Retired Maine journalist Bill Nemitz stands by a window at the Press Hotel in Portland on April 24, 2023, in what used to be the Portland Press Herald advertising department. Nemitz is now the president of the nonprofit Maine Journalism Foundation, which was seeking to buy the paper, and others, from media mogul Reade Brower. The National Trust for Local News will buy Masthead Maine. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Several hundred Masthead Maine employees learned during a videoconference call with management on Monday that the Portland Press Herald, four other daily and 17 weekly newspapers would be sold to a national nonprofit by the end of July.

Much about the deal remains unknown, including the sale price, how the newspapers will be run going forward by the new owner — the National Trust for Local News — and how the sale might alter the news landscape in Maine. Outgoing owner Reade Brower kept six of the weeklies and some direct mail operations.

What is known is that the sale came together quickly after a grassroots campaign aimed at acquiring the papers launched this spring, and that Brower had several prospective buyers from which to choose. He ended up choosing a path blending nonprofit and for-profit sides of the business.

As rumors of national chains or hedge funds swirled after Brower said in March that he wanted to sell his newspaper empire, the Maine Journalism Foundation formed to buy Masthead. By late May it realized it was falling short of its $15 million fundraising goal, Bill Nemitz, a former Portland Press Herald columnist and president of the foundation, said.

Masthead sale

“At the eleventh hour, we were connected to the National Trust for Local News through an intermediary in Portland, and things happened very quickly,” Nemitz said.

The two nonprofits collaborated until the sale was announced Monday, but Nemitz said his foundation is not part of the deal. The website handling the donations for it on Tuesday listed a total of just over $69,000 in contributions from 464 donors. Most were small donations, with a few at the $1,000 level. Nemitz said that is not the full amount that his foundation has raised. He said the foundation still is determining what its future will be.

Funds raised so far will be forwarded to the trust. The foundation’s website also is directing contributors to the trust’s website.

It is not clear who the big donors are to the national trust, but Libra Foundation CEO Craig Denekas said it has been talking to the trust. A donation is still being worked out. He would not comment on how much money would go to the trust or when.

“They have outlined for us what the general plan was, and we thought it was a great idea,” he said.

Brower also would not disclose much about the financing or the negotiations, saying only that he had multiple avenues to explore in the sale.

What he likes, he said, is that the sale involves a hybrid between a nonprofit and a traditional business model, although he declined to comment on what that model would be.

“The philanthropic side will allow them to do special projects and create special positions,” he said. “That was important to me to have a component so you don’t have to cut your way to prosperity, which is what a lot of traditional papers have had to do to maintain profitability.”

He expects the newspapers to be run much the same way as he ran them in the last decade. He said the newspapers were profitable and self-sustaining when he sold them. The sale included the printing plant in South Portland, which also prints the Bangor Daily News, the only Maine daily that Brower does not own.

The newspapers will operate with revenue goals for circulation, advertising, commercial printing and other earned revenue, Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, president of the trust, said. As a business owned by a nonprofit, the newspapers also will be eligible for philanthropic support.

The nonprofit and profit hybrid model is one that the trust has used before. Its first project in May 2021 involved a deal to own and operate the Colorado Community Media’s network of 24 Denver-area suburban newspapers with The Colorado Sun under the new name of Colorado News Conservancy. The newspaper and conservancy are for-profit public benefit corporations.

Each deal will be unique and specific to the newspaper’s situation, according to the trust. The Colorado deal was financed by the FJC foundation of philanthropic funds, which provided a loan to the trust.

The loan is guaranteed by the Gates Family Foundation, the Colorado Trust and the American Journalism Project, Lillian Ruiz, co-founder and chief operating officer of the trust, said in a 2021 webinar held by the University of Colorado Boulder Media Economies Design Lab just after the deal came together.

“The goal is for the papers to be autonomously run,” Ruiz said.

That is what is happening, Larry Ryckman, co-editor of The Colorado Sun and a board member of the Colorado News Conservancy, said. He said the trust does not get involved in the direction of news reporting and the paper has editorial independence.

The trust brought helpful business expertise, he said, and the newspapers brought boots-on-the-ground operational support. The Colorado Sun did not put any money into the deal, although it is a majority stock owner. That stock is not yet fully vested.

“Readers were relieved that these papers would remain alive and well, that they weren’t going to be guided by hedge funds and that there were local owners involved, people who care about these communities and live in them,” Ryckman said.

The trust’s second deal was an acquisition of the Denton Record-Chronicle, a century-old Texas newspaper whose previous owner reached out to it to discuss options for his succession. The trust bought the paper in the fall of 2022. It is now part of KERA, a North Texas public media station. The newspaper became a nonprofit entity when it was acquired, making it a deal among three nonprofits.

The nonprofit model creates a different interaction with newspaper readers, Hansen Shapiro said on an Editor & Publisher podcast in October 2022 after that deal was announced.

It will mean some changes. Public broadcasters have to go to their audience again and again to tell them why the journalism should be supported, and that is something newspapers will have to learn, she said. But the deal is being embraced by those across the company.

“I think it’s going to be great and very beneficial,” Anne Sheehan, managing editor of the Advertiser Democrat weekly in Norway that is part of the sale, said.

Lori Valigra, investigative reporter for the environment, 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...