What Maine Reads?
Rich Connor’s Portland Press Herald
By Chris Busby
“Blame it on the guru.”
So began Rich Connor’s first column as editor and publisher of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and its sister papers: the Kennebec Journal in Augusta and Waterville’s Morning Sentinel.
Connor introduced himself to readers last summer by describing the year-and-a-half-long odyssey he undertook to buy the newspapers from the Blethen family, owners of the Seattle Times. The Bangor native, who left Maine in his teens over four decades ago to be a cub reporter in Michigan, recounted the many months spent hustling for money, the partnerships with a string of high-placed investors and would-be rainmakers. He wrote of how he wrestled with the unions and finally found a pair of bankers who believed in his “dream.”
Then Connor revealed that throughout this arduous journey he’d sought guidance from an amateur astrological “guru,” the father-in-law of an executive at the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, a Pennsylvania daily he also owns. “I contacted him many times by e-mail to ask my fate,” Connor wrote. “Never once did he falter. He said I would own these newspapers, and virtually predicted the date. Consequently, I never lost hope.”
That column was published on Sunday, June 21 — the summer solstice.
In some respects, Connor’s acquisition of the papers mirrors the Blethens’ purchase of them from Guy Gannett Communications nearly a dozen years ago. The Blethens were also out-of-staters with Maine roots (family patriarch Alden J. Blethen hailed from here) who characterized their takeover as a kind of homecoming. In both cases, readers and employees greeted news of the ownership change with relief and a sense of hope, as the purchases followed an anxious period of uncertainty about the papers’ future.
But mirror images are also opposites.
The Blethens’ Seattle paper had won seven Pulitzer Prizes at the time of the takeover. The family took great pride in their papers’ investigative stories and commitment to high journalistic standards.
“We believe that preserving quality independent journalism is the ultimate in community service,” publisher and CEO Frank Blethen declared when he came to Portland. “We make money so that we can publish newspapers, not the other way around.”
In Connor’s case, it sure looks like it’s “the other way around.”
Since taking the reins last June, Connor has axed upwards of 150 jobs, closed one of the company’s two printing facilities, and sold off a bunch of its real estate, including the Press Herald‘s headquarters in downtown Portland. The editorial staff, already decimated by cuts Blethen made before the sale, lost more experienced reporters and editors in the latest round of buyouts and layoffs last month.
The most noticeable changes Connor has made to the newspapers have nothing to do with good reporting — or, in most cases, any reporting whatsoever. Photo spreads of smiling people at charity functions and social events often occupy prime space in the local news section. A regular feature recently added to the business section, and presented as news, consists entirely of press releases submitted by businesses that are moving, opening or expanding.
While the state continues to struggle through a wrenching recession that’s eliminated thousands of jobs, Press Herald readers are treated every Monday to “Maine at Work,” a front-page series in which features reporter Ray Routhier bungles his way through shifts at occupations such as disc jockey, toll-taker, and street-meat vendor.
Connor has taken the art of pandering to new heights: the top of his papers’ front pages and Web sites, to be exact. Cute kids holding placards with smiling suns or frowny clouds grace the top of each day’s print edition, while adorable pets anchor the weather section atop the Web sites.
If you think Connor’s the least bit embarrassed by any of this, think again. To the contrary, Connor considers additions like the Snapshot photo spreads the epitome of local coverage.
“In my view, there is no purer form of local news or local connection with the community than someone’s picture in the paper,” he said during an interview with The Bollard in his new office at One City Center.
And guess what: It’s working.
After years of steady circulation declines, the Press Herald and Sunday Telegram began to win back readers after just three months under Connor’s leadership.
As veteran journalist, political columnist and media critic Al Diamon reported for Down East magazine last fall, the circulation of both papers rose by about 2 percent from April through September last year, compared to the preceding six months. Figures the paper submitted to the non-profit Audit Bureau of Circulations put the Press Herald‘s average weekday circulation at 60,821 during that most recent six-month period, and the Telegram‘s at 92,406, Diamon reported. That’s still well below where the papers were just a few years ago, but the downward trend has been reversed.
Another measure of the Press Herald‘s health is the number of letters to the editor it generates. Connor’s Herald is clearly running more letters than the daily did under his predecessor, though that’s also because new executive editor Scott Wasser restored the editorial section to two full pages — the Blethens had significantly reduced editorial space near the end of their era in an effort to cut costs.
Ad revenue is also growing. During a speech at the Cumberland Club in Portland earlier this year (recorded by Maine Public Broadcasting for its “Speaking in Maine” series), Connor said, “We’ve taken a company that was on the verge of bankruptcy [and] 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.”
