It’s a strange time for the newspaper industry — especially here in Maine, where we recently witnessed several seismic shifts in the media landscape.
Yesterday it was announced that Donald Sussman’s investor group will now own a 75 percent stake in the company that publishes the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Waterville Morning Sentinel and the Maine Sunday Telegram.
That’s all fine and dandy, except for one small twist: Sussman’s wife just happens to be Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and she shows no sign of leaving Maine’s First Congressional District anytime in the near future.
Sure, Sussman says he has only the best of intentions, and adamantly vows that he will not interfere with the newspapers’ editorial process. Yeah, okay…whatever. For the record, I actually have a full-head of hair.
I was lucky to work for a family-owned group of weekly newspapers. David & Carolyn Flood gave me a very long leash, but I was never foolish enough to forget that I was on a leash. The Courier was not my paper.
There were many times when my editorials and opinion columns came nowhere close to matching the opinions of my employers, but they sighed…rolled their eyes…and kept giving me a paycheck. For better or worse, I was promoted three times during the seven years I worked for David and Carolyn.
But all good things come to an end, and it remains to be seen whether the Press Herald or smaller weekly papers such as the Courier will continue to survive in this brave new world of digital media.
Regardless of the financial implications of producing dead-tree news, the Press Herald and its sister publications have crossed a murky line, despite the financial necessity of the decision.
It’s a tough call. Do you fold, and allow a historical institution to become nothing more than a memory? Do you surrender and send hundreds of employees to the unemployment line?
Or do you hold your nose and make a deal with the devil?
I’m sure Donald Sussman is a nice enough guy. I’ve never met him. But regardless of his Boy Scout oath to be ethical, every story that involves his wife, her decisions or her detractors will now be tainted with lingering doubt.
In November 2010, the Portland Press Herald surprised many of its readers by endorsing Republican Dean Scontras over Pingree during her campaign for a second term. If that happened now, we would have to wonder whether such a stance was motivated by an editorial board trying to make a public statement about its objectivity.
Journalists bristle when discussing ethical standards, so I do not envy the dilemma now faced by the reporters and editors at Maine Today Media. No matter what lines they feed themselves before going to bed each night, each one of them also knows that they also are on a leash . . . a very tenuous leash.
But before you criticize reporters being on a leash, consider the plight earlier this month for the more than 50 employees at the Village Soup newspaper who were laid off when that group of weekly newspapers suddenly closed.
Being off the leash feels good, right up until you discover that you no longer have a bone to chew.