While I was in the hospital these last few months my dog died and my editor left over a disagreement with the publisher. Rudy was a sweet, gentle soul (about whom more in another column), but he outlived his prognosis by two years, so his death was not unexpected. Editor Mo Mehlsak’s departure, after 15 years at the helm, was unexpected and, in my opinion, unnecessary.

The public comments surrounding Mo’s leaving were full of happy talk about what a great editor he was (and is). Mo helped take The Forecaster from a community bulletin board to a legitimate news organization, a direction former owner Marian McCue had set it on. But the public statements did not address the simple fact that, as Reade Brower, owner of The Forecaster, put it in a recent email to me, “he chose to leave rather than lay off a reporter.”

Reade Brower owns six daily newspapers and some two dozen weeklies, so the majority of the editors and reporters in Maine now work for him. Fortunately, he is a benevolent boss, but he is not involved in the day-to-day operations of any of his papers. His consolidation of newspapers under the Masthead Maine brand is a matter of advertising and printing efficiencies rather than any editorial or political agenda.

In April of 2018, I invited Reade to a luncheon with a dozen or so veteran and retired news reporters and he impressed everyone with his humility, his humor and his candor. He assured us that he was not interested in developing one news staff to fill the pages of all of his newspapers. He said he would not lay off staff just to save money, only if there were redundancies. In order to keep his publications sustainable, however, Masthead Maine has recently had to lay off about a half dozen of its 1,000 employees, most outside of the newsroom.

The union that represents the Portland newspapers recently received a new contract with wage increases. The executives of the Portland papers oversee The Forecaster and the Portland papers publish stories by Forecaster reporters, but Forecaster staff do not belong to the newspaper union and did not receive raises. So you can easily see how someone working for The Forecaster might see a layoff as a way to help pay for Portland Press Herald raises.

Ironically, Mo Mehlsak was always tight with the owner’s dollar. For close to a decade I asked for a small raise every year as The Forecaster readership grew and grew, but he always declined, citing tight budgets. One Forecaster columnist quit after Mo refused to increase his fee.

Daily newspapers are an endangered species, witness the announcement that the Biddeford-Saco Journal-Tribune, which Reade Brower acquired just last year, is closing up shop after 135 years. Nationwide, however, small community newspapers are thriving while urban dailies fail, another reason it’s awkward to have editors and publishers of the Portland papers making decisions about the future of The Forecaster.

I know from Reade Brower that he is OK with airing my objection to Mo Mehlsak’s departure, but I won’t be surprised if others take issue with publishing this column. In the 16 years I have written The Universal Notebook, however, no one has ever told me what I could or could not write about. So this is my little test of freedom of the press. That’s one of the things one worries about when there is a virtual monopoly on the news. The press itself must never become immune from criticism.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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