If It’s About the Owner, It’s Not News
by Al Diamon
Sussman? What Sussman? In late October, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting put out a detailed investigative article on the state’s largest political donors. The lengthy story showed the outsized influence wielded by Maine’s top 10 contributors to campaigns and political action committees. By far, the biggest wallet in this pocket of super-sized spenders belonged to S. Donald Sussman, who gave more in the past couple of years than the other nine wealthy donors combined.
Sussman, the multi-millionaire founder of a hedge fund, shelled out nearly $3 million to liberal causes and candidates between the beginning of 2013 and the height of the 2014 campaigns. By comparison, the second-biggest contributor, Southport summer resident Ed Bosarge of Quantlab Financial, wrote checks for a mere $180,000. The Sussman family’s clout was further enhanced because it includes the fourth-largest donor and Sussman’s wife, Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who chipped in almost $122,000.
Until the center’s report, no media outlet had done the digging necessary to show how extensive Sussman’s influence in politics has been. There’s no doubt this was a newsworthy enterprise, and it’s no surprise this report received front-page placement in the Bangor Daily News and the Lewiston Sun Journal.
But the MaineToday Media newspapers took a different approach. They ignored the story.
Which might have something to do with the fact that Sussman is MaineToday’s majority owner. MTM — which publishes the Portland Press Herald, the Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel — has run many of the center’s stories in the past (they’re provided free to any news organization that wants them), but took a pass on the one that revealed uncomfortable details about its big boss.
MaineToday has previously acknowledged it has a “perception challenge” when it comes to proving its news coverage isn’t influenced by Sussman’s political activities. But blatantly spiking a legitimate story because it concerns its owner goes well beyond perception all the way to outright bias.
When Sussman bought the papers in 2012, there was considerable concern his politics would intrude on editorial decisions. That’s no longer just a concern. It’s reality.
Same sad statistical story: The Alliance for Audited Media has released the latest circulation figures for Maine daily newspapers. And like the numbers from the annual U.S. Postal Service statements made public in October, the AAM report shows continuing sharp drops in readership across the board.
The Portland Press Herald lost an average of over 4,500 readers Monday through Friday in the six months ending Sept. 30. That represents a decline of 11 percent from the same period last year. The Press Herald now sells 38,202 copies on a typical weekday.
This year’s shrinkage is no fluke. Last year’s sales were off 8 percent. The year before that showed another 11 percent drop.
The Maine Sunday Telegram had equally dismal numbers. Back in 2010, the paper averaged over 82,000 copies a week. This year, it’s down to 56,742, marking the third consecutive year the Telegram has shed over 10 percent of its readers.
The Postal Service reports had indicated some mildly encouraging signs for MaineToday Media’s smaller papers, showing nearly flat sales. But the AAM figures, using a different definition of paid circulation, dispelled that illusion. The Morning Sentinel in Waterville was off by 13 percent on both weekdays and Sundays. The Kennebec Journal in Augustashrank 12 percent on Sunday and a whopping 16 percent on weekdays. The Sentinel now sells a little over 10,000 copies each day. The KJ is down to less than 8,200 Monday through Saturday and under 8,700 on Sunday.
The Bangor Daily News took a 15 percent hit on weekdays and a 13 percent loss for its weekend edition, losing an average of more than 6,000 readers Monday through Saturday during this six-month period. That’s a noticeable change for the BDN, which had until now been able to keep its annual percentage losses in the single digits. The weekday paper now circulates 34,187 copies; the Saturday edition is down to 41,413.
The Lewiston Sun Journal hadn’t released its circulation figures for more than five years, but since AAM merged with Certified Audit of Circulations, the firm that did the Sun Journal’s auditing, the numbers are flowing again. The paper sold an average of 20,762 copies on weekdays and 22,786 on Sundays. That’s down about 40 percent in the past seven years.
This year’s AAM report also provides some indications of how newspapers are doing in terms of signing up customers for their digital editions. The Press Herald claims that, in spite of the paywall it erected this year, its website still averaged 1,713,578 unique users each month. But it only had 786 paid subscribers to its digital edition, which makes up for less than 20 percent of the print readers it lost. The Telegram boasted 757 digital customers, or about 10 percent of its print decline. The Sentinel had 211 people paying to read it online during the week and 211 on Sundays. The KJ managed 201 weekdays and 165 on Sundays.
The most intriguing e-edition numbers come from the Sun Journal, which claims to have almost as many paying digital readers as it does analog ones. Given MaineToday’s struggles to attract online readers and the clunkiness of Lewiston’s Web edition, those figures should be taken with a sizable grain of salt.
Disclose or else: University of Maine at Machias economics professor Jonathan Reisman, a former Republican congressional candidate, is preparing to escalate his conflict with the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. Reisman has long contended that MPBN’s coverage of environmental issues is biased because some of its underwriters are advocacy groups pushing a green agenda.
In an e-mail, Reisman told me he’s asking his state senator to introduce legislation to call attention to that perceived conflict of interest. “When an MPBN report substantially involves and/or quotes an MPBN underwriter or sponsor,” he wrote, “that relationship must be disclosed at the end of the report.”
Reisman said he’s aware there might be First Amendment concerns about government dictating news content, but he believes the state subsidy MPBN receives allows for such interference.
MPBN president and CEO Mark Vogelzang had no comment on Reisman’s proposal, but said that all underwriters are already disclosed on the air in accordance with federal law. Vogelzang pointed out that commercial broadcasters don’t run disclosures when they air stories involving their advertisers.
While Reisman’s proposal may appear extreme, he isn’t alone in raising concerns about bias in MPBN’s news coverage of matters involving its underwriters. Opponents of wind-turbine construction in Maine’s wilderness areas have long contended that donations to the network from companies building such projects have had an undue influence on public radio’s reporting.
Odds and sods: Portland now has two alternative weekly newspapers. The Portland Phoenix, which almost closed a month ago, has been sold by Massachusetts-based owner Phoenix Media to the New Hampshire-based company that owns the Portland Sun, a twice-weekly free paper. The new editor of the Phoenix is Dan MacLeod, former editor of the University of Southern Maine Free Press and an ex-reporter for the New York Post.
Meanwhile, the publishers of the Bay State alt-weekly Dig Boston announced the mid-November launch of a new paper called Dig Portland. Its masthead includes much of the former Phoenix’sstaff, including editor Nick Schroeder. (Disclosure: My weekly political column has moved from the Phoenix to Dig.)
Steve Robinson has left his job as editor of the Maine Wire, the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center’s propaganda service, to join Boston talk show host Howie Carr’s newly launched New England radio network as a producer and occasional substitute host. The center has yet to name a replacement.
The parent company of Seacoast Media Group — publisher of the Portsmouth Herald, the York County Coast Star and the York Weekly — has purchased the rival Foster’s Daily Democrat of Dover, N.H., which gives Seacoast another Maine weekly, the Sanford News.
In addition to serving as The Bollard’s media critic, Al Diamon writes a weekly political column that runs in Dig Portland, the Daily Bulldog and the Current Publishing papers. He also writes a column for Current’s My Generation magazine. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.