Tempers Still Hot in Portland

Both sides unleash in Casco Bay Weekly firings

Less than a week before the deadline of its largest issue, “Best of Portland,” Casco Bay Weekly owner Dodge Morgan laid off his editorial staff.

Editor Chris Busby, syndicated Maine political columnist Al Diamon, and the papers two staff writers were sacked March 6, after weeks of heated impasse on the editorial department’s budget.

“I was forbidden [by Busby] to talk to the staff, forbidden to go in the news room. It was pretty hostile,” says Publisher Lael Morgan, Dodge Morgan’s ex-wife, who has taken over the reins as editor.

Busby says he told Lael Morgan that he and his staff were willing to get out the Best Of issue, which they had already started working on. “But they said get out.”

Lael Morgan, however, claims Busby and his staff had threatened to walk out on her, using the pending issue as a pressure tactic. After the firings were announced on March 6, she says she found a trash bag filled with files that someone had urinated on.

Busby was incensed on hearing from AAN News the implication that one of the fired staff had peed on the files and told AAN News he was considering legal action.

Busby claims things came to a standoff shortly after a column appeared in the Portland Press Herald hinting that Morgan was considering selling the 13-year-old paper. Morgan dismisses the column’s timing as coincidence and says his cost-cutting efforts were in the works well before it ran. Both agree that Busby was faced with a directive: to slash his department’s budget by 37 percent, to $135,000, down from last year’s $215,000.

The paper had been profitable until 1999, Morgan says. “It was paying for itself, but last year and the year before the losses were greater. My interest is to have the paper pay its way because it can.”

“It’s total bullshit,” says Busby. “Dodge Morgan has been pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the paper for years, it never made money. … He was a philanthropist as far as I was concerned.”

Dodge Morgan refuses to comment on Busby’s claim that he was propping the weekly up with annual checks ranging from $200,000 to $250,000.

“The whole thing is about money,” says Busby.

Busby claims he made a concerted effort to meet Morgan’s demands by slashing freelance budgets and eliminating half a position, bringing his budget to within $33,000 of Morgan’s figure. However, he refused to cut further, saying it would have meant letting go of a staffer.

“I was not willing to get rid of Chris Barry, [staff writer] Al Dammann, or our listings editor. It would have been too compromised,” says Busby.

“What makes an alternative weekly successful is a diversity of voices,” says Lael Morgan. “They [Busby’s staff] were all men, and they all thought alike.” Lael Morgan also notes that Busby’s cuts were made despite her demand that he leave the freelance budget intact.

“Even getting a target on what we would allocate for each department, Chris Busby told Lael and me if there were any staff changes they would all resign and take as many of the columnists as they could,” says Dodge Morgan. “Chris drew a line in the sand, one that was not rational, so I stepped right over the line. You can’t run a business with that kind of insubordination.”

“I thought we were doing excellent work, but we were always dependent on this dude with the money,” says Busby. “It’s the publisher’s job to get the paper to break even, and she didn’t.”

As an example, Busby cites the paper’s office, which he claims is twice the size necessary for the staff. “Yet she [Lael Morgan] paid rent on it for years.”

Lael Morgan says she tried to address the office space issue for several years, but Busby and his staff refused to move from the front of the building.

Lael Morgan blames the paper’s financial shortcomings on the overall decline in advertising in the newspaper business as well as the presence of the Portland Phoenix.

“We haven’t seen one national ad since the Phoenix came in 1999.” Nevertheless, she says CBW has increased its market share and consistently bests the Phoenix in page count and advertising percentage.

Marc Shepard of the Portland Phoenix contests Morgan’s assertion, citing internal tracking figures that show the Phoenix running fewer pages than CBW but at a higher ad density.

“According to our tracking, CBW has run consistently under 50 percent ad density — 47 percent in 2001 and 49 percent in the first quarter of 2002 — while the Portland Ohoenix ran at 57 percent in 2001 and 56 percent in the first quarter of this year,” Shepard says.

Busby places the blame squarely on an advertising team he described as “lazy, and often openly contemptuous of the product.”

Since the bloodletting, Lael Morgan has whipped up a new staff, with former CBW reporter Sharon Bass serving as deputy editor, and a new reporter, Theresa Flaherty. Listings editor Tom Mahoney was the only staffer to stay on, while Diamon’s column was quickly snatched up by the Phoenix.

John Dicker is a freelance writer based in New York.