Chaos at Maine Today Media

The largest and most influential media empire in the state of Maine, Maine Today Media, was rocked yesterday by the “resignation” of CEO Richard Connor, who has been at the helm for roughly three years. Maine Today owns The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel and the Coastal Journal.

In the interest of full disclosure before I continue, it should be noted that I am a paid opinion columnist for the Bangor Daily News, which is of course not owned by Maine Today Media. None the less, BDN and MTM’s largest paper the Portland Press Herald, are the two most important daily newspapers in the state and compete for influence (PPH’s circulation is 49,587 copies and BDN’s is 48,726 copies, and of course BDN covers a much larger geographic area of the state), so I thought it was worth mentioning.

Connor also resigned as CEO of Impressions Media, which owns the Times Leader newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.  In the statement announcing his resignation from MTM, Connor gave the following rationale:

“Now the company needs to leverage the new foundation into the next phase,” he said. “After four years of work with a schedule that has been around the clock … it’s time for change for me personally, my family, and for the company. I remain a significant individual investor in the company and I believe in its future.”

Naturally, much like when a politician says he is resigning to “spend more time with his family”, the given excuse doesn’t really hold water.  Highly ambitious people who pour their lives into work do not (typically) have sudden epiphanies about the amount of time they spend working on their particular labor of love, reconsidering just how much they’ve neglected the rest of their lives.  People like Connor live their lives in their work.

It didn’t take long to peek under the curtain and find out some of the particulars about what was really happening here.  Al Diamon was first on the scene, and easily with the most information.  According to Diamon:

According to informed sources, Connor’s investors and partners have been questioning him about expenses he’s charged to the company and the way those costs have been allocated between MaineToday and Impressions Media. (The two companies are separate entities, but share some board members.)

Diamon goes on to say that his sources say that the board was also losing patience with certain excesses that were becoming apparent, such as Connor’s recent trip to Italy, which was charged mostly to Maine Today Media.  It seems that Connor had developed a habit of questionable reimbursements/charges on the MTM tab, and that the board was more than a little irritated.  Given the wave of recent layoffs, having a CEO that is seemingly enjoying the benefits of the good life while employees were being given the pink slip, newsstand prices for the paper were going up, and other austerity measures, was simply not a good idea.

Those I have spoken to about this suggest that the other investors, particularly Bob Monks, were displeased with the direction of the Press Herald – and indeed the entire MTM suite of papers – under his guidance.  Despite a marginal increase in circulation (of about 500 subscriptions) which Connor bragged about on the way out, there was apparently deep concern that there was no overall strategic plan for the future.

Indeed, the paper’s focus has changed a great deal under Connor’s guidance, and many have criticized the resulting product as being substantially less focused on quality journalism, and more aimed at cheap, superficial bait for readers.

Recall, for instance, Colin Woodard’s excellent piece (full disclosure, Colin quoted me in it) on Connor from July of last year, “We don’t sell news“, which contained this gem from Connor:

“I can’t be anything other than candid with you: Scoops don’t matter to me,” he says, seated in the paper’s new digs at Portland’s One City Center. “The day of the scoop is long gone in my opinion because of the Internet, all-the-news-all-the-time, real 24/7 breaking news. If we spent all our time worrying about what the Forecaster or the Bangor Daily News does, that’s going to take us off our game.” Breaking stories, he says, is “passé” and a poor barometer of “the quality of our journalism.”

Connor was obviously befuddled by the rise of digital journalism in the last five years, and had no idea how to respond to it.  His plan was to, apparently, turn a trusted news source into a lifestyle journal that kept a chronicle of already established news stories and viewed breaking original news as an afterthought.

I have been pretty critical of this approach, as I think it fails to understand the evolving nature of news collection and delivery.  Last May, with a bemused smile I watched (part 1 and part 2) a collection of news dinosaurs sitting around a table, discussing why the asteroid hurtling toward earth was nothing to worry about.

So thorough was their lack of understanding about what was happening to the industry they were in charge of shepherding into the information age that I couldn’t help but shake my head and laugh.  Interestingly, Connor seemed to have the most respect for bloggers (though to my chagrin, he couldn’t recall a certain blogger’s name who had scooped his paper ::cough::), but even he was clearly out of his element talking about the future of news and how it would adapt to the growth of digital.

For their part, it seems that the local union representing most MTM employees – The Portland Newspaper Guild – “gets it” more than Connor did.  While thanking him for his leadership, they wasted no time suggesting that the digital frontier was the key to the future existence of the MTM papers:

But that is not enough. We must build on that success and deliver news and services on platforms other than newspapers, and we now need a digital-savvy leader who can take us to the next level. The owners of the company are committed to providing that new leadership.

If it is true that the Maine Today board was displeased with Connor’s vision of the future of news, than perhaps the board gets it as well.  At least I hope they do.

Let’s cut to the chase: Connor did some important things at Maine Today.  He took a paper that was on fire, and at least managed to put the fire out.  He got it on better financial footing, and may have arrested the eroding circulation numbers.  There were many positive changes that he enacted at the paper, and criticize it as I may, superficialities may be more attuned to the readership, and selling papers is the business of news.

But make no mistake, while he certainly was capable of breathing some new life in the paper, I don’t believe he was capable of leading it toward the future and adapting to the modern news industry in a way that would have allowed for Maine Today’s papers to grow and prosper.  There are major changes that need to be made, and it will take somebody who understands how the landscape is changing and what to do about it.

That person was not Richard Connor.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.