Another Billionaire Buyer for Maine Newspapers?
by Al Diamon
Is the anti-Sussman headed here? S. Donald Sussman of Maine and Warren Stephens of Arkansas are both billionaires — Sussman through his management of hedge funds and Stephens through holdings in Bank of America and industries including natural gas and kitchen appliances. Both own newspapers — Sussman has the Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel; Stephens controls Halifax Media Group, which operates 36 daily and weekly papers, mostly in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and the Carolinas. Stephens also owns a string of papers out west.
But there are significant differences between the two. Sussman is a major donor to liberal causes. Stephens is described as an “arch-conservative.”
After buying a majority ownership stake in MaineToday Media when the company was nearly bankrupt, Sussman invested heavily in additional newsroom staff and upgraded technology. Halifax Media has a history of laying off staff and making other cutbacks after buying publications.
In early June, Halifax completed its purchase of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from Boston Globe Media Partners. This was Halifax’s first acquisition in New England, but, according to two sources in the Massachusetts newspaper industry, it almost certainly won’t be the last. Halifax is what’s known in the industry as a “consolidator” — that is, a company that reduces expenses by consolidating the functions of several newspapers in a central location. These sources say Halifax plans to make the Worcester paper the hub of its northeast operations.
The sources say it’s likely Stephens’ company will soon be making inquiries about buying at least some of Sussman’s holdings, as well as several other Maine publications.
Among the papers Halifax is said to be considering for acquisition are Sussman’s Press Herald and Telegram (but not the Sentinel or KJ), the Bangor Daily News, the Forecaster weeklies (which are owned by the Lewiston Sun Journal), as well as Foster’s Daily Democrat and the Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire, and several Massachusetts publications.
Halifax Media executives did not return phone calls seeking comment. Off-the-record discussions with sources at several of the Maine papers said to be targeted by Halifax produced negative or noncommittal answers regarding whether they’d received feelers from the company.
Halifax CEO Michael Redding is quoted on the company’s website as saying, “We believe in the future of newspapers, both print and online. We have to be great at both.” But since its formation in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 2010, Halifax’s path to greatness has been littered with laid-off employees. At the Telegram & Gazette, for example, more than 20 positions were axed, including those of several veteran reporters.
Even with that history, it’s not easy to guess Halifax’s game plan. Does Halifax cut expenses in an attempt to make its papers viable for the long term, or is it doing so to improve the bottom line so it can flip them to new owners at a profit?
“[T]he company itself is somewhat of an unknown commodity,” Worcester Magazine noted. “What is known is, in a short period of time, it has become a power player in the news industry.”
Halifax certainly has the financial resources to buy its way to prominence in the New England media market. Estimates of what it paid for the Worcester paper range as high as $19 million, more than twice its assessed value of $7 million. That kind of cash would be very enticing to most newspaper owners in Maine, where falling circulation and anemic advertising revenue would make nearly any reasonable offer attractive.
Except possibly to Sussman, whose personal wealth, leftist bent and desire to protect the political career of his wife, Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, might make him loathe to sell out to a company with an editorial policy charitably described by Worcester Magazine as “business friendly,” and by others as predictably right-wing.
If Sussman stands firm and Halifax buys the Forecaster or the Bangor Daily, it could set the stage for a battle of the billionaires.
Odds and sods: Deirdre Fulton’s tenure as managing editor of the Portland Phoenix is over after little more than six months. Fulton is resigning in late June to become an assistant editor at Common Dreams, a Portland-based website covering national and international news from a progressive perspective. Fulton’s replacement is Portland Phoenix staff writer Nicholas Schroeder. (Disclosure: My weekly political column runs in the Phoenix.)
Westbrook-based Current Publishing has closed down its struggling York County weeklies. The Observer in Sanford called it quits in May, and the Sun Chronicle in Biddeford published its last issue in June. Current has replaced the latter with a free magazine called the Sun Monthly, similar to The Village magazine it puts out in Kennebunk. (Disclosure: I’m a regular contributor to several Current publications.)
On June 5, the MaineToday Media newspapers introduced their redesigned websites. While the Portland Press Herald site remains its own entity, the online Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal have been merged. In addition, the company announced that access to the sites will be free only for a “limited time,” after which a paywall will go into effect, limiting non-subscribers to five articles per month. That change will leave the Bangor Daily News as the only free daily-newspaper website in the state.
A couple of well-known figures in the Maine media have found new jobs out of state. Angie Muhs, most recently director of audience engagement at MaineToday Media, and previously managing editor of the Portland Press Herald, is now executive editor and vice president of editorial operations for the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill. At MaineToday, Muhs was also a key player in the 2011 effort by former CEO Richard Connor to form a marketing company called MaineToday Digital, an entity which has since quietly faded away.
Meanwhile, Cary Pahigian, who resigned earlier this year as president and general manager of Saga Communications’ eight Portland-area radio stations, has taken on the same titles at Hearst’s two Baltimore stations, including WBAL-AM, the flagship station for Baltimore’s Major League Baseball and NFL teams. So you know who to call if you need Orioles or Ravens tickets.
The Bangor Daily News has found replacements for political pundits Ethan Strimling and Phil Harriman, who jumped to the rival MaineToday papers last month. In their places will be unsuccessful Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cynthia Dill and Mike Cianchette, former legal counsel to Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
Legal complexities: A noted expert in the law (who asked to remain anonymous) called my attention to a couple of reoccurring errors in Maine reporters’ coverage of certain issues.
In a May 30 article in the Portland Press Herald, staff writer Edward D. Murphy reported that a political action committee backed by a developer had dumped the unprecedented sum of $100,000 into the race for Cumberland County Sheriff. Murphy then added this line: “The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission lifted caps on the amount of money companies can contribute to PACs.”
That’s true, but irrelevant. As my expert pointed out, “Time and again, the Maine media bring up Citizens United when reporters talk about spending in state races. The reality is that this kind of thing has always been legal in Maine. Citizens United changed nothing about Maine law.”
Then there’s this, from a May 30 story by Press Herald court reporter Scott Dolan on the sentencing of a drunk driver with numerous previous convictions: “Under current state law, six of Kelly Jean Boyer’s eight convictions for operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol were not considered in her sentencing because they occurred more than 10 years ago.”
That’s not exactly the case. “Older convictions can and are considered by judges when imposing sentences,” according to my expert. “All the law means is the older convictions do not enhance the class of the crime. That is significant and maybe should be changed, but it is much different than saying the convictions are not considered in sentencing.”
In addition to serving as The Bollard’s media critic, Al Diamon writes a weekly political column that runs in the Portland Phoenix, the Downeast Coastal Press, 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.