March 4, 2010

Press Herald profitable, plans more changes, new owner says

TUX TURKEL

— By

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20090915_EggsIssues

Gordon Chibroski

Staff Writer

The new owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram told business leaders Tuesday that the operation turned a profit in its first two months and slowed the slide in advertising revenue, and now plans more improvements in online and print content.

Richard L. Connor, president and chief executive officer of MaineToday Media Inc., outlined his vision for changes in the state's largest media company during a breakfast meeting of the Portland Regional Chamber.

Connor's investment group bought the Press Herald/Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and other media properties in June from Blethen Maine Newspapers, based in Seattle.

Blethen's financial troubles, which played out during a deep recession, led to cutbacks at the newspapers and speculation that they might cease publication if a buyer wasn't found.

Despite a bleak outlook for newspapers in general, Connor said, MaineToday Media has a formula to prosper with credible, local content and decisions that are made locally, not in remote corporate headquarters.

''Local newspapers will survive,'' Connor said. ''Local content will survive.''

Adding to the prospects for success are good timing and a small debt load, he said, achieved through an attractive -- although undisclosed -- purchase price and by the prompt sale of the Press Herald's downtown properties.

That approach already is showing promise, he said. Losses in year-over-year advertising revenue went from 30 percent in June to 22 percent in July and 17 percent in August, which is on par with national averages.

''It shows a reversal of a trend,'' he said.

The company was profitable in July and August, and Connor said he expects it to be through year's end.

Connor has more than 30 years of experience running newspapers, including papers in Texas and Pennsylvania. His presentation was made in a room filled largely with business people and advertisers.

Part of his talk was a sales pitch aimed at dispelling negative perceptions of the newspaper industry and explaining the benefits of reading and advertising with locally run, community-oriented media.

To underscore the benefits, Connor offered glimpses of changes that he said are pending to beef up the newspapers' coverage.

They include hiring more reporters and creating a network of freelance writers and community correspondents to capture more local news and events.

He also wants to expand business coverage.

''We need more feet on the ground,'' he said.

One audience member wanted to know what could be done to get young people to read newspapers. Connor said young people seem more interested in entertainment news and social networking than current events. MaineToday Media is considering ideas to reach that demographic through mobile alerts, for instance, part of a larger plan to take better advantage of the 13 Internet sites the company now owns.

He said the company has the opportunity to combine resources and become one of the dominant Internet sites in Maine, and bring in more ad revenue.

Asked by a local Democratic leader whether the newspaper is taking a more conservative stand, Connor, who was raised in a Bangor household with Democratic leanings but favored John McCain in the last presidential election, said he has brought the paper ''90 degrees back to the center.''

That comment brought light applause from some in the audience.

Overall, Connor sought to leave the impression that, despite long odds and much skepticism, he has a business plan to turn the struggling Portland newspapers into a vibrant, community-involved media presence. And he shared a personal insight to suggest that his abilities have been underestimated.

On the day of the sale's closing in June, his wife and young daughter left on an overseas trip.

His wife asked him why he had scheduled the closing on the day they were set to leave.

He turned around the question, asking why she had scheduled the trip on the day he had planned the closing.

She told him: She never expected he would really buy the newspaper.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

tturkel@pressherald.com

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