When the Portland Press Herald and two other dailies were sold last June, top newsroom executives lost their jobs — not just the publisher, but executive editors, managing editors and editorial page editors.
Mainebiz contacted five of the most prominent former Blethen Newspaper employees to see how they transitioned.
"The new management made it clear they wanted to make a fresh start," says former Portland editorial page editor John Porter. "That was understandable and reasonable" — even though it required him to explore a new career after nearly three decades in newspapers.
Like many journalists first hired in the 1970s and '80s, Porter hadn't really thought of doing anything else. He held writing and editing positions at a variety of papers before being hired for the business page at the Press Herald in 1990. In 1999, he was tapped to succeed George Neavoll as editorial page editor. Though Porter knew what was coming, his departure was still unsettling. "I realized I was unemployed in the worst economy in the last 70 years," he says.
He took all the recommended steps — networking with colleagues, pounding the pavement, distributing resumes — yet after months of looking he hadn't found a single job opening matching his skills. He came closest to a communications position at a Portland law firm, but the partners ultimately decided it wasn't a good time to add staff.
Finally, Porter hung out his shingle as a consultant, and found he could sign up clients right away. "I was doing the volume I needed, $8,000-$9,000 a month, by December."
That changed, though, when the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce asked him to interview for its top job. He knew some of the chamber directors, but not those on the hiring committee, and says he was thus able to steer clear of any lingering controversy following the termination of longtime chamber President Candy Guerrette.
Porter says he believes it's his communications skills that made him attractive — even while explaining some of the editorials he'd written that did not take a pro-business side.
Jeannine Guttman, the former Portland executive editor, joined the staff of Sen. Susan Collins in Washington as communications director. It's a more traditional role for journalists; Bangor Daily News Executive Editor Mark Woodward served briefly as Collins' first Senate press secretary in 1997 before returning to the BDN.
Guttman declined to be interviewed, but said in an e-mail, "Public service work is a key value to me — in fact, that is how I always viewed the role of journalism and newspapering."
Eric Conrad filled various editing roles at the Press Herald, and was the managing editor for the Kennebec Journal in Augusta when the sale took place. Conrad, too, had spent his entire career in newspapers before relocating to Maine in 1995.
His transition was quick and painless, however. He was hired as communications director for MaineGeneral, the state's third-largest hospital, with three campuses in Augusta and Waterville, just at the time the hospital was launching a public relations campaign for a hospital consolidation project.
As it turned out, Conrad ended up staying with MaineGeneral for just eight months. As of March 1, he became the communications director for the Maine Municipal Association, succeeding Michael Starn, who was MMA's spokesman and editor of the Maine Townsman magazine for nearly 35 years.
Conrad sees this as "an ample opportunity to return to journalism, to go back to my comfort zone." While he doesn't think another newspaper job is likely in Maine, the MMA job provides similar opportunities and also calls on his skills as a manager. MMA is a health insurance provider, has a major lobbying presence at the State House and counts nearly all of the state's 493 municipalities as members.
John Christie and Naomi Schalit
John Christie was already thinking about retirement by the end of 2009 when it became clear that the Blethen Newspapers sale might accelerate the timetable. He stepped down as publisher of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel in July. Another career editor and business manager at newspapers, he held a variety of management positions for Tribune Corp., among other assignments.
The idea was to slow down, not leave the field entirely. He launched a new journalism venture, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, offering investigative, analytical pieces to newspapers for free. In December, the center's first piece appeared in Maine newspapers about the tax reform law that will appear on the June ballot, and in particular, Gov. John Baldacci's role in last-minute changes to the bill. Another piece, concerning fraudulent practices in signature-gathering for citizen initiatives, soon followed.
Christie seeks cooperative relationships with the newspapers that publish the stories, including the Bangor Daily News and several weeklies, for help with framing future stories.
"We naturally hope that they'll want to donate eventually, but getting stories published is what we're all about," Christie says.
Until recently, Christie was a one-man operation. Now, his life partner and former news partner, Naomi Schalit, has joined him. She was the editorial page editor for Augusta and Waterville, who resigned several months after the sale.
Her first project this spring, collaborating with Christie, will be to critically examine Maine's numerous candidates for governor.
Ten months after the Blethen family's sale of three daily newspapers to MaineToday Media, including the flagship Portland Press Herald, the difficult transition to a new, smaller company continues, though with improving signs about revenue and profitability.
In a recent interview, Editor and Publisher Richard Connor says advertising revenues were up 7.5% for January over a year ago — a result he says "would be hard to find at any other newspaper company." He attributes the gains to a new advertising director and a re-energized sales staff. A new print sales program designed by Pulse Research of Portland, Ore., has already produced $1.1 million in new sales during its first two months, Connor says. Automobile classified ad sales, which had tanked, are up 73% over a year earlier.
