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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Not all the news that's fit to print

Someone actually bought a newspaper company. The Portland Press Herald has been sold (after more than a year of trying by its previous owner, the Seattle Times Company) to a group led by Bangor native Richard L. Connor. Mr. Connor already owns The Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, PA, apparently a financial success.

The focus is to be relentlessly local. I looked briefly at the Times Leader site to gauge what was to come, and it seems to be true. All national and international news comes from the Associated Press, for example, and the story on the stock market was still about yesterday's activity. Obituaries are the second tab after News, followed by Sports. (I've noticed this trend to increased obit coverage in the Boston Globe as well, where the daily list of the dead now covers 3 precious pages.) I expect obits are an income source for newspapers.

Is this the new model for newspaper survival? It makes some sense, and certainly fits national trends of conglomeratization. People want to be able to quote USA Today just like they like to wear Gap jeans, or believe what they read in the New York Times like they believe in the fleecewear of LL Bean. So our newspapers will cover small areas thoroughly and leave the big issues to the big boys.

Much as I think that most politics (not to mention life) is local, I can't help also thinking that the analysis and reporting on big issues should also have a local perspective. The view from Portland or Boston or Boise on the national scene is a major corrective to the view from New York or DC. The complicity of the media during the Bush years is a good example of what might happen if national and international news reporting is concentrated in the hands of so few with "access."

Right now, any rescue of any paper is good news. Rescue comes at a price, of course. Wages are reduced, jobs lost, offices closed. In Mr. Connor's case, such employee give-backs are balanced by a bit of financial gain if the paper does well, and employee representation on the governing board. This is an interesting model that others should explore. To make newspapers into non-profit foundations based on philanthopic gestures from rich people should be a resort appealed to only at the last.

Mr. Connor is a Maine native but hasn't lived here for the last 41 years. Let's hope that as he comes home, he finds a way to preserve the Press Herald and the voices of Maine that it represents, to keep the independent, yet cooperative spirit of Maine's people alive as an example for the rest of the country, and to make a little money besides.

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