MaineToday CEO Speaks, But Doesn’t Say Much
by Al Diamon
Hello, I’m your new publisher: Nice to see new MaineToday Media chief executive officer and publisher Lisa DeSisto, who was hired last October, finally get around to introducing herself to readers of the Maine Sunday Telegram. In a Jan. 6 column (that doesn’t seem to have run in MaineToday’s Kennebec Journal or Morning Sentinel), DeSisto, late of the Boston Globe, revealed that she’s not from Maine, although her family has been vacationing here two weeks a year for a long time.
She also explained that it doesn’t much matter to her whether people buy her papers or read them online, because “the device that carries the content is irrelevant.” Or it would be if somebody ever figures out how to turn a significant profit from websites and apps.
DeSisto briefly mentioned the touchy relationship between MaineToday majority owner S. Donald Sussman and conservative critics, who believe his contributions to liberal causes and his marriage to a Democratic congresswoman are reflected in the newspapers’ coverage. DeSisto dredged up a little history to refute that claim.
“In 1922, Press Herald publisher Guy Gannett, a Republican, faced criticism from his own party for ‘allowing’ reporters to run stories accurately quoting Democratic attacks on incumbent Republican Gov. Percival Baxter. In response, he wrote in an open letter to readers: ‘The American people think for themselves. They want and should be given the news and all the news fully and uncolored by any personal or political consideration.’”
That little anecdote is lifted from a special section the Portland Press Herald published last year to commemorate its 150th birthday and presents a slightly skewed view of Gannett’s objectivity. In the 1920s, GOP progressives and conservatives vied for control of the party – Democrats were of little relevance in Maine at the time – and it was scarcely uncommon for a Republican of one persuasion to speak ill of a colleague of another. In 1959, when Time magazine assessed Gannett’s career, it said “his flinty Republicanism and his bedrock conviction that heavy advertisers deserved to make news, were graven into every issue.”
The past aside, it’s too bad DeSisto didn’t use her introductory piece to do what Gannett did in his open letter by at least trying to answer some of the questions lingering over the company, such as:
We know Sussman controls 75 percent of MaineToday, but who are the other owners and what are their percentages?
Is a paywall for access to MaineToday’s websites likely in the near future?
Is there a business plan that will eventually return the company to profitability, or will Sussman continue to subsidize operations indefinitely?
The MaineToday papers made no endorsement in last year’s 1st District congressional race, in which Sussman’s wife, Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, won re-election. Will that be the policy in all of Pingree’s future races? What about if her daughter Hannah runs for major office?
It’s good that DeSisto has taken the opportunity to speak directly to readers, but I hope this first attempt doesn’t follow the path of her predecessor. Former CEO Rich Connor wasted space in the MaineToday papers with his self-serving commentaries, but never addressed serious questions the community had about his management style and practice. More than a year after his ouster, the public still hasn’t been told why he left abruptly or how MTM came so close to bankruptcy on his watch. If DeSisto wants to establish some credibility in Maine, she would do well to consider the Connor era and its ugly aftermath, and avoid the secrecy that’s been a hallmark of the company’s operations since Guy Gannett himself ran the show.
Holes in the ground, holes in the story: Portland Press Herald environmental writer North Cairn wrote her Jan. 7 story on the controversy over mining on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County as if she’d visited the area. Lots of little details about how things look and local attitudes.
But if Cairn actually set foot in the County to research this piece, how come she never quoted anyone who lives there, except for two legislators? In an article focused on the conflict between economic development and environmental protection, it might have been enlightening to hear from somebody besides politicians and a couple of eco-activists (neither of whom resides anywhere near Bald). Surely there must be Chamber of Commerce types, loggers, hunters, shop owners and back-to-the-landers who could provided some personal insight.
And what about former state Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake, who was instrumental in gaining initial approval in the Legislature for the mining plan? That action (and Martin’s business relationships with the Irving family that owns Bald) were factors in his defeat for re-election last November. Hard to believe neither he nor his critics merited a line or two in Cairn’s story.
Next (?) time she’s up there, she should look them all up.
Skipping some questions: Bangor Daily News reporter Christopher Cousins scooped the competition with his Jan. 7 piece on the plan by Republican Gov. Paul LePage to lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in Maine.
Trouble is, Cousins was so eager to frame the issue as one concerning education funding – he brought that subject up in no less than 14 different paragraphs, and it’s in the headline for good measure – that he neglected to ask some obvious questions:
Since Maine law already allows up to 10 charter schools, and that quota is a long way from being filled, why does LePage feel the limit has to be lifted immediately?
Why isn’t LePage willing to wait at least a year or two to see how existing charter schools, which have just begun functioning, perform and what impact they have on regular public schools?
Why is LePage, who must realize eliminating the cap will be a contentious political issue, creating a new controversy at a time when the state faces serious budget issues that already threaten to divide legislators along party lines?
This story would appear to be about a lot more than funding. Here’s hoping someone notices that.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.