March 28, 2012

Newspaper's citizen-investor walks a fine line

Can a donor with such prominent political ties make it work? Experts say he can if the journalism – done 'without fear or favor' – comes first.

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

The investment in MaineToday Media by wealthy businessman and philanthropist S. Donald Sussman reflects a small but emerging trend of buyers and investors who are looking at newspapers as more of a civic enterprise than a money-making opportunity, national media experts say.

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This story orginally was published on Feb. 11, 2012.

In a way, they say, it's a back-to-the-future take on the tradition of American newspapers being owned by wealthy families or community leaders with local political and business connections.

But to signal a modern commitment to journalistic integrity, the experts say, owners must make it clear that their influence doesn't extend to the news pages.

"They should hire good editors and then get out of the way," said Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member who teaches media ethics at The Poynter Institute, the nonprofit journalism center in St. Petersburg, Fla.

McBride's comments followed news in February that MaineToday Media would receive a multimillion-dollar loan enabling it to pay down debt and fund an ambitious growth plan aimed at restoring its role as the state's leading news source.

The company announced then that it had reached terms with Maine Values LLC that included the loan, valued at $3 million to $4 million.

Maine Values is owned by Sussman, a wealthy financier who is one of the state's leading philanthropists and political donors. Sussman, who is the husband of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, will not control the media company. At the time, plans called for him to own a 5 percent equity stake and have a seat on the board of directors.

(The final deal announced Tuesday gives Maine Values a 75 percent stake in MaineToday Media.)

MaineToday Media owns and operates The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal of Augusta, the Morning Sentinel of Waterville and the Coastal Journal of Bath, as well as digital properties including, Maine Jobs and Raising Maine.

In an interview, Sussman stressed that he won't be involved in the daily operations of the newspapers or in matters of hiring and news coverage. He said he was motivated to invest in the company and loan it money after learning that the newspapers were at risk of closing. He said he considers newspapers essential to informing residents about government, schools and other activities.

"I do believe the community needs the newspaper," he said. "Transparency is the key to democracy. Without it, we can't have a democracy."

Cliff Schechtman, managing editor of the Press Herald/Telegram, said the newspaper's mission will not change but its ambitions will expand.

"We're committed to probing, unbiased journalism, and only the community will decide whether we're successful or not," Schechtman said.

Sussman was the top political donor in Maine in 2010, giving $1.3 million to Democratic and environmental causes. His largest donation that year was $390,000 to Equality Maine, which supports equal rights for gays and lesbians.


Lance Dutson, chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, wished Sussman luck in the venture, saying it's great that in America, people can do what they want with their money. The conservative think tank runs an online political news website called The Maine Wire.

Dutson said he does not expect a significant change in editorial content.

"The paper's editorial content has appeared like it's owned by Chellie Pingree and Donald Sussman for years already," he said. "I don't know how it could possibly become more slanted toward them."

Dutson described the trend in news consumption as a kind of "Balkanization," with liberals and conservatives reading publications that align with their political views. Sussman's investment just cements what consumers have long known, that the Press Herald is a liberal newspaper, he said.

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