We love dirty laundry

It’s a strange time for the newspaper industry — especially here in Maine, where we recently witnessed several seismic shifts in the media landscape.

Hedge fund financier and philanthropist Donald Sussman said he wanted to save a Maine institution and will keep his hands off the wheel of editorial decisions. (Bangor Daily News Photo)

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.

My salary steadily increased and the newspaper thrived. The Courier was the paper of record in Biddeford and Saco, but I always knew I had a boss…heck, sometimes I even paid attention to David.

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.


Like a bridge over troubled waters

If one could only be a fly on the wall inside the offices of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree

Gov. Angus King (Bowdoin College photo)

Today, former Maine Governor Angus King officially took his big toe out of Maine’s political pool, climbed a 15-story ladder and then did a quadruple jacknife dive (with a twist) into the deep end of the pool.

The ensuing splash was felt in places as far away as Madawaska, and in less than six hours — King received more media attention than Pingree has gotten since the last time Donald Sussman bought a group of newspapers.

Until today, Pingree was the commonly accepted front-runner to fill Senator Olympia Snowe’s moderate, size 6 shoes, despite the fact that every Maine resident with at least one vowel in their last name was considering a run for either the First Congressional District or the US Senate.

King’s gravitas, combined with his popularity and solid polling numbers, has Democrats across Maine wondering aloud tonight whether Chellie should just sit tight in her First District House seat rather than risk splitting the vote, allowing a Republican to capture Snowe’s seat.

The balance of the entire US Senate is in play. The stakes are high, and the potential consequences are severe.

But the Republican candidates, a bench which so far includes the Secretary of State, the State Treasurer and the Maine Attorney General, should also be paying attention.

King’s entrance into the race could impact Republicans and Democrats equally, and that’s because King is much more centrist than his independent counterpart, Eliot Cutler.

Many Democrats remain bitter about Cutler’s independent bid for the Blaine House in 2010, speculating that his candidacy split the Democrat base and allowed Republican Governor Paul LePage to win with 38 percent of the vote.

If Republicans are banking on a repeat of that 2010 split-the-Democrat vote strategy, they may want to consider a Plan B . . . because Angus King is no Eliot Cutler.

For starters, King is likable and he also appeals to right-leaning independents.

Sure, King has plenty of detractors and vulnerabilities…but minimizing his candidacy will be a tall order for any of the usual suspects, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats.

RELATED: An interview I conducted with Governor King during his final days in office .