Down East 2013 ©
MaineToday Media CEO Richard Connor published his assessment of his first year of owning the Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel  in the June 27 edition of those papers.
To no one’s surprise, Connor’s view is universally optimistic. Not to mention grandiose and more than a little misleading. Or maybe he’s just deluded. It’s sometimes hard to tell.
Connor refers to his company as “custodians of the vital public trust” of being the state’s largest newsgathering organization. That’s difficult to reconcile with comments he’s made elsewhere. “Scoops don’t matter to me,” he told Colin Woodard in a piece published in Down East .
In the same article, Connor said he wasn’t interested in breaking news, but rather in customer satisfaction. Presumably, the satisfaction of those customers who buy newspapers for something other than news. Columns by Connor, perhaps?
“Our expanded State House bureau in Augusta is establishing new standards for covering government and politics,” Connor wrote in his anniversary piece.
It is true that MaineToday restored a reporter to the State House (and then fired him , although the position is supposed to be refilled by summer’s end), but the “new standards” haven’t been apparent. True to Connor’s words about not caring about scoops, the MTM papers have consistently been days behind the Web and competing papers in reporting on what’s going on in Augusta. Most of the government coverage has been routine, and the reporting on the gubernatorial primary races ranged from pedestrian to nonsensical.
Another Connor claim is that he has “more than 125 newspersons covering their towns and the state. Portland alone has a news staff of more than 90 people.”
I have no idea where he gets those numbers. The Press Herald has about a dozen reporters. Adding in all the editors, interns, and other newsroom staff gives the paper something short of sixty warm bodies. Editorial staff at all three dailies and the Web sites doesn’t total a hundred.
“We have covered local news and restored the community ‘feel’ to our papers,” Connor wrote, “while at the same time literally spanning the state, country and globe with our coverage.”
MTM has sent reporters on questionable missions to Afghanistan, Haiti, and the Gulf Coast, which I suppose could be liberally interpreted as spanning the nation and world, but it’s also missed stories right on its doorstep on a daily basis, being scooped by the weekly American Journal in Westbrook , the Forecaster papers  and even the Portland Daily Sun .
While Press Herald staff writer Tom Bell has restored credibility to the paper’s Portland City Hall coverage, and reporter Ed Murphy is proving a formidable competitor in York County, suburban newsgathering has been perfunctory at best. As for stuff that happens farther away in Maine, the Press Herald gets all that from a story-sharing arrangement with the Bangor Daily News and the Lewiston Sun Journal. Nothing to brag about there.
The KJ and Sentinel have always been community papers and remain so. But neither has shown any marked improvement under Connor’s regime.
Finally there’s this claim: “We are growing. Advertising, our biggest source of revenue, is climbing. Total revenues are increasing and will exceed those of 2009. Circulation has begun to stabilize and will start to grow again by midsummer.”
Some of this might be true. Sorta.
Connor’s papers have been aggressive in selling ads, according to several rival publishers, often offering steep discounts. That cut-rate pricing appears to account for much of the jump in the amount of advertising. Whether that means 2010 revenues will be higher than the previous year is debatable, but it’s worth noting that 2009 was an economic disaster for the Press Herald, in particular, so it wouldn’t take much to improve on that.
In a commemorative brochure MaineToday is distributing  to mark its one-year anniversary, it says, “Overall advertising revenue is no longer in freefall, and some sectors – notably automobile advertising – are up significantly.” That doesn’t come off as being quite as optimistic as Connor’s claim, but it’s not worth quibbling over.
As for circulation, the latest figures available  don’t support Connor’s statement. In the past year, the Press Herald has lost 6 percent of its readers, and the Telegram 7 percent.
Connor does offer some insight into his plans to reverse that trend. In the brochure story , he said he plans to hire freelancers to cover much of York and Cumberland counties, a move he expects will increase circulation.
“My term for it is making a big paper feel smaller, in terms of its local news coverage,” he’s quoted as saying.
He’s also “looking at options” for hiring a Washington correspondent, a position cut by the previous owners, and possibly adding reporters in Maine. Those expansions will “depend on the company becoming financially stable.”
Which doesn’t exactly mesh with his often-repeated claims that all three dailies are now profitable , as is the company as a whole. In early 2010, for instance, he told a meeting of the Cumberland Club in Portland, “We’ve taken a company that was on the verge of bankruptcy we’ve made money every month from the start of July , when we took the company over. We’ll make as much money this year, quite frankly, in five months, as the company made in all of 2008.”
What kind of stability is he waiting for?
When it comes to non-print applications, Connor isn’t waiting. He says he’s hiring a director of new media “to expand ways to integrate print, Internet and mobile applications” to expand services to people with them new-fangled computers and cell phones. He also plans to start texting breaking news to anyone who signs up for the service.
That plenty of newspapers, Web sites, and even bloggers who live in their parents’ basements have been doing this sort of thing for years doesn’t seem to bother him. He apparently regards cutting-edge technology much the way he does scoops.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org