There’s More To Sussman Than Politics
The art of disclosure: S. Donald Sussman, the wealthy hedge-fund manager who owns seventy-five percent of MaineToday Media, is more than a political force. While the MaineToday papers have done a good job of disclosing Sussman’s involvement in stories concerning his wife, Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, they've been less thorough in other areas where his influence is felt.
For example, there was the April 8 Maine Sunday Telegram story on the Portland Museum of Art’s efforts to restore painter Winslow Homer’s studio and living space in Prouts Neck in Scarborough. The article fails to mention that Sussman is a member of the museum’s board. MaineToday’s defenders may dismiss this omission as insignificant, since the project is hardly controversial. But that argument misses a more important point.
Sussman sits on lots of boards. He’s been involved in numerous political organizations. His business interests are wide-ranging. Limiting disclosure to his links to politics would result in a gaping ethical loophole.
The public deserves to know when MTM is reporting on organizations or causes that are linked to its majority owner, because to do otherwise opens the door to all manner of abuses, from favoring Sussman’s favorite charities with extra coverage to avoiding news that might prove embarrassing to entities he supports. The only way to be sure this isn’t happening is to disclose the Sussman connection – no matter how tenuous – each and every time.
The same goes for MaineToday’s minority owners, a group that has, to date, exhibited a remarkable propensity for avoiding publicity.
Speaking of which: Portland Phoenix editor Jeff Inglis provided some insight into the behind-the-scenes situation at MTM in his April 6 media column. Inglis quotes Portland Newspaper Guild vice president Greg Kesich as saying all the minority owners (of whom the union is one) now hold less of the company than before to accommodate Sussman’s three-quarters share.
“We're part of the 25 percent that just shrunk, that used to be 100 percent,” Kesich said. “Everybody's betting that a smaller share of something is better than a big share of nothing.”
Inglis also raises some uncomfortable questions about Sussman’s long-term business plan for MaineToday, pointing out that other owners and potential owners have demanded huge concessions from the guild, saying such changes were necessary if MaineToday is ever to be returned to profitability. To date, Sussman hasn’t pushed that agenda, but it may not be long before he has to.
On the value of MaineToday, Inglis presents some good evidence that the company is worth much more than the $4.4 million figure tossed around in the media (including in this column). The number was extrapolated from the $3.3 million Sussman paid for his three-quarters ownership, but it neglects the fact that he also assumed responsibility for considerable debt. In reality, MaineToday, with its printing plant in South Portland and other assets, is probably worth several times the theoretical figure.
Disclosure: My weekly political column runs in the Phoenix.
Short shots: Readers of the New York Times, USA Today, and other national newspapers will still be able to find those publications on newsstands in northern and eastern Maine. The Bangor Daily News reports that Massachusetts-based Fall River News Co. has taken over part of the distribution network formerly run by Magazines Inc., a Maine company than recently announced it was going out of business. Fall River will split the business with Hudson RPM Distribution, which already handles delivery in more southerly parts of the state. Hudson had originally said it wasn’t interested in trucking out-of-state papers to less populated parts of Maine, leading to the possibility those areas would have no access to hard copies of the Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal. Now, readers of those publications can rest easy. … Nice to see some real journalism back in The Bollard, the Portland monthly. After several issues of light feature stories, the April number returns to solid investigative reporting with editor Chris Busby’s story on the politics of school lunch programs and their relations with local agricultural producers. Must reading even if you never plan to eat mystery meat again.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.