Cohen/Liberty/Baldacci group signs deal to buy Press Herald
Maine Media Investments, a politically connected group that includes former Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cohen, Bob Baldacci (brother of Gov. John Baldacci) and developer Michael Liberty, has signed a purchase and sale agreement with the Seattle Times Co. to buy Blethen Maine Newspapers, according to a reliable source inside the Portland Press Herald.
Once consummated, the sale would presumably give MMI ownership and control over the Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, and the MaineToday.com Web site. The deal would also include Blethen’s real estate holdings — most notably the Press Herald’s downtown office building and former printing facility across Congress Street.
Previous reports have indicated that the new owners will likely sell or redevelop those properties and move staff to offices in South Portland.
Neither Baldacci nor MMI spokesman Dennis Bailey could be reached for comment tonight. The Press Herald is expected to announce the agreement tomorrow morning.
Maine media critic Al Diamon has reported on his Media Mutt blog for Down East magazine that Blethen bought the papers from the Guy Gannett company in 1998 for $230 million, and still owes banks that financed that sale over $100 million. Diamon further noted that estimates of Blethen Maine Newspapers’ value now range between $25 million and $75 million, and that MMI may be willing to take on some of that debt as part of a sale agreement.
“I think they’ll be selling off the real estate in a big hurry,” Diamon said tonight, possibly including property in Augusta and Waterville. “What they’ll do with the paper, I don’t know.”
Given MMI’s web of political and financial ties to figures and companies in the news, the paper will have to be careful to disclose ethical conflicts of interest. Although hiring a public editor or ombudsman to oversee the papers’ coverage and flag potential conflicts is ideal, Diamon said the paper and its readers would be better served at this point by more reporting — especially more coverage of state government.
Hiring an ombudsman appears to be “a luxury they can’t afford,” said Diamon, “but they need to be very aware of their ethical conflicts, and that’s something they haven’t done a good job in the past of revealing.
“They’re gonna have a hard time dealing with this waterfront development story now that the pier deal has changed,” Diamon added. (Baldacci was part of Ocean Properties’ pier development team, though he is no longer with the company.) “I think that’s gonna be huge for them and that’s only the beginning. Who knows what pies Bill Cohen has his fingers in?”
In addition to Cohen, Baldacci and Liberty, MMI also includes Bangor native Richard Connor, who’s edited, owned and published papers in Pennsylvania, Texas and other parts of the southwest. Connor is expected to be the new publisher of the Blethen papers.
In addition to financial problems afflicting daily newspapers nationwide — like plummeting ad sales and circulation figures — the Blethens have been battered by a dispute between the Seattle Times, which they also control, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer over a joint operating agreement gone sour.
[And speaking of ethics, this reporter is a friend and former colleague of Diamon’s at Casco Bay Weekly.]
— Chris Busby
Duson is mayor again
As expected, Portland City Councilors chose Councilor Jill Duson to be the next Mayor of Portland at their caucus late this afternoon. There was almost no comment made, and the vote was unanimous. Mayor Ed Suslovic presided over the caucus, but did not vote.
Duson, who held the post four years ago, will be inaugurated at the new Council’s first meeting on Dec. 1. New Councilors Dory Waxman and John Coyne will also be sworn in that day.