The Portland newspaper staff will move into new headquarters in leased space at One City Center this month, occupying the second floor mezzanine section and most of the fifth floor, which will become the newsroom.
They will leave behind the landmark Press Herald building on Congress Street that housed Maine's largest daily for the better part of a century. The 390 Congress St. building, plus the long-vacant printing plant across the street, were sold for $6.2 million to New York developer John Cacoulidis, who plans to renovate them for office space. The move should be completed by the end of the month, Connor says.
The improved financial picture — all three papers are now profitable — does not eliminate the need for additional downsizing, however, he says. The company offered buyouts to more than 40 additional employees this spring, and laid off 17 employees in mid-March, leaving about 400 employees, down from 560 before the sale.
Bobby Monks, partner in Eagle Point Enterprises of Portland and other investment firms, is — along with John Higgins, chief investment officer of Ram Trust Services — a principal investor in Maine Today Media.
He says Connor has been carrying out the plans he laid out to investors. "It's a much better paper — better coverage, editorials and advertising," he says. "People want to come to work again."
When the Blethen family put the newspapers on the market two years ago, Monks says, "The question was whether the paper would close down, or whether we could save some of the jobs."
The unfavorable climate for newspapers nationally was reflected in the need for Connor "to make some very difficult decisions to let people go. But he made those choices, and now we are profitable again."
Monks characterizes the company's debt as "very small in relation to revenue," and said it could be paid off by the end of the year. He declined to reveal specific numbers. Last spring, financing held up the deal for months while Connor lined up investors.
When Connor assumed the helm, 60 employees, including the previous top management (See "Where are they now?" page 15) took buyouts, and another 30 were laid off. Connor says management waited to make a second round of cuts, "because we didn't want to eliminate any jobs we didn't have to."
Connor assumed a variety of roles during the transition — including writing a weekly column and many of the editorials. That marked a big change from management under the Blethen family and the founding Gannett family, which had not had an active editorial role for decades. Connor will continue to divide his time between the Maine papers and the Times Leader in Wilkes Barre, Penn., where he is also publisher and company president, but will spend the majority of his time in Portland.
Executive Editor Bill Thompson oversees day-to-day operations at the Kennebec Journal in Augusta and at the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, while Scott Wasser, a colleague of Connor's from the Times Leader, has the same role in Portland. The Kennebec Journal recently added two reporters, Connor said, and there are again two writers at the State House bureau.
The Portland Newspaper Guild represents most of the employees at the Press Herald, and President Tom Bell says "morale is up" at the paper, despite the staff reductions and an across-the-board 10% pay cut. "A year ago we didn't know whether any of us would have jobs," he says. "It was clear the company was on the verge of bankruptcy."
Bell says the newsrooms face a dilemma familiar across the industry: "Trying to put out the same product with fewer employees is not easy." But he says Connor's willingness to put two Guild members on the company's board boosted confidence; employees also own 15% of the company's stock. Monthly meetings of the Improvement Committee, which considers new ideas in all aspects of news gathering, advertising and circulation, have also helped.
He praises the hiring of ad director Michelle Lester, and says the ad sales staff has been given significant autonomy. "It's like they're running their own small business," he says.
Bell credits the turnaround to Connor being able "to do a lot of big things very quickly," including the sale of the downtown real estate, major jobs cuts and a redesigned website, which debuted in late February. The Kennebec Journal building is also for sale, with printing consolidated in South Portland. "Realistically, I don't think the Blethens could have done that," Bell says, noting that Connor's willingness to share financial data with the Guild was key in gaining support for the plan.
Mike Lange, executive director of the Maine Press Association, echoes some of Connor's observations about an advertising rebound. The daily newspaper members of the press association "were hit harder than the weeklies" by the recession because they are disproportionately dependent on real estate and automobile advertising, he says. "It's starting to come back," he says. "Maybe a warm spring and getting by April 15 will make people willing to spend," he says.
Whatever revival in revenue occurs this year, Connor says the print side will lead it. The website redesign, he says, is selling more ads, but its major purpose was to allow continuous content revisions and more accurate tracking of readers' use of the site. "We didn't have the information we needed to be competitive," he says.
Yet Connor says the website is not a big revenue source. "Our future still lies in print, because that's where our major market still is."
When it comes to newspapers, the demise of print has been greatly exaggerated, Connor believes. He can remember Ted Turner predicting in the 1980s that cable news would eventually put newspapers out of business, "and now CNN has more competition than we do."
Anyone who claims to know what the news business will look like in 10 years "is fooling themselves," he says. "We've made our bet [on print], and we plan to stick to it."
Lange says the big worry for print publications is that young people will abandon them entirely and get all their news online. Recent surveys, he says, "show that for young readers, media is media. They don't really care much about how they get news."
But that also leaves them open to reading on paper as adults, he says. "You can spend a lot of time during the working day in front of a screen. But you still want to relax and read the paper."
Douglas Rooks, a writer based in West Gardiner, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.