‘Adventuresome’ newspaper owner to take risks

Posted June 16, 2009, at 10:36 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The new owner of the Portland Press Herald said Tuesday he plans to sell three downtown properties within six months and eliminate up to 100 jobs in the future, but believes the company is poised to become profitable despite the economic downturn.

Richard Connor’s MaineToday Media Inc. investment group bought the Press Herald, Kennebec Journal in Augusta and Morning Sentinel in Waterville from The Seattle Times Co. on Monday for an undisclosed price. The sale includes MaineToday Web sites and niche publications.

Joined by family members, union officials and a key lender who made the sale possible, Connor told reporters Tuesday that he intends to put his imprint on Maine’s largest media company without delay.

“We make changes quickly,” he said. “We’re risk takers. We are adventuresome and we believe there is a great market here for newspapers and online readership and we’re positive that we’ll grow it.”

The Bangor native has spent the last 18 months arranging for the purchase of the Maine newspapers, which have about 500 employees and a combined circulation of nearly 100,000 daily and 135,000 Sunday.

He boldly predicted Tuesday that the newspapers will be profitable by year’s end — and probably sooner — despite falling ad revenues and declining circulation.

In lining up financing, he teamed up with HM Capital Partners, a private equity firm in Dallas that also owns The Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where Connor is editor and publisher. Connor formerly served as president and publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and in the 1990s founded a company that owned two dailies and 70 weeklies in four states.

Connor said he plans to sell the Press Herald’s three downtown properties — the newspaper’s headquarters, an old press building and a nearby parking garage — that were part of the deal. Some workers will move to the company’s facilities in South Portland where the newspaper is printed.

The buildings were being shown to a prospective buyer on Tuesday, he said, and the company expects to complete the sale within six months.

The newsroom and the advertising department will remain in Portland, he said.

With the completion of the sale, 31 nonunion employees had their positions eliminated Monday. Connor said there could be up to 100 more job cuts to come, or a potential 20 percent reduction in the work force, but he set no timetable and emphasized that the number of job losses would depend upon his success in matching revenues to expenses.

Connor said the papers will focus on local news and local advertising, a community-oriented formula that he said has worked well at his Wilkes-Barre newspaper. But he said the Maine properties wouldn’t be a clone of The Times Leader.

The Seattle Times Co. was reported to have paid an estimated $230 million in 1998 for the former Guy Gannett chain, but the price that newspapers fetch has declined sharply amid a drop in ad revenues and the migration of readers to the Internet. Guy Gannett was a family-run business with no connection to the much bigger Gannett Co.

The closing of the sale followed a vote late last month by the Portland Newspaper Guild to accept a 10 percent pay cut and other contract concessions in return for a 15 percent ownership stake in MaineToday Media.

Guild President Tom Bell said he hopes that cooperation between the unions and the new owner will continue, spawning a new culture in which employees offer new ideas and display an entrepreneurial spirit toward the business.

Bell said the employee stock ownership plan that gives the unions three seats on the board of directors offers “a potential model for other newspapers around the country that are facing a similar situation.”

Representatives of the Portland office of Citizens Bank, which provided financing for the purchase, were also at the news conference.

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