harbor Times: “Harrison Sawyer, 56, of Trenton set out at approximately 6:30 a.m. from Pittston Farm, canoed across the north branch of the Penobscot River and trekked to the location where he has hunted for several years.”
The Bangor Daily News: “Harrison Sawyer, 56, left Pittston Farm at about 6:30 a.m., canoed across the north branch of the Penobscot River and trekked to a spot where he has hunted for several years, according to Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.”
At least the Bangor paper credited the author of the news release. Although considering the release made up nearly all of the BDN’s story, it still seems like a stretch to have put staff writer Diana Bowley’s byline on the piece.
The Times’ Web site credited the story to “Staff,” but editor Greg Fish said he posted the article without any byline. Fish said the computer system added the “Staff” designation as a default setting.
The bottom line is neither paper adequately informed its readers that all the information in the piece came from a government handout.
(Disclosure: My weekly political column runs in the Bar Harbor Times.)
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com.