The Bollard’s View


photo/Chris Busby
photo/Chris Busby

Blethen foists fake newspaper on Portland

Blethen Maine Newspapers, a division of the Seattle Times Co. that publishes thePortland Press Herald and several other Maine papers, is now selling editorial coverage to advertisers who pay for traditional print ads. The decision by Maine’s largest newspaper company to trade credibility for cash is disgraceful, pathetic, and a worrisome sign for anyone concerned about good journalism and the integrity of the press. 

Blethen is perpetrating this fraud through its Maine Community Publications division, which publishes two free, weekly community newspapers: The Coastal Journal, in Bath, and The Community Leader, which covers Falmouth and other towns north of Portland. 

This summer, Maine Community Publications introduced the Old Port Times, a free paper that purports to cover “News, Shopping & Dining in Portland.” The August issue contains a mix of news (a front-page article about The Big Easy’s change in ownership), concert and restaurant reviews, and what is known in the publishing industry as “advertorial.” 

Advertorial is a combination of advertising and editorial content: print ads made to look like articles, with headlines, columns, photos and bylines. The idea is to fool unsavvy readers into thinking the newspaper has published actual news about, say, “A New Breakthrough in Weight Loss Science.” 

Newspapers with scruples always clearly label advertorials “advertising” along the ads’ borders. An advertorial-filled publication will commonly be labeled a “special advertising supplement” or a “guide” to a specific type of business or product. 

Blethen has clearly tossed its scruples in this latest effort to boost its bottom line.

The advertorials in the OPT are not labeled “advertising,” and the paper, distributed in local businesses throughout Portland, does not identify itself as an advertising product. Rather, the OPT takes pains to appear to be an actual newspaper, with headlines, bylines, “articles” laid out in columns, and a calendar of upcoming events. The masthead notes the paper’s affiliation with Maine Community Publications and Blethen Maine Newspapers, lists staff that include a managing editor and contributors, and provides Maine Community Publications’ Falmouth address and phone number as contact info.

I called this number trying to reach managing editor Josh Shea, a formerCommunity Leader employee who struck out on his own two years ago to publish the short-lived embarrassment called Metro magazine.

“Josh Shea?” asked the receptionist, unsure who Shea is. “Is he part of the Old Port Times?” Turns out Shea, who also designs and formats this Maine Community Publication, doesn’t have a phone line at MCP’s office. I was told theOPT‘s “project manager,” Ron Stone, might know how to contact Shea, and was given Stone’s home phone number, where I left a message Stone didn’t return.

I was able to reach Ralph Stetson, the OPT‘s general manager, at MCP’s Falmouth office, where he’s also the general manager/advertising director of The Community Leader.

Why isn’t this publication labeled advertising? “That’s way beyond me,” said Stetson. “I’m the ad side, you know what I’m saying?”

The next name up the masthead is Chuck Cochrane, president and CEO of Blethen Maine Newspapers and publisher of the Portland Press Herald. When I called Cochrane for comment, his secretary informed me Mr. Cochrane doesn’t give interviews to the press. 

What? The publisher in charge of Maine’s biggest newspaper company doesn’t speak to reporters? That’s bullshit

That is, that’s not true. Chuck talks to reporters when he wants to, as he did for an Aug. 5 business news brief in the PPH announcing former WMTW-TV executive and general manager David Kaufman has been hired as publisher of Maine Community Publications. (Blethen Maine Newspapers and the ABC network affiliate, owned by media giant Hearst-Argyle, have a cooperative arrangement whereby the newspaper and TV station share content and promote one another.) 

The byline-less brief announcing Kaufman’s hiring named Blethen’s major dailies and the free weeklies Maine Community Publications puts out, but made no mention of the Old Port Times. Instead, there’s allusion to “niche publications” published by MCP, as in Chuck’s quote about how Kaufman “will develop and execute strategies to increase the Blethen Maine Newspapers’ presence in the highly competitive non-daily newspaper and niche publications arena.”

The OPT targets a “niche,” all right, but not nearly as comfortably as similar wood-pulp products that come wrapped around a handy cardboard roll. 

This typo-riddled treacle is nearly unreadable, but I forced myself through most of both issues. The chore was made a bit easier by the fact many of the same “articles” published in the June edition are reprinted in the August edition. 

The majority of the editorial content was either mistaken, misleading, classist, insulting or flat-out false – making this new paper, in many respects, a typical Blethen product. 

The OPT‘s target audience seems to be tourists, who are told lies like this: “Gone are the drunken 2 a.m. brawls that helped create a poor reputation for the Old Port for most of the last decade or two….” (Chief Burton will be delighted to read this great news! Perhaps he can now stop assigning cops to ride shotgun on city street-cleaning vehicles that hose down the crowds at last call.) 

The working waterfront – cynically referred to as “the real ‘Old Port'” in one headline – is considered a quaint piece of history in grave danger of completely disappearing. (Luckily, we’re told, at least one classy Wharf Street restaurant is providing critical support to Portland’s commercial fishing industry by buying its seafood locally.) The only marine-related businesses that get ink in the OPT offer scenic cruises. 

As the Old Port Times so painfully proves, Blethen Maine Newspapers has no pride, no shame, no accountability and, thanks to the OPT, no credibility. 

Maine’s media market is already flooded with mindless fluff and puffery. Cochrane and Co. are so keen to conquer in this “highly competitive… arena” that they’re willing to blur the critical line between advertising and journalism. As Maine’s largest newspaper conglomerate continues to expand its publishing empire with this crap, one wonders when real local news, accurately and objectively reported, will become just another “niche” to be filled. 

This publisher fears that day has already arrived.

— Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of 
The Bollard.