Friday, July 17, 2009

Testing Maine newspapers' independence

Here in Maine, the new owners of the state's largest newspaper chain have created a high-profile test of their newsroom's independence. Early results give some cause for optimism.

On Wednesday, Tom Bell of the Press Herald broke the story that his new boss, owner/editor Richard Connor, is seeking tax breaks from the city of Portland to stay in the city now that he's sold the newspaper's headquarters. Connor had previously said he'd be moving most staff to South Portland. It is unclear why a cash-strapped city should wish to help a private company stay on this side of the harbor, one observer notes, nor how begging for tax breaks might effect the paper's coverage of other city hall issues.

According to Bell, the story was not made public by Connor, but rather discovered by Bell while reporting City Hall. It's therefore encouraging that Connor allowed the piece to be published, suggesting he understands and values newsroom Independence . Earlier in the week, Bell also filed a story that begins to explore critical questions about Maine State Pier, an issue likely to place city officials in an unfavorable light just as Connor is looking for handouts from them.

Unfortunately, Mr. Connor has set up a number of other potential conflicts of interest. His former business partner and current consultant Bob Baldacci was a major figure in the as-yet-to-be-fully-explored Maine State Pier process. And, as Media Mutt notes, the board of Connor's Maine Today Media (which owns the Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, and Waterville Morning Sentinel) includes figures with numerous potential conflicts.

Media watchers will want to keep a close eye on what happens next.

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