The Sale of the Boston Globe: Implications for Maine
by Al Diamon
Global perspective: The first question that occurred to me after learning late last week that the Boston Globe and associated companies had been sold by the New York Times Co. to Boston Red Sox majority owner John Henry was: If the Globe, purchased by the Times in 1993 for $1.1 billion, is now worth just $70 million, how much could MaineToday Media – publisher of the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel – possibly be worth? The Blethen family bought the three papers in 1998 for something north of $213 million. It sold out in 2009 to a group headed by Pennsylvania newspaper publisher Richard Connor for an undisclosed amount that reliable sources place between $12 million and $19 million. Connor disposed of most of the company’s real estate before being ousted over allegations of financial mismanagement. In 2012, hedge-fund manager S. Donald Sussman acquired 75 percent of a nearly bankrupt MaineToday for $3.3 million, which means the total operation was worth about $4.4 million.
Since then, circulation has continued its steep decline. It’s tough to believe advertising revenue hasn’t followed suit. And online readership and revenues haven’t made up the difference in most other places, so there’s no reason to think MaineToday’s case is different.
The Boston paper has a paywall on its website, and MaineToday is preparing to institute one, as well. Paywalls have increased income at big-city dailies, while also stabilizing print readership, according to Ken Doctor of the Nieman Journalism Lab. But that sort of impact may not apply in smaller markets like Maine, particularly when there’s vigorous competition for online readers from free sites, such as the Bangor Daily News’.
Can a paper like the Press Herald, with a daily circulation of 47,000, expect to sign up enough e-readers to make any kind of impact? The Globe has 39,000 online subscribers. Is even 10 percent of that possible in Maine? If not, then paywall revenue won’t cover the likely loss of print customers in the next year – if circulation drops 7 percent (the annual figure has been higher than that in the last three years), the Portland paper alone will see 3,300 readers disappear – let alone the reduced advertising revenue.
Sussman, reputed to be a billionaire, can probably handle the losses. MaineToday will continue to be valuable to him for its political (his wife is Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree) and social (he’s a major contributor to many liberal causes) impact. The Bangor Daily and Lewiston Sun Journal, the state’s two other significant dailies, are family-owned, have little debt and can afford to hang around, even if their net worth sinks below that of the average lobster fisherman. But if either paper is sold, even at a rock-bottom price, the new management would be hard pressed to cover costs increased even slightly by debt payments.
On a related topic, much has been written about the ethical implications of having the largest newspaper in New England sharing ownership with the region’s most valuable sports franchise. It’s a real conflict that will have to be carefully handled, but it’s nothing compared to Sussman’s political ties, which have rendered his newspapers’ coverage somewhat suspect with even the most open-minded of readers. Compared to that, who cares if the Globe suddenly starts saying nice things about Mike Napoli’s strike-out rate.
DJ nostalgia: Maine Sunday Telegram classical music critic Christopher Hyde had a fine column on August 4 extolling the virtues of the late Robert J. Lurtsema, who hosted a morning program on New England public radio stations from 1971 to 2000.
Hyde praises Lurtsema for his “good ear for the best performances of the standard repertoire and a zeal for education without a hint of pedantry.” In other words, listeners knew there was a real human being making the selections for reasons that weren’t necessarily related to ratings books, consultants’ reports or computer programs. “Algorithms that select recordings based on a history of likes and dislikes just won’t cut it, because they never broaden one’s horizons,” Hyde wrote.
That’s not just true in classical music. It’s a forgotten truth in virtually every homogenized radio format, and a big reason why I get most of my music programming from a satellite.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.