March 11, 2010

Story behind buying newspapers begins and ends in Maine

— Blame it on the guru.

Say it was in the stars or maybe that my destiny to purchase three Maine newspapers last week was simply a matter of the heart.

But as badly as I wanted to own the newspapers, heart and a will to succeed carry you only so far. You need money, too.

Many things contributed to our success in buying the newspapers, including local Portland bankers who believed in our dreams and expertise running newspapers. There also were astrology; destiny; stubbornness; having a love affair with newspapers and with Maine; putting faith in future employees, friends and partners, and plenty of good old-fashioned luck.

Patience and counsel from my family, my wife and all three of my children, also played an instrumental role in the purchase of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta and Morning Sentinel in Waterville.

It's difficult to determine where or when this journey to acquire three newspapers in Maine began. We met with employees last week, and someone pointed out that I have used three or four time-frame references for the starting date of this sojourn.

They say I have claimed to be working on this project for 18 months, 16 months, 15 months and just over a year. All are accurate. I was tipped off that these Maine newspapers were going to be sold before the news was public, three months before the official announcement.

When Guy Gannett Publishing was sold about 10 years ago to the Seattle Times Co., I owned a newspaper company and had a brief, romantic notion of being the buyer then.

In fact, I had lunch at the time with Maddy Corson, a member of the Gannett family and a former publisher, to catch up with each other and to have a cursory discussion. I had enough money to buy Maddy lunch that day in Dallas but not enough to buy her family's newspapers.

So when I was told 18 months ago that the papers were going to be sold again, the notion of being the purchaser was not a new one.

This time around, I knew more about raising money and I had found smart and well-financed business partners at HM Capital in Dallas. I had lived for over 20 years in Texas, where I worked in the newspaper business -- first for a publicly held company and then for my own.

It is accurate to say that 18 months ago I began working the phones like an old Bangor politician.

I knew the drill well. My parents, Hugh and Alyce Connor, were lifelong Democrats and active in state politics. Our kitchen was home to many back-room deals.

One of the first calls I made was to Peter Brodsky of HM Capital, my major partner at the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Times-Leader. He initially decided to pass, but in January changed his mind and agreed to invest with me.

About the same time, Jeanne A. Hulit and Stephen P. Lubelczyk of the Portland office of Citizens Bank agreed to pursue financing the project. Without them and HM Capital: No deal!

With their support, however, my heart and their money converged. Of course I also invested in the purchase.

Luckily, by that time I had the newspaper unions at the company on my side. I was on theirs, too. We learned to trust one another over a year of negotiations that resembled the building of a partnership more than union ''bargaining'' sessions.

That's not to say that the union leaders did not do a good job representing the interests of their members.

During our year of negotiations, we reached what are truly historic contract terms. In the agreement, my company, MaineToday Media Inc., provides a 15 percent ownership stake to all employees in exchange for wage reductions.

Much of our legal work on this transaction was handled by a Texas law firm where my nephew, Hugh G. Connor II, a University of Maine graduate, is a partner. We kept the Maine connection strong throughout the long hours of legal work.

But along the way to last week's official closing of the transaction there were more ups and downs than a windy day on the waters of Casco Bay.

At first I formed a partnership with a fellow Bangor native, Robert Baldacci. It didn't take us long: Just one meal in Portland, where we reminisced about his family's iconic Bangor restaurants, The Baltimore and Mama Baldacci's.

Following that breakfast in Portland, we were off to the races.

Later, we added Michael Liberty of Gray and former Secretary of Defense and U.S. Sen. William S. Cohen (another Bangor boy) to our partnership.

We gave it our best, but came up short of purchasing the newspapers. Fortunately, my new investors and Citizens Bank soon stepped in to save the day.

I remembered those trying times during a meeting with employees last week at our South Portland printing facility. One man, Steve Pepin, lingered after his colleagues went back to work.

Pepin, who started his career with the Portland newspapers by giving tours of our downtown facility and now works in the distribution machine maintenance department, had a question:

''Did you ever lose hope, ever think this would not happen?'' he asked.

I was stumped. No one had ever asked that question during this lengthy process. My sanity had been questioned, but not my abiding belief in what I was doing. I paused and thought.

''No,'' I said. ''I always believed I would own these newspapers.''

What I did not tell him was the story about the guru. I had a card up my sleeve all along. The president of my Pennsylvania publishing group, Prashant Shitut, has a father-in-law who is a guru, an astrology hobbyist.

I contacted him many times by e-mail to ask my fate.

Never once did he falter. He said I would own these newspapers, and virtually predicted the date. Consequently, I never lost hope.

In April of this year, I received this e-mail from his family: ''Your Guru is starting its 'nav-pancham' yog in 'dasham' sthan -- that's good for you, too.''

I bought the newspapers almost 41 years to the day I left Maine to work as a reporter for a newspaper in Michigan. I thought at the time I'd only be gone for a year, and never intended this work to be a life-long career.

I was wrong on both counts.

Along my journey through many states and many newspapers, I have had the great adventure of seeing different parts of the country. I loved them all, but at the same time further appreciated how special and unique Maine is.

I discovered the passion of the calling to newspapering, of the public's right to know, of a paper's role as a government watchdog and the responsibility of telling readers the bad and the good about their community.

A newspaper arrives each day at a home as a good neighbor, a friend.

The papers I recently purchased are ones I have read off and on all of my life. My connections to them and the cities they represent are deep. My memories are profound.

When I was 11 years old, I danced in Augusta at the inauguration of newly elected Gov. Clinton Clausen. He took office Jan. 7, 1959, and would die in December of that same year. My father helped run his campaign.

I read these papers and relished the words of their famous writers, men such as Bill Caldwell and Gene Letourneau. I wanted to write about Maine romantically, the way Caldwell did.

My mother bought me my first suit at Levine's in Waterville when I was in high school.

And then there is the photo I spotted on the wall of the Kennebec Journal offices when I toured the facility a year ago as a prospective buyer. We passed a long row of photographs hanging on the wall that told a story of Maine's oldest newspaper.

The last photo on the wall stopped me dead in my tracks. In it were my father and my two brothers, Hugh and Paul, all now deceased, and they were moving a linotype machine into what was then the new KJ building sometime in the early 1960s.

The photo was removed on the spot and given to me as a gift. I will now return it.

My father ran a small, family business -- a rigging and material handling company -- and he worked throughout the state. Some days, especially in winter, he was the company's only employee.

My mother, Alyce, was a reference librarian at the Bangor Public Library. She taught me the love of reading and of words.

My father left the house in Bangor before sunrise almost every day of his life to run his business.

He taught me the value of hard work and respect for those we worked with in the business. Most were what now would be called day laborers.

On this Father's Day, I am compelled to tell my father and the rest of my family, all gone now, I am home.

I never lost the dream of returning, because it was never just a dream. At least that's what the guru told me.

Richard L. Connor is CEO of MaineToday Media Inc. and editor and publisher of this newspaper. His column runs on Sunday.

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