Reade Brower, the owner of 30 Maine newspapers including the Portland Press Herald, is considering selling the papers or converting them to another ownership model, he told staff on Thursday.
Brower owns five daily newspapers, 25 weeklies and six specialty publications, according to the Masthead Media website. The five dailies are the Portland newspaper and the Maine Sunday Telegram, the Sun Journal in Lewiston, the Times Record in Brunswick, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and the Kennebec Journal in Augusta.
He quickly became the biggest player in Maine’s newspaper industry. Within two years of Brower buying the Press Herald and sister papers in 2015, he had every daily here except the Bangor Daily News, which is now printed on Brower’s presses in South Portland.
It also ushered in a type of consolidation seen rarely across the country, winning Brower national attention. While observers generally saw it as a welcome alternative to out-of-state ownership, some wondered if his position imperiled the industry if he sold his company to the wrong buyer.
Brower acknowledged swirling rumors that he was planning a sale in an Tuesday afternoon email to Masthead staff obtained by the BDN, emphasizing that he was only beginning the search for a new owner and is open to many options, including converting the business to a nonprofit.
“The truth is I am beginning the search for what’s next, whether that be a new steward or perhaps partners willing to join me in carrying the torch,” he wrote. “We are watching new ownership models emerge across the country from B-corporations to non-profit efforts.”
A resident of Camden and a Massachusetts native, Brower founded The Free Press in Rockland in 1985. In the 1990s, he started the direct-mail firm Target Marketing, which built his fortune when he sold it and another company to AutoTrader in 2004.
He then started a printing co-op between his Rockland weekly and the competing Courier-Gazette, which he acquired from a bank in 2012 along with sister papers that went under. Brower bought the Times Record’s printing operation in 2012, then set out to get more business.
He eyed the Press Herald as a potential customer. It and its sister papers were then owned by the billionaire financier and Democratic megadonor S. Donald Sussman. Sussman rescued the company in 2012 after the brief tenure of CEO Richard Connor, who was later accused by the company of misappropriating more than $500,000. He denied the allegation, but the company won a large insurance settlement after an investigation.
After Brower bought the company then called MaineToday Media, he also bought the publisher of the Lewiston Sun Journal in 2017 and then the Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander in 2018.
His quick consolidation of Maine’s newspaper industry drew national attention. He portrayed himself as a hands-off manager and was often noted for wearing baseball caps, Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops. He was not shy about saying he might exit the business at some point, but he was vague about how he might do it.
“When the time does come for another owner, it’s not going to be a conglomerate,” he told Maine magazine in an interview for a story that was published in 2019. “I hope — I hate to go on the record saying that — but I hope it will be somebody similarly minded to me.”
More recently, he has felt the effect of the fallout in the newspaper industry. A sixth daily newspaper that Brower owned, the Journal Tribune in Biddeford, ceased publication in 2019 after 135 years in business about a year after he bought it because it was not turning a profit.
In March 2020, the Portland Press Herald stopped printing its Monday edition, with DeSisto saying at the time that revenue in 2019 declined and sales of single copies of newspapers had sharply declined. The BDN made a similar move this month to discontinue Monday’s printed edition.
There has been long-term turmoil in the newspaper industry, with advertising and circulation revenue dropping from $49.4 billion in 2005 to $9.6 billion in 2020, according to the News Media Alliance. The COVID-19 pandemic led to more challenges, with 360 newspapers closing since it began, according to The New York Times.
Consolidation has been a trend for generations in the industry, but it was supercharged by the 2019 merger of Gannett, the publisher of USA Today, and the parent company of the newspaper chain GateHouse Media.
That created the largest newspaper company in the U.S., with more than 200 papers. Last year, a poor earnings report led to a round of layoffs, the Associated Press reported.
Leaders of the News Guild of Maine, the union representing workers at the Portland and Waterville papers, issued a statement praising Brower for his transparency, saying they would seek a meeting with him on the transition.
“We will strongly advocate for any new owner or partner to honor all of the existing contracts for employees at these companies, and we will also work hard to protect our newspapers from bad actors who have decimated local news coverage across the country,” the union’s executive board said.
BDN writer Paul Koenig contributed to this report.