Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram Executive Editor Cliff Schechtman, who arrived in the newsroom in 2011 as the newspaper edged toward bankruptcy and helped turn it around by focusing on watchdog and community journalism, announced his retirement Friday.

“I’ve lived the life of a journalist for 45 years, and I’m ready to be a civilian again – if I remember how. I’ll be 66 in January, and now is a good time for a life change,” he wrote in an email to the newspaper’s staff. “I’m leaving feeling proud of what we’ve accomplished together and honored to have guided our journalism for the past decade.”

Schechtman’s last day is Dec. 17 Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer

Lisa DeSisto, publisher of the Press Herald and chief executive officer of Masthead Maine, its umbrella company of newspapers and websites, said the current managing editor, Steve Greenlee, will become executive editor when Schechtman retires on Dec. 17.

Schechtman’s legacy as a journalist in Maine is his “steady hand leading the newsroom through 10 years of change – change in ownership, change in office space and change in how we deliver the news,” DeSisto said. “When Cliff arrived here, we had zero digital subscribers. Now we have more digital subscribers than weekday home-delivery subscribers. He has been responsible for growing readership across multiple platforms.”

Digital subscriptions now make up more than 50 percent of the Press Herald’s total daily circulation, which is 38,374, with home delivery at 42 percent and single copy sales at 7 percent. Home delivery accounted for 73 percent of all newspaper sales in 2012.

The newspaper offices used to be in downtown Portland, and now are in South Portland at the printing plant, though most employees continue to work remotely because of the pandemic. And the ownership of the newspaper has changed twice since Schechtman arrived.

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Schechtman talks to web editor Katherine Lee in the Press Herald’s South Portland newsroom in 2019. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

His decade-long run as editor was capped by his leadership of the newsroom during the pandemic, DeSisto said. “Cliff built a tremendous team of editors, reporters and photographers, and when the pandemic hit, the team responded,” she said.

Schechtman arrived in Maine from Long Island, New York, where he had worked as associate editor at Newsday and led an investigation into the safety of the nation’s largest commuter railroad that became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. At the Press Herald, he oversaw another Pulitzer finalist, the climate-change project “Mayday.”

Prior to Newsday, he edited the Cape Cod Times in Massachusetts and the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader in Pennsylvania, where in 1991 he and other newspaper executives were arrested and accused of breaking the state’s wiretap law for publishing an interview with a murder suspect who was convicted of killing his wife. The interview was on the record, but the district attorney said the murder suspect didn’t know it was being recorded. Schechtman faced seven years in prison if convicted.

The case was resolved when a new district attorney came into office, reviewed it and dropped the charges, but the episode emboldened Schechtman’s commitment to watchdog journalism. He and his colleagues were prosecuted, he said, “by misguided officials who saw an opportunity to get a pound of flesh. … You have to stand firm, and we did stand firm.”

Among those arrested with Schechtman in 1991 was Dale Duncan, then Schechtman’s publisher in Pennsylvania. When Duncan came to the Press Herald with a prior ownership group, he recruited Schechtman to be the paper’s managing editor in October 2011. Schechtman became executive editor the following February.

He came for the lifestyle change that Maine promised, as well as the opportunity to continue an editing career that had focused on investigative watchdog journalism. But it was a bleak time at the Press Herald with layoffs and staff reductions, and the paper was teetering on bankruptcy.

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Schechtman got lucky with timing. A week before he became executive editor, philanthropist S. Donald Sussman loaned the newspaper between $3 million and $4 million in return for an ownership stake in the company. Schechtman promptly hired a dozen or so journalists and began rebuilding the staff.

“I wanted to find people who had depth and sophistication to do journalism that readers would respond to, which for me, accountability journalism was top of the list. Reporting on the forces that impact people’s lives had to be a top priority,” he said. “But at the same time, I wanted the sophistication of really good food coverage and really good arts coverage. There are only two types of stories: stories that teach me something or stories that move me emotionally on some level. I wanted people who could fill those missions.”

Among his first hires was Greenlee, who became managing editor at the Press Herald in July 2012. Greenlee worked at the Boston Globe in a variety of roles, including as features editor. He also reviewed jazz, reflecting a love of music that continues today with his membership in two Portland-area bands, Sons of Quint and Under the Covers.

Greenlee, 52, had worked at the Press Herald previously, joining the staff as City Hall reporter in 1993, becoming night city editor at age 24 and eventually features editor before leaving for the Globe in 2000. He began his newspaper career at the University of Rhode Island, where he edited the college paper.

Greenlee said he planned to continue Schechtman’s commitment to watchdog journalism and interpreting cultural trends.

Steve Greenlee, managing editor of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, will take over as executive editor when Schechtman retires in December. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer

“The challenge is to continue to be sustainable, finding ways to fund journalism that do not rely on traditional methods. Half of our subscribers are digital subscribers. The challenge is to deliver news in a form they want to receive it. It is equally important to give them a print paper, a robust website and a mobile experience that meets their expectations,” Greenlee said. “If they want holograms in the future, we will do that too.”

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In his email to the staff, Schechtman cited reporting projects over the past decade that gained national acclaim and improved the lives of readers, including “The Challenge of Our Age,” the heroin series “Lost” and the housing crisis series “No Vacancy.”

Of the newspaper’s COVID-19 coverage, Schechtman said in an interview, “The pandemic came at a time that we had built the muscle memory in the newsroom where context is everything. You need to find the truth, not just what officials say. That is not journalism. Reporting what they say is not journalism. Finding the truth is hard work. That is what readers demanded. We held officials accountable for what they were doing, what they were reporting and what they were telling the world, and I feel we helped inform people and keep people safe.”

A woodworker, stained-glass artist and accomplished green thumb, Schechtman’s first project in retirement is planing a slab of maple and turning it into a table for his wife’s succulent plants. He might do some writing on the side.

At this critical moment in history, where the foundation of democracy is being challenged, journalism matters more than ever, he said.

“What is very troubling now is the disinformation that technology allows. I have been saying this for many years. I believe social media is the biggest threat to democracy we have ever seen. I believe there is more bad than good that comes from it, because of how the dark forces are using social media to misinform the public.

“There was a time when people could agree on basic facts,” he continued. “We can’t agree on the basic facts anymore. There is no democracy without a strong free press. We are the heart of democracy, and our role has never been more important.”


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