Who are the Guys Buying Blethen?
A group called Maine Media Investments has signed a letter of intent to buy the Blethen Maine Newspapers. Blethen announced the agreement in a news release on July 30, saying MMI had been granted a limited exclusive time period in which to work out a final deal to buy the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and other Blethen properties in the state. Neither the length of that time period nor the sale price were disclosed.
The people behind MMI are former U.S. Sen. William Cohen, secretary of defense during the Clinton administration and the head of a Washington-based defense consulting and lobbying firm; Robert Baldacci, brother of Maine Gov. John Baldacci and owner of the Baldacci Group, a Portland real estate development company; Michael Liberty, another Portland developer; and Richard L. Connors, editor and publisher of the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader in Pennsylvania and president of Wilkes-Barre Publishing Co. which owns several other Keystone State publications.
If the sale becomes final, Connors is expected to become the chief operating officer of the Maine newspapers. He’s a Bangor native with more than 40 years experience in the newspaper industry. Connors owns a summer camp near Bangor.
Also expected to be involved in the newspaper’s management in some yet-to-be-announced capacity is Kevin Cohen, the senator’s son and partner in DoubleMan Media, described on its Web site as “a global media consulting, advisory, and service firm.” Kevin Cohen, a former executive with Turner Broadcasting, is profiled as “a recognized leader in new media, with a long career that includes successful international business launches and revenue generation across multiple platforms.”
Baldacci most recently made headlines as one of the leaders of a Portsmouth, N.H.-based development group that included former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell and billionaire Tom Walsh, which unsuccessfully sought the rights to build a hotel and other projects on the Maine State Pier on the Portland waterfront.
Liberty has been a force in development projects in Portland and throughout Maine for three decades. He made his fortune while barely old enough to vote by building elderly and low-income housing, but first came to public attention in the 1980s when he was began constructing condominiums on the Portland waterfront. His efforts to develop what is now the parking lot of DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant into an office and condo project provoked a public backlash that resulted in zoning changes banning non-marine uses in the area. More recently, Liberty was involved in the failed attempt to build a Westin Hotel on the former Jordan Meats site in Portland. In 2006, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission filed a civil suit against him for security fraud, alleging he misappropriated $27 million from an investment fund.
In addition to these potential owners of the newspapers, the Blethen release also says, MMI is planning to negotiate with the unions representing Blethen workers to create an employee stock-ownership plan.
The Blethen statement said that while negotiations with MMI were ongoing, no further efforts would be made to sell the papers to any of the three media companies that had previously expressed interest. According to Blethen, those companies – identified in media reports as Black Press of Victoria, B.C.; Gatehouse Media of Fairport, N.Y. and Wilkes-Barre Publishing (in which Connors is a partner with a Texas holding company) – are unwilling to buy the Maine papers unless the current union contract with the Portland Newspaper Guild, which runs through 2011, can be voided.
The Blethen release also says the deal with MMI offers “the most seamless and timely ownership transition.”
Although the release doesn’t say so, the deal also includes a future for the Press Herald and its sister papers filled with potential conflicts of interest. Most of the MMI partners are involved in newsworthy – and often controversial – activities in both business and politics. Liberty, in addition to his legal problems, has been a major donor to numerous campaigns. William Cohen, while distant from Maine politics in recent years, has dabbled in issues that could affect Navy contracts at Bath Iron Works. Baldacci has been active behind the scenes in both legislative and gubernatorial issues.
If MMI succeeds in buying the Maine papers, Connors and his editorial staff will have to be far more vigilant than the current ownership – which allowed coverage of Plum Creek Timber Co.’s attempts to build a major development near Moosehead Lake for nearly two years before revealing that Plum Creek’s president sits on its parent companies’ boards of directors – in avoiding ethical pitfalls.
Unless MMI makes it clear even before it buys the papers that there’ll be an unbreachable wall between the potential new owners’ outside interests and the demands of quality journalism, the Press Herald, KJ and Sentinel won’t have to worry about losing credibility.
They won’t have any to begin with.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed email@example.com.