Invisible But Not Completely Insolvent

“We’ll restore these newspapers to financial health. They’ll be great community citizens and we will provide wonderful return for your profit.”

–Richard Connor, 3/12/09

The Blethen newspaper chain has lately been trying to dump the Portland Press Herald/ Maine Sunday Telegram and other Maine papers it acquired a decade back. Notable players in the potential acquisition are Richard Connor, president of Pennsylvania’s Wilkes-Barre Publishing Co., former Republican U. S. Senator William Cohen, Texas-based HM Capital Partners and others.

On Thursday, March 12, Connor and Peter Brodsky of HM Capital approached the Maine Public Employees Retirement System trustees. According to the lone reporter in attendance (Christopher Cousins), “Connor and Brodsky presented a fervent sales pitch.” They insisted that, “we can make a lot of money.”

Though there was no specific amount requested from the fund’s trustees, Connor stated that they needed to find up to $10 million in private equity to compliment bank financing. The public employees’ retirement fund is worth about $7.6 billion.

Connor and Brodsky presented the deal as a can’t-lose proposition with the sale price being “a fraction” of the $230 million Blethen paid only 10 years ago. “There is a floor value in the real estate that very closely approximates the purchase price,” according to Brodsky. In other words, buy the land and buildings, and Blethen will throw in the newspaper publishing business.

Curious, I spoke with Retirement System Board Chair Peter Leslie. He described the make-up of the board which runs heavily to current and retired public employees: Teachers, state workers, and others. Leslie explained the board’s constitutional role as managing workers’ retirement money “for the sole benefit of members and no other purpose.”

But, I wondered, how far might the mission of benefiting members extend? Let’s say that union members’ money bought an ownership stake in a paper that historically had stood mostly opposed to all which labor holds dear. Let’s say this paper —call it the Portside Picayune — regularly defended empire, so-called “free trade,” and regressive taxation. Let’s say it consistently opposed single-payer healthcare, larger education budgets, free association for workers under the Employee Free Choice Act, and seldom printed op-eds submitted by labor groups critiquing their smug pro-business reportorial/editorial line. Let’s say that their featured national “commentary” columnists ran ideologically from foamingly right-wing to crank-theocratic, with an occasional dollop of tepid centrism to dilute the toxic brew. Let’s say that it carefully articulated the agenda of the business class and the top fortunate fifth of the population and proved with every edition the maxim that “It’s a free press if you own one.”

What if, I wondered, labor owned such a press, or a piece of one? Could clock-punchers catch a break in such a paper? We’ll have to wait to find out. Within days the retirement system’s trustees sent word that Connor and Brodsky’s fervent sales pitch had contained too little information. Nods, winks, and the sweet promise of easy money were not enough. The trustees passed.

As it turns out, only a “limited partnership” was on offer anyway — no seat on the board, no institutional role — just a chance to bankroll business-as-usual — as usual.

But if labor did own a piece of a paper, and had a say in its “product,” would that paper look different? Might it prove a bit more … errr … useful in understanding how the world actually works? Given that media generally rely on advertiser/corporate funding to survive, such a change would be far from certain.

But perhaps, just perhaps some useful terms might be more commonly permitted again in print and polite company; terms like, say — “working class.” Decades ago when most big papers had one or more labor beat reporters, and the business class was notoriously disgraced by its own excesses (on a scale perhaps rivaling today’s towering turd tsunami), it was sometimes possible to speak frankly.

Then, it was often permissible to acknowledge that there was a class of people that rented themselves to capital, and that this working class had interests that were occasionally fundamentally different from the boss-ocracy above them. Such “vulgar” (but illuminating) concepts have been largely banished from current media and culture. Today we’re deluged with upbeat talk of “community.” A few “bad bets” or character-flawed bonus – brigands at AIG or Merrill-Lynch receive media attention. Distressing notions of structural class conflict are soothingly absent.

And so the Portland Press Herald’s Tuesday edition (3/12/09) could headline its lead story on collapsing prospects for waged workers, “Bottom falls out for middle class.” To be fair, the piece did mention passingly that, “The term middle class is a broad one, without a single, universally accepted definition.” In other words, it’s a conveniently plastic, largely meaningless construct that supposedly encompasses “90 percent” of the population.

The lone academic cited described the fantasy that wage-slaves pulling down $20,000 per year are “middle class” as an “American mythology.”

The last of the discarded workers profiled in the article described himself thusly, “I don’t have an education. I’m just a guy, like working with my hands. Working with my hands was who I was. As of a couple of months ago, my identity’s gone. I don’t know who I am anymore.”

In Europe, where working people have understood their class interest, and organized accordingly, much has been gained — things like universal health care, free university education, rights to housing, food, child care, paid pregnancy leave, month-long vacations, dignified retirement. Here, in the land of the lost, we dare hope for a job, or two, or three. But, “Hey, we’re middle class!”

Outfits like the Blethen newspapers see themselves as “community leaders.” They say it in public. But where they’ve led is proving disastrous to workers. Maybe new owners, including labor organizations could enliven the discussion, the papers, and society.

Or, is it too late?

RICHARD RHAMES is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at:





Richard Rhames is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: