Freedom of the Press
Less than two years ago, The Portland Press Herald and its sister papers were, some said, some said, at the bottom of the proverbial bird cage. Not anymore. It’s a new news day since MaineToday Media stopped—and restarted—the presses.
Early on a weekday afternoon, the massive red presses are quiet; the cavernous room in which they sit is nearly empty. Later in the day they’ll start printing inserts and special sections for the upcoming Maine Sunday Telegram. As the clock nears midnight, the presses will begin rolling off copies of three Maine dailies: first the Waterville Morning Sentinel, then Augusta’s Kennebec Journal, and finally the flagship paper, The Portland Press Herald.
But at the moment, the only bodies moving around on the floor are the robots, five of them, humming softly as they go about their business, changing rolls of paper on the press units in preparation for the next job. Each one looks a little like a miniature Zamboni, sans driver. A painted yellow line on the floor outlines the paths they’ll take on their rounds between the presses and the adjacent room where the rolls are kept until needed.
“The robots follow wires under the floor,” says Michael Ivancic, vice president of operations. “The lines are just for us, so we know not to get run over.”
Though the technology behind the robots is 20 years old, Ivancic says it’s the favorite part of the operation when school groups come to visit the facility. A veteran newspaper pressman whose dark, short-cropped hair and beard are sprinkled with a dash of salt, he seems amused by this. His demeanor is that of a man who laughs frequently, who enjoys his work. As he says, “it’s different every day. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’m not bored yet.”
As he speaks, a robot named Karen removes a roll that won’t be needed for the next run and returns it to inventory. The robots all have names. There are four girls and a boy. At the moment, Murray sits idle, connected to the charging bar, while the girl robots work.
But it’s just a coincidence. Ivancic guesses that the robots were named after someone’s kids, sometime after the construction of the building in 1989.
He doesn’t know for sure, because, like much of the management team at MaineToday Media, the company that bought The Press Herald and its sister papers in the summer of 2009, he hasn’t been here that long. He came on the job in February 2010, after 14 years at The Wall Street Journal and a decade at a daily newspaper in North Carolina.
The Portland Press Herald began publishing in 1862. But to paraphrase Bob Dylan, they’re younger than that now. In June 2009, the paper was purchased by MaineToday Media, a new company formed by Bangor native Richard Connor, who also owns newspapers in Pennsylvania and Texas. The sale included all the Maine assets of the Seattle Times Company, including the Blethen Maine Newspapers: The Portland Press Herald, the Waterville Morning Sentinel, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, and the weekly Coastal Journal covering the Bath-Brunswick area.
It also included this press facility and its 12-unit press. “It’s actually two presses in a line,” Ivancic explains. “When we’re running the Augusta paper and the Waterville paper, we run one on each end so we can get them out faster.”
For decades, The Press Herald and its printing plant were housed in two historic buildings straddling Congress Street. When MaineToday Media bought the Blethen papers, one of the first moves was to sell the two buildings and move the editorial and advertising offices to leased space in nearby Monument Square.
“We had a buyer lined up before we closed,” Connor says. “We needed to reduce our debt. I have a lot of respect for the tradition and history that was housed there. But for us, it was not a modern newspaper office. It needed to be redesigned and rehabbed, and I did not want to live through the reconstruction.”
Connor is a man who likes to move quickly. Though of average height, he was cocaptain of his prep school basketball team at the Tilton School in New Hampshire. He left New England in his early 20s for a newspaper career that saw him spend 25 years working for a publicly-held media company that was eventually bought by Disney. Since the early 1990s, he’s been in business for himself, owning and operating newspapers in several states. Connor still owns several papers in Pennsylvania and one in Texas. The opportunity to purchase the Blethen papers gave him the chance to return to Maine.
The company’s move from the old building to the new happened over a single weekend. “It’s a big deal to move a newspaper company,” says outside sales manager Courtney Spencer. “The newspaper comes out every day. You have to keep working.”
