James M. McCarthy, managing editor of the Times Record, published an editorial on March 7 in which he admitted he kept news of layoffs at the paper out of a Feb. 26 news story about the Sample News Group completing its purchase of the Brunswick daily.
"I thought of the business risks being assumed by the new ownership in taking over a family-owned hometown newspaper with a loyal audience at a time when all newspapers are grappling with exceedingly complex and difficult business problems," McCarthy wrote. "I felt that emphasizing the layoffs in a story announcing the official transfer of ownership would confirm (unfairly in my view) prejudices I knew to be out there that the new owners were only interested in the bottom line."
On the same day Sample assumed control of the Times Record, 10 employees, including one reporter, got layoff notices (see "That didn't take long," Feb. 29, 2008)
. Two of those people have since been rehired, according to McCarthy. The Forecaster weekly paper's mid-coast edition was the first to report the layoffs and the lack of coverage. It noted that Sample had a history of slashing payroll at its other publications, including the Journal Tribune in Biddeford.
In his editorial, McCarthy said he alone made the decision to keep the news of the layoffs out of the paper, because, "I feared the lasting impression would be negative." He said he didn't consult with new publisher Chris Miles or former owner Doug Niven until after the paper went to press. Neither, he noted, was too upset about avoiding bad publicity.
McCarthy - who's been at the paper for 23 years, the last nine as managing editor - justified his bias in favor of his employer by noting that a previous round of layoffs at the Times Record, 16 months ago, also occurred "without a single word in this newspaper."
In contrast, both the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News have regularly published stories on layoffs at their respective papers, as have many major dailies in other states. And the Times Record has carried numerous stories about layoffs at other local companies, including Bath Iron Works and Parkview Adventist Hospital. McCarthy did not address the ethical issues involved in attempting to shield his own employer from similar scrutiny. But he was unapologetic about his decision.
"Yes, I chose to make [the article on the ownership transfer] a `positive' story," he wrote. "Those who know me well know that if I have a bias, it is to look for the positive in everybody, in every occasion."
Possibly because of that bias, the Times Record also didn't report on subsequent developments relating to the layoffs. I had to rely on the Forecaster again for news that, as a result of the job cuts, Commissioner John Richardson of the state Department of Economic and Community Development was taking a second look at a recent decision by the Finance Authority of Maine (FAME) to grant Sample access to $7 million in tax free bonds to cover part of the sale. During a January public hearing on the financing request, a lawyer for Sample told the authority the bonding was necessary to "maintain current head count and payroll."
In spite of Richardson's statement, FAME officials indicated there was little chance the decision to approve the funding would be altered or overturned.
That may be because the layoffs were inevitable, regardless of who owned the paper. In his editorial, McCarthy wrote that Niven told him that even if his family hadn't decided to sell, the rising costs of fuel, insurance and newsprint would have resulted in staff reductions.
The only question would have been whether the Times Record would have reported on them.- Filed March 10, 2008
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.