Down East 2013 ©
Incompatible signs: It didn’t take long for things to get weird at MaineToday Media.
In a June 21 front-page column in the Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, Richard Connor, the papers’ new editor and publisher, felt compelled to inform his readers that among the many factors that resulted in his purchase of the former Blethen Maine Newspapers was astrology. 
Reading his inaugural article, I could almost feel his new employees cringing. Hey, maybe I’m psychic.
While Connor does reveal a few minor, non-mystical details about his lengthy effort to purchase the papers, he devotes much of his space to sharing his innermost dreams (“I wanted to write about Maine romantically the way [former Press Herald columnist Bill] Caldwell did”) and delusions.
In the latter category is the revelation that the father-in-law of the president of his Pennsylvania publishing group (Connor is also editor and publisher of the Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre) is a “guru, an astrology hobbyist.” Connor wrote, “I contacted him many times by e-mail to ask my fate.
“Never once did he falter. He said I would own these newspapers and virtually predicted the date. Consequently, I never lost hope.”
I’ve looked in my crystal ball, and I predict that if revenues at Connor’s new acquisitions don’t improve in a hurry, it won’t be long before the Portland Press Herald starts offering a free séance with every paid obituary.
Financial signs: Lest you become concerned that business decisions at MaineToday might be made only after consulting the entrails of doves, be assured that more logical methods will also be employed. The Wall Street Journal’s Web site has an interesting interview with Peter Brodsky of HM Capital Partners, Connor’s major financial backer in his purchase of the papers.  Asked how the new owners planned to produce more local news with fewer people, Brodsky said, “We felt frankly that the Maine newspapers were way overstaffed – there was room to cut even without impacting the amount of local reporting.”
Is he correct?
The Magic Eight Ball says, “Ask again later.”
Positive sign: In his first few days at the helm, Connor’s most visible alteration at the Press Herald has been the restoration of space for editorials to two full pages. Under the Blethens, the paper offered a page and half Monday through Friday and a single page on Saturday. So far, the extra room has been filled mostly with syndicated columnists, but once a new editorial-page editor is named, perhaps there’ll be more of an effort to find interesting local opinions. You know, like from tarot-card readers.
Another positive sign: The June 22 Morning Sentinel had some actual reporting in it. Staff writer Scott Monroe got hold of a revealing consultant’s report on the Good Will-Hinckley Homes in Fairfield. 
The document, done for a philanthropic foundation from which Good Will-Hinckley was seeking funding, shows the program’s board of directors had a history of failing to confront problems that led to serious financial problems and the decision earlier this month to shut down its residential school for at-risk youth. Monroe’s story provides perspective on what went wrong and why, something that had been missing from the Sentinel’s coverage.
Somebody should wave a magic wand and create more real journalism like this.
Negative signs: I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the June 22 Press Herald story by staff writer Beth Quimby on the alleged uptick in local retail sales begins with two people who recently opened a store in Portland’s Old Port called Psychic Visions .
But I’m worried that it isn’t coincidental that the article, headlined “Openings, rise in sales stir hope,” took such a cheerful view of the economy, based on nothing but anecdotal evidence.
While the psychic store owners are optimistic about their prospects, the dark lords of tax-revenue collection appear to be less so. In a chart accompanying the story in the Portland paper (but not in the versions that ran in the Sentinel or the Lewiston Sun Journal), state figures show retail sales tax numbers in the first quarter of 2009 trailing the same period in 2008 by significant margins in three of the four shopping areas listed. Oddly enough, only the figures for Kittery, the one place cited that’s showing some growth, get mentioned in the body of the story.
Is the Connor-operated Press Herald being pressured to use happy spin in its economic coverage in a effort to boost advertising revenue? I must consult the oracle for an answer.
Sign of change: Editor Joyce Grondin is out at the Village Soup-owned Capital Weekly in Augusta, replaced by Beth Staples, who had been editing the Soup’s Republican Journal in Belfast. Holly Anderson is now listed as the “interim editor” at the Journal, where she’s grooming another staffer to take over the top job, according to Soup chief operating officer Ron Belyea. (Disclosure: My weekly political column runs in four Village Soup papers, including the Capital Weekly and Republican Journal.)
More changes may be coming soon for the Augusta paper, with one industry insider saying it will be shifted from paid to free distribution.
Belyea refused to comment on that claim, saying, “There’s been no firm decision at this time.”
Read the sign – No exceptions: Mo Mehlsak, editor of the Forecaster weeklies in Greater Portland, has an interesting column in the June 19 issues, explaining the rationale behind the papers’ popular Police Beat feature, which lists all arrests and charges filed by local cops.
Mehlsak gets a lot of calls from people who don’t want any mention of their encounters with the law appearing in print.  He acknowledges that publishing some names can cause inconvenience, embarrassment and even job loss, but says the Forecaster never makes exceptions, even for its own staff. “[I]f you pay taxes,” he writes, “you’re paying for the charges, allegations and arrests we report, and have a right to know how your money is being spent and what your police department is doing to protect you.” While I suspect that the motivation for publishing the blotter has less to do with such lofty sentiments and more to do with the material’s gossip value – not to mention filling lots of pages with copy that costs almost nothing to obtain – Mehlsak has a point.
But so do critics of the blotter when they complain that the Forecaster rarely follows up on the arrest reports it prints. Those Police Beat alums who are acquitted or who have the charges dropped get no corresponding publicity when their records are cleared.
If you pay taxes, you’re paying for that court action, as well. Too bad the Forecaster doesn’t consider it to be as important as its print version of the perp walk.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.