The venerable old office building on Congress Street is visible from executive editor Scott Wasser’s new fifth-floor office on Monument Square. The Press Herald’s editorial offices occupy most of the floor, looking outward over the city and inward to a central atrium surrounded by other businesses. The advertising offices are three floors down, near the building’s entrance.
Originally from New York City, Wasser retains some of his native intrepidity and get-things-done attitude. He came to Portland from Connor’s paper in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
“When I got here,” Wasser says, “I regularly heard, from my own people in the newsroom and from people outside who I ran into in the community, that the paper was a shell of what it used to be. Basically, they looked at the newspaper as an institution, as something they revered and really wanted, and they weren’t getting it anymore.”
“The company we purchased was on the verge of bankruptcy, its longtime roles as a crucial Maine employer and a leader in shaping the goals and accomplishments of the state in serious jeopardy,” Connor wrote in The Press Herald on the one-year anniversary of the sale. “Today, MaineToday Media is profitable and growing. Our newspapers are thriving. Our websites, which we redesigned and modernized, are setting records for traffic and visibility.”
The turnaround hasn’t come without pain. “We have about 90 fewer full-time positions than when we started the company,” Connor says. Some production positions were eliminated through layoffs, and several senior editorial staffers were offered and accepted buyouts. The union contract with the Newspaper Guild, which represents newsroom employees, was renegotiated.
While not everything is being consolidated—Connor is looking to lease additional space in the building for what will become a separate online division—he shut down the separate printing facilities at the Kennebec Journal, consolidating the printing of all MaineToday Media’s newspapers in South Portland, and put that newspaper’s Augusta office up for sale, in favor of moving into leased space.
“My own business philosophy is that I would rather be a tenant than owner,” he says. “I want us to be in the media business, not the real estate business.”
Though Connor and Wasser occupy corner offices, and two conference rooms can be used for private meetings, the newsroom is mostly open space. There’s no physical delineation between the sports department, the news department, the editorial page writers, and the copy editors; they cluster in designated areas, but can all see one another. It’s also hard to go anywhere out of sight of a large flat-screen TV monitor; some two dozen of them around the offices display the latest news on CNN, the Weather Channel, or a graphic depicting up-to-the-minute traffic on one of MaineToday Media’s websites.
“The purpose of this was to take down barriers and take down walls,” Connor says. “Everybody works out in the open. That was a very conscious design technique.”
It seems to be paying dividends. The newsroom is now operating at the same capacity as before the sale. The paper appears more colorful, with bigger, bolder photographs and splashier graphics. More importantly, advertising sales are up, allowing Wasser to devote more page space to news.
“Because we’ve been able to grow our editorial space dramatically, I’ve been able to get more national stories on the front page without cutting back on the number of local stories,” he says. “It went from a paper that had become almost strictly local to one where we now have the flexibility to consider national and international news and its importance. It’s our obligation as a public trust to get that news in the paper. But we also realize that we’re in the business of serving people. And if we don’t give them what they want to read, they’ll find it somewhere else, especially in today’s world. The thing we can give them that nobody else can is local news.”
Each of the three dailies now has a full-time reporter at the state capitol in Augusta, and The Press Herald has a bureau chief in Washington, D.C. “He’s the chief of himself,” Wasser quips. Still, The Press Herald has found the money to send reporters to cover the earthquake in Haiti, the war in Afghanistan, and the Red Sox spring training camp in Florida.
“We have tremendous support from the editor and publisher,” Wasser says of Connor. “He’s a newshound. He’s not a bean counter. It’s easy to produce a good newspaper when you have that kind of support, backing, and encouragement.”
Connor is grateful for the praise, but modest about it. “Our timing’s been good. We have been able to capitalize on a lot of opportunities to stabilize the business and now to grow it. I’m a traditionalist in terms of taking on responsibility for the public’s right to know and demanding that the government operate openly in the sunshine. I think we need to be the paper of record for the community, including all the things that are involved in that, from weddings and engagements to police news. A lot of it is old-fashioned: putting pictures of people in the paper. We want to connect the neighborhoods and communities that we serve.”
