February 11, 2012

Newspaper’s citizen-investor walks a fine line

Can a donor with such prominent political ties make it work? He can if the journalism – done ‘without fear or favor’ – comes first, experts say.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, echoed Dutson's comments about free enterprise and said he hopes Sussman makes a profit.

Webster said he doesn't expect changes in the content of MaineToday Media newspapers, which he called among the most liberal in the state.

"With his investment, it's not likely to move to the center, which is something a lot of us would like to see," he said.

The relationship between Pingree and Sussman became an issue among Republican opponents during Pingree's 2010 re-election campaign, when it emerged that she was flying between Maine and Washington, D.C., aboard a private jet owned by Sussman. The U.S. House ethics committee ruled that the flights were allowed because she was Sussman's fiancee.

Sussman has been criticized by Republicans for spending much of his time at a house he owns on St. John in the Virgin Islands, where he was able to avoid paying a portion of his federal taxes. He became a Maine resident in 2009.

"I pay taxes here, a lot of them," Sussman said.

He also dismissed continuing criticism from Republicans that he's being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Sussman said those charges stem from a fine in the 1990s involving the practices of an auditor for Paloma Partners, a hedge fund that Sussman founded, and was settled with a $20,000 consent order.

"Only because I married Chellie are people interested in me," he said.


Sussman's marital situation is a legitimate interest, said McBride at The Poynter Institute, because Sussman's link to a powerful person and the public perception of that connection matters.

"The fact that he's married to a U.S. congresswoman is just as much of a concern as if he was married to the largest employer in town," she said.

The perception that Sussman could use his position to influence the newspaper's journalism was acknowledged, but downplayed, by Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, a Democrat.

He noted that Robert Baldacci, brother of former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, had close personal ties to the newspaper's previous top management.

"This is such an obvious issue," Brennan said. "I'm sure Donald Sussman is going to understand the sensitivities, and will take steps to put a firewall between himself and the newspaper."

Tom Bell, president of The Newspaper Guild, the largest union within MaineToday Media, said people will have legitimate questions about whether the newspaper can be trusted as an unbiased source of political news.

"We have been assured by Sussman that he won't interfere with our work," Bell said. "The Guild is determined to protect the independence and professionalism of the newsroom. We are confident we can be successful."

Sussman, who is 65, has given millions of dollars to charitable and civic institutions in Maine. They range from the Deer Isle Fireman's Association and the Good Shepherd Food Bank to the Island Institute and the Preble Street Resource Center. He was named the Spurwink Humanitarian of the Year in 2011. He also received a Maine Philanthropy Award last year at Colby College.

Sussman said he views his investment in a similar light.

"It's my intention to make sure the newspaper has the resources to do what it needs to do and serve the community," he said.


The prolonged economic downturn, falling print readership and a shift in advertising to the Internet and social media have made it difficult for newspaper owners to maintain enough staffing to practice quality journalism while earning double-digit profits. The continued grim outlook has forced some corporate owners and disillusioned investors to put unprofitable properties on the market.

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