March 15, 2010

Blethen and its suitors end agreement

MATT WICKENHEISER

— By

Staff Writer

Blethen Maine Newspapers and the investment group that is seeking to buy the company's properties have ended an agreement that gave the group exclusive negotiating rights.

Maine Media Investment LLC initiated the termination of the deal, which was announced at the end of July. Blethen Maine agreed, which allows the company to talk with other potential suitors to buy the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal, the Waterville Sentinel and its other Maine properties.

Richard Connor, one of four principals in Maine Media Investment, said his group is still bullish on the Blethen Maine properties and continues to work toward a purchase.

''What it does is, it really allows the sellers and the prospective buyers more time to try to work toward purchase of the Blethen Maine Newspapers,'' said Connor.

Connor's partners are William S. Cohen, a former U.S. senator and secretary of defense; Robert Baldacci, brother of Maine Gov. John Baldacci; and developer Michael Liberty.

Connor said the deal was taking longer than anticipated, and certain benchmarks set out under the letter of intent -- a legally binding document -- could not be met. Those benchmarks largely involved due diligence, Connor said.

''It's not from a lack of hard work and cooperation on all fronts -- management, unions, owners,'' said Connor. ''It's just we set some time frames that I would take the blame for -- unrealistic in terms of us being able to process lots of information and make the best decision for my investors.''

Connor said his group is concerned that it might now have to go head to head with another bidder.

Press Herald Publisher Charles Cochrane said other groups were interested in the newspapers and visited Maine before the company entered into the letter of intent with Maine Media. He declined to name any of the groups.

''I still see us as the lead contenders to make an offer,'' said Connor. ''I can't say we're the lead contenders to buy it, but we're the lead contenders to make a viable offer. I still see us as being in a great position.''

Asked about when his group might put forward a deal for the papers, Connor said he and his partners ''certainly aren't thinking beyond the end of the year.

''The situation is this fluid: We might make a final offer prior to deadlines we had set,'' he said. ''It's possible we may do something before we would have had to do it.''

Connor said the group likes what it has seen.

''We like the people we've met, we like the union leadership,'' he said.

The investment group met with leadership from the Portland Newspaper Guild on Monday, according to union Vice President Greg Kesich, an editorial writer for the Press Herald/Telegram.

Kesich said the union, which represents about 350 workers at the Press Herald and the Morning Sentinel, and the investment group had not yet discussed potential contract negotiations.

''Our understanding is they're looking for changes in the contract, and I think it's been pretty clear that we've said we're ready to talk about that,'' said Kesich.

He said union leadership still has meetings scheduled with Maine Media, including one next week.

Kesich also called the termination of the exclusivity agreement a disappointment.

''It's a setback; we understood that this is a very volatile time in the newspaper industry and that this thing would not go perfectly smoothly,'' said Kesich. ''I wouldn't say it's a surprise.''

Cochrane said the company hopes that Media Maine will be able to put together a deal.

''The (Blethen) family still feels that the local ownership group -- this group -- would be the preferred option for the community, readers and employees,'' said Cochrane.

Last week, the Portland Newspaper Guild asked a federal judge to deny a recent request made by Blethen Maine Newspapers seeking a declaratory judgment in an ongoing lawsuit between the company and the union.

The guild's latest filing claims that the federal court lacks the authority to rule on the matter, repeating a position made in previous court documents.

The guild's response was the latest move in a lawsuit filed in June by the company. At issue is whether a new owner would have to honor the labor contract signed by the company and the guild last fall. Blethen Maine Newspapers argues that no legal obligation exists; the guild says it does.

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

mwickenheiser@ pressherald.comConnor said the deal was taking longer than anticipated, and certain benchmarks set out under the letter of intent could not be met.

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