Lewiston Sun Journal Defends Casino Coverage
Know when to fold ‘em: I heard from a couple of angry people at the Lewiston Sun Journal about my recent postings on that paper’s coverage of Question 3 on the Nov. 8 ballot that would have allowed a casino in downtown Lewiston. Neither person who contacted me by email would allow their names to be used or their comments posted. But their version of events is slightly different from that presented by others, so I think it’s worth relating.
Both of my correspondents confirmed that more than a week before the election, the Sun Journal received documents from Dennis Bailey of the anti-gambling group CasinosNo! indicating the developers of the casino project had made a deal to sell much of their interest to an out-of-state company. According to these staffers, the paper made an effort to verify that information, but was unable to do so, in part because the casino backers denied they had agreed to a sale and refused to say whether signatures on the what looked like sale documents were genuine.
Given that situation, the Sun Journal decided, according to one of the emails, that it would be “irresponsible for us to report or even suggest otherwise.”
On the Thursday before the election, Maine Public Radio did its story based on the same documents, which it apparently found credible. When I asked one of the emailers why the Lewiston paper didn’t then do an article citing its problems verifying the information, the reply dismissed such a scenario. “Is it our role to go around correcting erroneous reports?” the response read.
Well … yeah, I always thought so.
In any case, that raises another question: Why did the Sun Journal finally go public on election morning with a weak story citing mostly the pro-casino side?
Both emailers said the paper was merely reacting to a CasinosNo! public event demanding the developers explain the sale documents. “[I]t wasn't a story until Dennis [Bailey] issued his ‘public’ letter,” said one. “He wasn't challenging the principals, he was behaving as the masterful operative that he is and grandstanding for the voters at the 11th hour. That's not really news either, but it couldn't be ignored.”
Uh … OK, I guess. Although, it’s difficult to understand how the Sun Journal could conclude that a story from a respected news organization raising major questions about a development in the newspaper’s hometown didn’t merit some follow up, while accusations by a public relations guy with past credibility issues called for a last minute, front-page story.
If there was no pro-casino bias in the Sun Journal’s editorial decisions regarding this issue, it would appear there was a severe shortage of common-sense news judgment.
The vultures circle: Several news outlets reported last week that HM Capital of Dallas, Texas, a major financier of Richard Connor’s 2009 purchase of what is now MaineToday Media, will no longer invest in newspapers because of poor returns. HM Capital also put up much of the $65 million Connor used in 2006 to buy the Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. An HM official refused to comment when asked by a reporter at the Citizens’ Voice of Wilkes-Barre what that decision meant for the future of the newspapers.
The Voice article cited an industry expert’s assessment that the loans for both media companies are “probably underwater.”
Given the state of the industry, it doesn’t seem unlikely that Connor’s Pennsylvania papers are worth less than he owes on them. But his Maine publications – the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel – were purchased at bargain-basement prices, with published estimates ranging from $28 million to as little as $10 million. Given that Connor, before his abrupt ouster in October, had slashed staffing and other expenses, and sold off real estate to pay down debt, it’s likely there’s some equity left in the Maine company.
And if the rumor mill is to be believed, some interest in purchasing the papers. Among the unverified reports:
Richard Warren, owner of the Bangor Daily News, has made an inquiry about buying his rivals. If true, such a move would give Warren a near monopoly in the state’s print media.
Unless another bit of gossip has some validity. The Costello family, which owns the Lewiston Sun Journal, came close to entering the Portland market in 2009, when it looked as if the Press Herald, then owned by the Blethen family of Seattle, might go bankrupt. That plan called for the Costellos to upgrade their weekly Forecaster newspapers to daily status. To stave off being surrounded by competitors owned by the Bangor Daily, that idea is said to have been revived and in the process of being updated.
Gasp! On Nov. 16, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services sent out an email to the media with the subject line “Carbon Monoxide release.”
Before you reach for the gas masks, it turns out the department meant news release.
Of course, those can still be plenty gassy.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.