“At the end of the day, this is going to work out fine,” Connor told those assembled at the swanky social club. “We can pay the bills, we can pay the bank off, we don’t have much debt … so we’re in great shape.”
That speech was posted on MPBN’s Web site on Feb. 5. On Feb. 22, Connor sent a memo to MaineToday Media employees announcing another round of layoffs and buyouts.
Press Herald reporter Tom Bell, president of the Portland Newspaper Guild (the union that represents reporters, advertising representatives, and back-office workers in departments like circulation and composing), said in late March that 17 union members were being laid off and 23 more had accepted buyouts.
“It looks like the total number of positions [lost] will be more than 50,” Bell said.
Blame it on the guru.
Shock and awe
“Oh my God! That’s just unbelievable.”
Lou Ureneck is shocked, and seasoned newsmen like Ureneck don’t shock easily.
Ureneck worked for Guy Gannett’s Portland papers for 21 years, from the mid-1970s to the mid-’90s. He was editor of the Press Herald/Sunday Telegram and the Evening Express, the late-afternoon daily Gannett published until 1991.
Ureneck said that at one point about 20 years ago, Gannett’s papers had an editorial staff of 167.
“It was an extremely well-financed and powerful news organization,” he recalled. “We provided blanket coverage of Cumberland, York, and Sagadahoc counties. There was nothing that happened in Cumberland County that we didn’t cover, right down to the planning board in Standish.”
Told that the Press Herald now has only 17 reporters covering news and features, he was floored.
“It’s distressing to hear,” said Ureneck, who chairs Boston University’s News and Editorial Journalism Program. “You can’t do the job with 17 reporters, in my judgment.”
Seventeen may actually be too high, as that figure includes reporter and columnist Justin Ellis, who’s taking a buyout. Connor said it’s possible Ellis’ position will be filled, but no decision had been made at the time of our interview in late March. If the job is not filled, the state’s largest daily will have just 12 news reporters — there are four features/arts reporters on staff.
Ureneck said he can’t comment on the state of the Herald these days because he doesn’t read it very often. But close readers of the paper, like pseudonymous blogger T. Cushing Munjoy — an ex-newspaperman who (often viciously) dissected the daily’s coverage over the past several years before abruptly calling it quits last month —decry what they consider the steady erosion of its journalistic standards: lagging or non-existent coverage of local news, a lack of follow-up, stories that raise as many questions as they answer.
These shortcomings plagued the Press Herald during the Blethen era, especially toward its end, but Connor has made it worse, the critics say.
“I think the paper has deteriorated significantly” since Connor took over, said Diamon. “It’s what Munjoy refers to as drive-by journalism. There’s no in-depth coverage … Stories have big holes in them, when one phone call would fix that.”
The Snapshot photo spreads in the local section “couldn’t be more wasted space,” said Diamon. “It’s just a blatant attempt to fill the paper up with something that will make advertisers feel good. It has no value to the average reader.”
[Full disclosure: Roughly a decade ago, Diamon and I worked together at the now-defunct Casco Bay Weekly.]
“The paper had reached quite a low point under the later Blethen leadership, or lack thereof, and I’ve yet to see it really come back from that,” said Matthew Killmeier, a professor of communications and media studies who teaches journalism at the University of Southern Maine.
“I don’t think they do hardly any investigative or in-depth reporting,” Killmeier said. “They don’t connect their episodic reporting with larger issues in the state and locally.”
“[Connor] thinks running a group of pictures of locals doing this and locals doing that is a substitute for reporting,” said Orlando Delogu, an emeritus professor of law at USM, former Portland Planning Board chairman, and columnist for the biweekly neighborhood paper The West End News. “I don’t think there’s much effort being made in a discerning way to pull apart fact from fiction.”
“His coverage of statewide politics is weak, his coverage of international [news] is nonexistent – you just get snippets off the wire,” Delogu, a longtime Press Herald subscriber, continued. The daily “just doesn’t have any depth in so many areas, it gets to be a pretty thin paper.”
“The core mission of any small to medium-sized newspaper is to cover the local news in your readership area. Everything else is just icing on the cake,” said author and journalist Colin Woodard, a contributing editor at Down East who’s written about the Portland papers and other Maine dailies. “The Press Herald abdicated this crucial role under the Blethen leadership. Unfortunately, Mr. Connor shows little interest in reversing the situation.
“The quality and quantity of local news coverage produced by their newsroom has now declined to the point where it’s a fair question to ask what the relevance of the newspaper is at all,” Woodard said.