Though the old building is history, The Press Herald still has a visible presence in downtown Portland; the newspaper’s name is prominently displayed in large silver letters on the side of the brick building. “I don’t know whether visibility’s important, but I think we have to have a Portland address,” Connor says. “I think that shows support of the city where we’re in business.”
The Press Herald’s coverage of city news is kept honest by competing local publications such as The Portland Phoenix, The Bollard, and The Forecaster. Some observers have noted a rightward shift in The Press Herald’s editorial section; the paper, for example, endorsed the Republican candidates in both of Maine’s congressional districts in the 2010 election. But Wasser downplays this.
“The editorial focus has not consciously changed,” he insists. “It’s good to have some distance between your news coverage and your opinion coverage. I have two veterans running the opinion pages and writing editorials. Those guys know what they’re doing, and I basically gave them carte blanche. The only times I’ve gotten involved is when they didn’t agree on something.”
Because of the rural nature of Maine and the size of the state, The Press Herald has never been strictly a city paper. Its Sunday incarnation, the Maine Sunday Telegram, circulates statewide; it’s the Sunday paper for many people in the eastern part of the state who read the Bangor Daily News the other six days of the week.
“We tend to save and focus our longer statewide coverage for Sunday,” Wasser says. “You won’t find many parochial stories in our Sunday paper.”
Back in South Portland, the Sunday Telegram has to be off the press before midnight on Saturday in order to get to doorsteps in Fort Kent. Over at the press building, Ivancic and his crew spend much of the time between Wednesday and Saturday getting ready for the many sections and inserts that make up Sunday’s paper. There are two shifts. One starts at 6 p.m. and is responsible primarily for the three daily newspapers. A Tuesday-through-Saturday day shift starts at 9 a.m. and prints some commercial work and all the advance sections for the Sunday Telegram. The Coastal Journal and the Bates College student newspaper are printed during the day shift.
“It’s a pretty good-sized press,” Ivancic says. “We average anywhere from about 32 pages for Monday’s paper, to the Sunday paper, which is over 100 pages. We can run 60 pages in one press-run broadsheet, and if we have to, we can run up to 70,000 papers an hour. We do not normally run that fast; we don’t like to push it. The speed does affect the quality, especially at the upper end.”
Surprisingly, Ivancic doesn’t have ink on his fingers. That’s because this is a flexographic, or “flexo,” press. The ink is water-based rather than oil-based, and it doesn’t come off a newly printed newspaper onto the reader’s hands. Off to the side of the presses is the long, narrow ink room, where water is mechanically mixed with inks, which are shipped in concentrated form.
Since the inks are not toxic, “you can use our papers for weed block or compost,” Ivancic says, with a chuckle.
The plates that go on the press rollers and put ink to paper arrive from a company in California in pallets of 1,400. The press runs through some 4,000 of these steel sheets per week. Two black-and-white pages can be printed from a single plate, but a color photograph or advertising section requires a separate plate for each of the four ink colors: black, yellow, cyan, and magenta.
A low, white rectangular box hooked up to some computer equipment is where the raw plates become newspaper pages. The pages arrive via computer from Portland, Augusta, and Waterville, and are transferred directly onto the plates inside the box.
“When they output the page, it comes right to our computers here, and we make plates,” Ivancic says. “We’re using what’s called a computer-to-plate system, where a laser actually writes the image directly onto the plate. It has a raised image, like a rubber stamp.”
Used plates are sent to a recycling company that strips off the raised coating and reclaims the steel. The other big consumable is, of course, paper, which arrives in huge spools from the Katahdin Paper Mill in East Millinocket. “We get about 75% of our paper from them, and we get a little bit of specialty paper from the mill in Madison. The rest of it’s coming from Canada.”
