Who Owns What at MaineToday Media?
Transparency deficit: If MaineToday Media is serious about disclosing conflicts of interest and other ethical problems that will undoubtedly arise as a result of its new ownership, it failed miserably in its first test. The story by staff writer Tux Turkel, posted on MaineToday’s website on March 27 and published in its three daily newspapers on March 28, announcing that hedge-fund manager Donald Sussman had purchased seventy-five percent of the company left out so much significant information that it could hardly be an editorial oversight.
Sussman, through a company he founded called Maine Values LLC, now owns three-quarters of MaineToday – publisher of the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. He paid a mere $3.3 million for that stake, which means the entire company is worth only $4.4 million – at least until it sells off its Waterville real estate, at which point its value will likely decline by half a million dollars or so. Sussman is married to Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and contributes large sums to progressive causes. To date, MTM has included disclaimers about that in all stories concerning Pingree. Sussman has promised not to intrude on editorial decisions or attempt to slant news coverage.
That’s what we know. Here’s what we don’t.
Who are the other owners? Maine Public Radio reported that former majority owner HM Capital of Dallas, Texas, still has a stake in the company, although it’s not clear how much. Minority shareholders identified in the past include former CEO Richard Connor, developer Robert C.S. Monks, and the Portland Newspaper Guild. There’s nothing in Turkel’s article that mentions their roles in the restructured operation. Nor is there any mention of who will now serve on the board of directors. Such a major upheaval in ownership almost certainly will result in some board changes, but that isn’t dealt with in the piece.
It might also be illuminating to know exactly how Maine Values LLC is structured. Is Sussman the sole owner? Is Pingree involved? Are there other officers?
There’s so much information here that hasn’t been made public that it’s going to be nearly impossible for MaineToday to avoid, at the least, suspicions about its motives, and at the worst, outright charges of bias. The company needs to act quickly to head off another hit on its credibility.
One way to do that would be to appoint an ombudsman, an experienced journalist from outside the company charged with monitoring its ethics and openness. For an ombudsman to be effective, he or she would have to operate independently, shielded from interference by top management.
Such a move couldn’t be expected to quell all the criticism. Ombudsmen have had mixed records at other papers, annoying not only the bosses, but also lower-level staff, all without always satisfying readers that they really are independent voices. Even so, there’s no question such an office at MaineToday would provide a sign management is serious about ethical standards and improving the newspaper’ credibility.
Without some step in that direction, the next buyer of shares in MTM may find that Sussman paid far too much for far too little.
(Just to save my critics in the comments section some time, I’m not interested in the ombudsman job, and I doubt MaineToday would even consider me for it.)
Short takes: Speaking of ex-MTM CEO Richard Connor, he's resurfaced in Virginia, where he's involved in the purchase of a chain of newspapers and magazines by a new company based in Fort Worth, Texas. ... Want to pick up a copy of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal on your way to work? If you live north of Augusta, you may be out of luck. According to the Ellsworth American, distribution of out-of-state papers in northern and eastern Maine was scheduled to cease on March 25 after distributor Magazines Inc. went out of business. The company is negotiating to sell its operation to Hudson RPM of Worcester, Mass., but Hudson apparently doesn’t see much profit in the few copies of USA Today and the Boston Globe that get sold in the remoter parts of Maine. Unless some new deal is worked out, the only options for readers of national news dailies will be mail subscriptions or online, where most have paywalls. … Maine’s newspaper industry has once again succeeded in defeating an effort by state government to end the publication of public notices in the print media. The LePage administration had attempted to save about $900,000 a year by putting the notices online, but the move was rejected on March 27 by a legislative committee. Unlike in past battles over this same issue, there was remarkably little coverage of the debate in the print media, with both the Bangor Daily News and Portland Press Herald ignoring it entirely. … The Maine Wire, the news service of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, is continuing its assault on the credibility of the state’s mainstream media with a posting on reporters at the Bangor and Portland papers accepting scholarships from a liberal advocacy group to attend workshops on health care. The premise of the Wire’s story seems a little thin, and it cites no examples of biased reporting, but the perception of undisclosed influence will likely resonate with its base. … Maine may soon have its own “newseum,” according to a March 27 story in the Kennebec Journal. The Guy Gannett family is funding the facility on the history of journalism in the state, which will be located in a historic building next to the Blaine House in Augusta. Gannett once owned the daily papers that now make up MaineToday and ran them in the partisan fashion of his era. It’ll be interesting to see if the exhibits accurately reflect that slant.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.