“What I care about are our readers, our customers, the people we’re serving with this newspaper for news and information – news and information being news … being advertising, all sorts of things,” Connor told The Bollard. “That’s who I want our message to resonate with. I don’t care what other journalists think of us. I just don’t. Never have.”
Connor strongly refuted the notion that features like Snapshot are an attempt to stroke advertisers. “There’s no connection to advertising, ever,” he said. “Absolutely none. None.”
“I get over 100 e-mails a day, most of ‘em from Maine,” Connor continued. “I haven’t had a complaint since August. What we have had is … constant feedback from readers saying, ‘I love the local pictures.’ The American Society of Newspaper Editors is probably not gonna give us an award for it, but you know what? We aren’t going to be at the convention.”
“People want it. That’s why we do it,” executive editor Wasser said of the photo spreads. “My question is, why wouldn’t every paper do that?”
Asked if he’s satisfied with the amount of local news coverage his papers provide, Connor said, “I’m satisfied with the progress we’ve made, but we’ll be doing a lot more … We’ve had so many other big projects, we really haven’t begun to change the architecture of local coverage at this newspaper. It will become more local, quite frankly, in a number of ways, going forward.”
Wasser also said there’ll be more local news, even if readers don’t want it.
“I get at least, probably an average of two e-mails a week, or calls a week, saying that we have too much local news,” said Wasser, a longtime Connor associate who recently moved to Scarborough from the Wilkes-Barre area to oversee content at the four Maine papers. He also writes the car reviews that appear in the Telegram.
“Let me put it another way,” Connor chimed in. “I have not received an e-mail in six months or a phone call from someone saying, ‘You don’t have enough local news. The paper’s not local anymore. It’s owned by someone from Pennsylvania’ — which is a normal reaction you get from people. What we do get, which is unusual in this business today, are people saying, ‘We want more national or world news.’”
In Connor’s second column, published a week after the solstice, he singled out a reader who’d written in to express disappointment with the new emphasis on local matters. This reader wanted more in-depth national and world news.
“That’s on the way, I said, but not at the expense of local coverage,” Connor wrote. “Our newspapers will have more neighborhood news and lots of photographs of local people.
“I’ve never known anyone – except maybe someone wearing handcuffs and an orange prison jumpsuit – who didn’t enjoy having their picture in the paper – and seeing friends’ and neighbors’ photos in the paper,” he continued in the column. “Our readers can look forward to that.”
Dennis Bailey worked as a reporter for numerous Maine dailies in the 1980s, including seven years with the Press Herald, before moving on to serve as press secretary for former U.S. Rep. Tom Andrews and Gov. Angus King. Connor retained Bailey’s public relations firm, Savvy, Inc., during his quest to buy Blethen Maine Newspapers.
The Press Herald is “definitely more lively, and it’s definitely attracted interest,” said Bailey, who no longer represents Connor. “You look at it and think some of it’s kind of corny, like the weather thing with the dogs, but I don’t know how many people I’ve talked to who mentioned that and love it.”
“People want to see dramatic change and improvement, but there’s a whole set of problems behind the curtain [Connor] has to address, most of that financial,” Bailey said.
No one is more keenly aware of the damage job cuts and puff pieces do to the quality and integrity of a paper’s reporting than the reporters themselves.
“When you have fewer reporters, you cover less, but also how you work changes,” said Bell. “You’re more likely to do more stories and fewer enterprise stories” — longer articles that probe beyond the basic facts. “You have less time to work.”
“But it’s interesting,” Bell continued. “We’ve never had so few reporters, yet feedback from the public has been positive … People like some of the non-mainstream journalistic things, like the weather kids.”
Bell said he and some of his colleagues in the newsroom find this puzzling. “Maybe the traditional values of journalism are not as valued by the public as we thought,” he said. “Has the public changed, or were they like that all along and we didn’t know it?”
Portland City Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who’s been both a reader and a subject of Press Herald stories going back to the Guy Gannett days, may provide a clue to that puzzle. A regular subscriber, Leeman said she’s pleased with the job Connor’s done thus far.
“I like the Snapshot section,” she said. “I think it’s been a nice addition to the paper … Every now and then it’s good to have a little warm, fuzzy stuff in there.”
Bread and circus
“I have no objection to fluffy stuff,” said one of Leeman’s colleagues, at-large City Councilor John Anton. But “it seems like there’s an awful lot of correlation between advertising and coverage,” he said.
Anton’s not surprised by this. “I don’t think Connor made any bones about the fact he was coming in to do a business turnaround,” he said. “That approach has worked for him in other markets. Maybe it doesn’t interest you and me, but his job is not necessarily to interest you and me. It’s to sell papers.”