Though the advent of online news sites has redefined the term “deadline,” there is still that moment when the newspaper content has to be “off the floor,” in Wasser’s words, to make the final print edition of the newspaper. On weeknights, that’s about 11:30 p.m. Once the paper is printed, it’s trucked to seven different depots in southern Maine, and then on to individual distributors.
Connor does not rule out the possibility of buying more newspapers in Maine, saying, “We’re always looking. A big part of my job is looking for ways to grow the company, for new sources of revenue.” That could include new contract work for the press, more newspapers, an increased electronic presence, or all three.
“Right now our print and online operations are merged,” he says. “We did that in order to create a sense of seamlessness between the two, because we are moving heavily into online, but we’re not giving up on print. Most of our profits still come from print.”
That is an encouragement to the scads of Mainers who can’t function without getting their morning paper fix. “We are totally committed to newspapers in Maine,” Connor says. “We have very loyal readers, very loyal advertisers, better than other parts of the country. We do not believe that newspapers are going to become extinct.
“I don’t know where we’re going to be 10 years from now,” Connor admits, “but five years from now there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll be publishing newspapers in Maine.”
MaineToday Media makes more than newspapers, but it still puts tons of ink to paper.
Maine has eight daily newspapers, and MaineToday Media owns three of them. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, The Portland Press Herald is the largest daily in the state by circulation, with approximately 55,000 daily readers. (The Bangor Daily News has a daily circulation of about 50,000). Maine Sunday Telegram, circulation approximately 92,000, is Maine’s only statewide Sunday newspaper.
But MaineToday Media is not just a newspaper business. Though the majority of its revenues still come from print advertising, MTM, like everyone else in the media, is looking to increase its electronic influence, through a series of websites connected to its print operations.
“I look at it as all one business,” says CEO Richard Connor. “The key for us—and this is hardly unique in the newspaper business—is to see ourselves as a multimedia company. What we have is a lot of original content, and we can provide that content better than anybody else in our market.”
MaineToday Media is also the largest media company in the state. That means, Connor says, “we’ve got a lot of leverage.” They also have readers. Circulation is starting to grow again, and advertising revenue for 2011 will actually be higher than it was a year ago, Connor says, “which you don’t hear often. I can’t tell you why, but Maine is a very good state for newspaper readers and newspaper advertisers.”
Executive editor Scott Wasser agrees: “I’ve never been in a market where the readers were so engaged.”
Wasser has two people on staff during the day full-time who are responsible for web content, one person on weekends, one person on the copy desk who’s assigned to the web each night, and a part-timer who helps during the business day.
“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to improve what’s called ‘analytics,’ which enable you to track the number of readers on a story, how much time they spent reading a story, what story they went to from that story. We couldn’t do any of that a year ago.” Shared stories, through mechanisms such as Facebook, Twitter, or email forwarding, are even more notable, as that means the story was deemed important enough to share.
“These are the training wheels of analytics,” he says. “We have the ability to do much more than that, and we do. For instance, the Portland Pirates are an affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres. We have a huge number of readers from Buffalo who read our sports coverage for that reason.”
The Press Herald recently announced that Apple has approved its dedicated iPad application, making it the first paper in Maine with that technology.
“We’re a media company, but newspaper to me is an all-inclusive term,” Wasser says. “It’s second-nature to me by now that a newspaper means print products and online products.”
MaineToday Media • Portland, Maine
Year founded: 2009
Creation details: Company was founded to purchase the assets of the Seattle Times Company in Maine, also known as the Blethen Maine Newspapers.
Publications: The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel, The Coastal Journal.
Websites: www.mainetoday.com, www .maineyellowpages.com, www .exploringmaine.com, www .mainerealestatetoday.com, www.mainepets.com, and more.
Positions: Newspaper and online editors, reporters, photographers. press operators, mailroom technicians, advertising sales, webmasters, copy editors.
New projects: Development of a separate online division, applications for new electronic operating systems.
Challenges: Reducing debt and overhead, serving a geographically spread-out population, technology-driven changes.
To learn more: www.mainetodaymedia.com