March 15, 2010

Maine Media's leader does things his way

ELBERT AULL

— By

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Photo by John Ewing, Staff Photographer... 08/06/2008...Richard Conner, Editor and Publisher of the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Times Leader, spoke to employees of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram regarding his efforts to purchase the Blethen Maine Newspapers. Conner, 61, is a native of Bangor.

Staff Writer

In August 2006, less than a month after he and a group of investors spent $65 million to buy the Times Leader newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Richard L. Connor decided it was time for a change in management.

He fired the paper's publisher, its top editor and its production manager, rented a house in the community and named himself editor and publisher.

''I've always known that wherever I worked, I had to be both editor and publisher,'' Connor told the Times Leader for a story announcing the changes. ''I believe the best newspapers are ones where the publishers are also the editors, so that he can answer directly to the employees and the public about how the newspaper is run.''

As the leader of a group of Maine investors proposing to buy Blethen Maine Newspapers, Connor has offered few specifics about his vision for the state's largest newspaper company.

But his actions in Wilkes-Barre, and an examination of his career, offer clues into the personality and business philosophy of the 61-year-old Bangor native who wants to be publisher of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.

In a career that spans four decades, Connor has won supporters and detractors for his reputation as an aggressive, controversial and successful newspaper publisher who does things his way.

''People sometimes would like a publisher to be there in an advisory capacity,'' said Dale Duncan, a former publisher of The Indianapolis Star. ''That's not Rich.''

Connor has been fired and traded fiery words with a former presidential candidate. He's been investigated and cleared as a suspect in a fatal hit-and-run accident.

He's had his dog killed in a nasty labor strike. He's been praised for running newspapers known for aggressive reporting, and criticized for hiring an editor who sent employee morale plummeting.

Now Connor is at the center of an effort to buy the Blethen properties from the Seattle Times Co., along with a group of Maine investors that includes developers Michael Liberty and Robert Baldacci, the brother of Gov. John Baldacci; and former Republican U.S. Sen. William S. Cohen.

The group, known as Maine Media Investments, is in negotiations with Blethen and is seeking concessions from the newspapers' largest union, the Portland Newspaper Guild.

The two sides abandoned an agreement that gave Maine Media exclusive rights to negotiate with Blethen last week. Connor, however, said he still wants the deal to go through.

With a combined paid circulation of over 90,000, the Press Herald and its sister papers account for nearly half of Maine's daily newspaper sales. But like newspapers across the country, the papers have been battered by declining revenue that has forced them to lay off workers, cut news hole and close bureaus to trim expenses.

Connor said he is convinced he can rebuild the three Maine dailies -- or at least stop the bleeding in Portland, Augusta and Waterville -- and has had some success since he assumed control in Wilkes-Barre. Daily circulation at the Times Leader, currently pegged at 38,229, decreased by 2.8 percent from March 2007 to March 20008 -- below the industry-wide average decline of 3.6 percent.

EXPERIENCE WITH REBUILDING

Connor insists he has no detailed plan for the Maine papers. But he said one of his ideas would be to restore some of the cuts made to the Press Herald, where some sections have been combined and eliminated in recent months.

Newspaper executives typically aim for a 50-50 balance of news content and advertising on their pages. One way to win back readers and advertisers might be to beef up the product -- tipping the scales farther toward content even if that means taking a short-term loss, Connor said.

''In Wilkes-Barre, what we started with was anywhere between a 32- and 40-page paper with hardly any advertising,'' he said.

He has rebuilt a struggling newspaper before -- during his first stop at the Times Leader in the late 1970s.

Connor became involved with the newspaper when its four unions went on strike in October 1978. He had been working as an editor for a Michigan newspaper owned by the Times Leader's parent company, Capital Cities Inc., and was assigned to the Times Leader as a replacement reporter.

By December of that year, as the dispute continued, he had been named publisher.

Tensions were high during the strike. Company security officers turned hoses on striking workers. Reporters who crossed the picket line had sugar poured in their gas tanks, or tires slashed. Connor said he came home one day to find his dog shot dead in his front yard. Striking union members formed their own paper, The Citizens' Voice.

''There were a lot of hard feelings (The strike) split the region socially and politically,'' said Thomas Keil, a sociologist at Arizona State University who wrote a book about the strike.

Keil said pro-labor residents of Wilkes-Barre cast Connor as a symbolic villain -- the head of a scab newspaper.

''When the strike happened he was, in fact, public enemy number one,'' said Paul Tucker, a longtime newsman in northeastern Pennsylvania who now publishes The Union News, a labor newspaper in Scranton.

The lengthy dispute cut circulation at the Times Leader from 70,000 to 32,000 and did not end until the unions were decertified in 1982. The Citizens' Voice is still in print, meaning the city of just around 40,000 is a two-newspaper town -- a rarity in modern newspapering.

Connor and Duncan, another Capital editor who had joined the Times Leader, set out to rebuild the newspaper. By the mid-1980s, it regained its position as the city's highest-selling daily.

Duncan, who at the time was city editor in Wilkes-Barre, said the newspaper's rise was tied to aggressive coverage of politics and government. ''When they saw us willing to take on the established power structure the newspaper began to build credibility,'' he said.

Connor's reputation as a union opponent persists in northeastern Pennsylvania, even though he wasn't around when the strike began and had no role in the negotiations that led to the walkout.

