Bill Nemitz of the nonprofit Maine Journalism Foundation speaks with a bookshelf in the background
Retired Maine journalist Bill Nemitz speaks to a television camera in Portland on Monday. Nemitz, who wrote a column for the Portland Press Herald, is now the president of the nonprofit Maine Journalism Foundation, which is seeking to buy the paper and others from Reade Brower. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The nonprofit Maine Journalism Foundation made public over the weekend its intent to raise $15 million from donors to buy the state’s largest newspaper group, but its effort began last year when the owner indicated he was willing to sell.

Reade Brower, owner of Masthead Maine, first said publicly in March he would be willing to consider selling his news empire, which includes the Portland Press Herald and four other dailies, 25 weeklies and six specialty publications. He told his employees then that he was looking for either a new owner or partners and was willing to consider new ownership models, including nonprofits.

Last summer, Masthead Maine Publisher Lisa DeSisto reached out to business and community leaders, including retired Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz, former Graham Media Group CEO Emily Barr and former Weather Channel Companies CEO Bill Burke, to gauge interest in a nonprofit journalism model.

A 2015 file photo of Masthead Maine owner Reade Brower (left) and CEO Lisa DeSisto. The media company includes five of Maine’s six daily newspapers, including the Portland Press Herald, and a variety of weekly publications. Credit: Tom Porter / Maine Public

Those three came together to form the Maine Journalism Foundation, which was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in Maine in July and has applied for federal nonprofit status. They have no promise in hand from Brower, but company employees from management to newsroom staff are hailing the potential move to an emerging model for journalism across the country.

“We came together knowing that Reade was at a crossroads and wanting to find an opportunity to preserve local journalism here in Maine,” said Nemitz, who is the president of the foundation.

He said the foundation doesn’t want the Portland and other papers to suffer the fate of newspapers in other markets that were bought by hedge funds or predatory investors that slashed the staffs and budgets. Masthead Maine is the foundation’s first focus, but it plans to look at helping news organizations throughout the state keep afloat.

Brower had been talking to other potential buyers, including foundations, Nemitz said. When those talks stalled Maine Journalism Foundation got aggressive in ramping up and has “really been grinding” the past couple of months, he said.

Brower said the foundation requested a meeting during which it asked if he would consider a nonprofit entity purchasing some or all of the assets.

“I told them if they could create a viable pathway, they would be considered,” Brower said in an email Monday to the Bangor Daily News. “I will continue to look at the opportunities that are developing in a structured manner that is fair to all interested parties.”

Brower has not said whether he will try to sell all the publications or only part of his operations, which include a South Portland printing operation that also prints the Bangor Daily News, the only Maine daily Brower does not own.

Nonprofit news outlets have been on the rise across the United States over the past decade as newspapers struggle to stay solvent. Flagging advertising, growing competition from digital news and high paper and other expenses have eaten away at profits over the past two decades, making nonprofit models more enticing.

“I think every newspaper in the country is going to go all digital at some point over the next 10 years,” said Carlos Barrioneuvo, a director of Colorado-based Public Media Co. who lives in Georgetown, was an advisor to the Chicago Sun-Times when it became a nonprofit last year and is working with the foundation.

Nemitz said Maine outlets must innovate around how news gets to people, but with the state’s older demographics, the foundation would continue to print the newspaper if it reaches a purchase agreement with Brower.

A 2019 copy of the Maine Sunday Telegram. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

The foundation brings great potential, but there still are many questions about what a nonprofit model means for news in Maine, said Megan Gray, a Press Herald reporter who serves as president of the News Guild of Maine, which represents staff at the Portland paper and the Morning Sentinel in Waterville. Gray said the union has reached out to Brower and DeSisto for a meeting and hopes to have one within a couple weeks.

The number of nonprofit news organizations in the United States has risen sharply in the past five years, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News, which represents more than 400 nonprofit news outlets. There have been more than 135 new nonprofit news outlets created since 2017, double the number in the previous five years, it found in a 2022 member survey.

“We want to preserve assets and build off of them,” Barrionuevo said.

That is good news to Jarrod Maxfield, a town councilor in Windham. He said news in the town, whose population is the 13th highest in Maine, has not been covered by the Press Herald and its affiliates in the past three years since the local reporter left. He hopes a nonprofit newspaper that doesn’t have to worry about making money first will shift more resources toward providing news, especially local news.

“Having local reporters who are informed to ask us questions and hold our feet to the fire and then pass that information on to the local population is immensely important,” he said.

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...