For example, the front page of the local section last Sept. 11 had an article about what Connor’s Herald considered a newsworthy anniversary: a Volkswagen dealership in Falmouth, a longtime advertiser, was preparing to celebrate its 55th year in business.
It’s this kind of blatant boosterism that makes the Herald‘s critics cringe, but the advertiser featured in the story is not one of them.
Peter Sowles, who owns the Morong Falmouth dealership with his brother, said he’s “quite pleased” with the direction Connor’s taking the paper. “The new ownership is doing a great job bringing in a lot more of the local aspect of what’s going on around Portland,” Sowles said. “They’re doing a good job promoting events and businesses and people.”
The most glaring examples of news space being used to sell ad space involve MaineToday Media itself.
On March 2, Press Herald reporter Dennis Hoey had a story on the front page of the local section. The big news: at a bartending party the night before, Connor had announced plans to tweak the design of the Telegram‘s real estate advertising section and reduce some of its ad rates.
“[Connor] said the newspaper is offering a new product at lower prices, and added, ‘How can you beat that?’” Hoey reported. “Several potential advertisers at the event reacted positively.”
Two weeks later, MaineToday made the front page. The byline-less article reported that Connor had announced a new partnership with television station WGME 13. In addition to weather blurbs written by Storm Team 13 meteorologists, the two news organizations said they “expect to share other content and reporting on the air, in print and on their Web sites,” including coverage of gubernatorial debates.
Connor and a WGME executive provided self-congratulatory quotes to the article’s anonymous author. No other sources were cited.
The partnership with WGME is a reunion of sorts for the Press Herald. In 1998, a week after Guy Gannett announced the sale of its newspapers to the Blethens, the company announced plans to sell WGME to Sinclair Broadcast Group.
At the time, that was also front-page news, but the difference in coverage speaks volumes. Reporters Clarke Canfield and Ray Routhier (yes, the “Maine at Work” guy) collaborated on a lengthy article that devoted significant ink to Sinclair’s reputation for putting corporate profits ahead of quality local news coverage, as well as the company’s rocky relationship with labor unions.
Labor strife at the station erupted in public again last month, but you haven’t read about it in Connor’s Herald. The same day the paper ran its anonymous article on the WGME partnership, the union representing off-camera workers at the CBS affiliate issued a press release that charged Sinclair with unfair labor practices and announced that workers would be protesting outside the station’s Washington Avenue offices on March 17.
The Press Herald ignored that story, but ran a lengthy news brief in the local section on March 18 about WGME’s plans to expand its news-sharing partnership with Fox television station WPFO.
During our interview on March 22, Wasser was under the mistaken impression that the Herald had covered the WGME protests. Connor said he didn’t know why his paper hadn’t covered it, but that the decision was not intentional. “I think it’s ’cause we dropped the ball, but there’s no management decision not to cover something,” he said.
Connor defended his paper’s decision to publish news articles about the redesigned real estate section and the WGME partnership. “Real simple,” he said. “We own the newspaper, and when we can do things that will promote our business and help us grow, we’re going to do that.”
The paper’s partnership with WGME is “news,” he said, because it promises to give more people the chance to see this year’s gubernatorial debates than ever before. The revamped real estate insert is “news,” said Connor, because the redesigned ad section is akin to someone opening “a new business.”
“And we own the newspaper,” Connor repeated. “I’m not gonna fall on our sword because somebody at Sigma Delta Chi doesn’t like it,” he said, referring to the original name of the Society of Professional Journalists, a national organization “dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior,” according to its Web site.
“One of the reasons we like Connor is he’s an entrepreneur, a good businessman, and that’s what the paper needs to survive,” Bell said. He noted that he’s been with the paper for 10 years, and has never seen the advertising staff “happier” or more motivated than they are now.
Connor’s pro-business approach to news coverage may be good for the paper’s bottom line, but it could cost the community the paper supposedly exists to serve.
“I would say efforts to try to improve a newspaper’s financial performance by filling it with feel-good news or news that serves advertisers is completely counterproductive,” said Ureneck, the former Press Herald editor (who also prefaced that remark by saying he was not speaking directly about today’s Herald.)
“It hurts the newspaper in the short term and the long term by eroding its credibility,” Ureneck added. “In the long run, it’s not going to work. It’s a shortcut that hurts journalism.”
Will Connor’s strategy ultimately pay off, enabling the paper to rebuild its reporting staff and improve news coverage in the years to come?
I asked Connor if he’s been in touch with his guru lately.
No, he said. “I haven’t gone back.
I think the last message I got from him was he said, ‘Stay away from horse racing.’ I don’t know how he knew there were tracks here. I used to be in the harness racing business…”