Since his return to Wilkes-Barre, Tucker said, the Times Leader has been fair in its coverage of labor issues -- despite its history.

''I don't see anything there that signals this brazen anti-union attitude,'' he said.

Connor left Wilkes-Barre in 1986 to become publisher of the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram, another Capital Cities newspaper. The paper won praise during his tenure there for its aggressive coverage of government and politics.

''Everything I've heard and everything I observed was that this was a good time to be a reporter in Fort Worth, that (Connor) put resources into news and investigations,'' said Tommy Thomason, a longtime journalism professor at Texas Christian University in Forth Worth.

Connor hired Phil Record as the Star-Telegram's first ombudsman, an in-house reader advocate, and Record was aggressive in his criticism of the paper. Connor often disagreed with his views, he said, but never interfered with his column.

''Rich can be very tough,'' Record said. ''He and I used to have some definite disagreements on things but he was always fair.''

FEUD WITH PEROT

While in Texas, Connor gained national attention for his feud with Texas billionaire and former independent presidential candidate, H. Ross Perot.

During the run-up to the 1992 election, Connor wrote a column about how Perot, upset about a story in the Star-Telegram, once told him he had photographic proof that a newsroom employee was having an affair with a city official -- an ethical no-no that could have embarrassed the newspaper. Perot denied the accusation, which Connor saw as a threat tied to the newspaper's coverage of Perot's son's effort to gain a lucrative city contract.

Connor also was investigated after a woman was hit and killed on a Fort Worth-area highway. According to the Times Leader, Connor's car was seen in the area of the accident and found with a flat tire nearby.

Connor was cleared by police of any involvement, the newspaper reported, but a former county commissioner and Star Telegram critic opened a grand jury investigation against the advice of a district attorney. A judge refused to extend the grand jury for lack of evidence, the Times Leader reported, and eventually it was determined that Connor's car did not match the glass shards and auto paint found on the victim's body.

Connor's decision to hire columnist Debbie M. Price -- who had a stint at the Washington Post on her resume, but no management experience -- as the newsroom's top editor was another point of contention.

An alternative weekly in Dallas, citing mostly anonymous sources, wrote about discontent in the Star-Telegram's newsroom over Price's leadership style. Connor acknowledged his decision to hire Price lowered newsroom morale. He said Price was an excellent columnist who turned out to be an unpopular manager.

''I probably thrust her into a position that she wasn't ready for,'' Connor said.

Price left the newspaper in 1996. She is now an author and freelance journalist in Dayton, Ohio, and declined to comment on her stint at the Star-Telegram.

Connor's tenure as publisher of the Fort Worth paper ended in 1996, a year after The Walt Disney Co. bought owner Capital Cities. He was fired, reinstated and fired again between May and November of that year, and in 1997 he sued Disney, alleging wrongful termination. The case was settled out of court and Connor said he cannot comment on the lawsuit under terms of the settlement.

Connor said he wasn't a good fit for Disney, a much larger corporation where decisions about operations in Fort Worth were often run through offices in New York or California.

''It was just a very different philosophy about control of the paper,'' he said. ''I was used to running it as if I owned it. That was abnormal in corporate America, and it still is.''

INVESTORS BUY PAPER

Connor spent the next decade running Lionheart Newspapers, a chain of mostly weekly newspapers in the Southwest. His return to Wilkes-Barre in 2006 came under circumstances similar to those unfolding in Maine.

The Times Leader was for sale. He approached a group of local investors, and together they bought the paper.

Connor declined to specify whether he would sell his stake in the Wilkes-Barre newspaper if his group is successful with its bid for the Blethen papers. Despite terminating the exclusivity agreement, Connor said he remains hopeful for a deal to buy the papers by the end of the year.

Before that could happen, though, Maine Media and the company's unions must renegotiate sections of their contracts. Connor and his fellow investors say they need concessions from the unions to make the deal work. But they have not specified publicly what those concessions might be.

In exchange, Maine Media is offering the unions a seat on its board of directors as part of an employee stock ownership plan that will provide tax breaks for the investment group.

Connor's group and the unions met last week and will continue to meet, said Greg Kesich, vice president of the Portland Newspaper Guild, which represents around 350 employees at the Press Herald and Morning Sentinel.

Kesich said he was well-aware of Connor's role in the Times Leader strike, but would prefer a local investment team to national chains known for slashing staff to improve the bottom line. ''I'm much more worried about other buyers. people who don't have a reputation here to protect,'' he said.

The high-profile nature of the investment team also raises questions about whether coverage of politics and business at the three dailies would be influenced by Baldacci -- the governor's brother -- Liberty and Cohen, a former Republican U.S. senator and defense secretary under President Bill Clinton.

Connor has insisted that the investors would not be allowed to tell him how to run the paper or influence its coverage decisions. But rather than name an ombudsman -- like he did at the Fort Worth paper -- to address any concerns about news coverage, Connor said he would rather see the newspaper's executive editor serve in that capacity.

''People who run the newsroom should be self-reflective,'' he said.

At the same time, he doesn't believe a newspaper should be run by committee.

''Rarely have I been in a place that there wasn't controversy. I'm not a passive observer of the business. I get involved and I'm not afraid to make decisions,'' Connor said.

Staff Writer Elbert Aull can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

eaull@pressherald.com

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