AUGUSTA, Maine — The foundation tied to Democratic megadonor and philanthropist George Soros denied Tuesday a report stating it donated money specifically to help a national nonprofit purchase Maine’s largest newspaper chain earlier this year.
The Open Society Foundations, which Soros began in 1979 and supports an array of liberal and charitable causes around the world, has long been publicly listed as a supporter of the National Trust for Local News, the nonprofit that purchased the Masthead Maine network of 22 newspapers in July for an undisclosed price.
The news site Semafor reported Sunday night that both Soros’ group and Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss, whose own foundation has supported liberal causes, gave “millions” to the National Trust for Local News for the purchase of the Maine newspapers that include the Portland Press Herald, Lewiston Sun Journal and three other dailies along with 17 weeklies.
The Maine papers have not disclosed their exact funders, something that their leaders said they plan to do without providing details. The national reporting highlights hurdles in their transition from the traditional media model of getting funding almost solely through subscriptions and advertising to one that includes large charitable donations.
Semafor cited a “person with direct knowledge of the project” in reporting on the Maine connection. The story did not include any comments from Open Society or Wyss spokespeople, instead citing a National Trust for Local News spokesperson who denied the funds were specifically for the project.
An Open Society Foundations spokesperson told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday that “our grants to date have not included earmarks for specific projects.”
“We have supported the National Trust for Local News since 2019, along with many other foundations that value the contribution of long-established and community-rooted newsrooms,” the spokesperson for the Soros group said.
Messages left with the Wyss Foundation and Berger Action Fund, both of which are affiliated with the Democratic megadonor Wyss, were not immediately returned Tuesday.
The national trust purchased the newspapers in collaboration with the Maine Journalism Foundation after Masthead Maine owner Reade Brower publicly indicated his intent to sell his media empire in March. The new group of sites is dubbed the Maine Trust for Local News.
In response to an emailed question about how much money — if any — the Open Society Foundations and Wyss gave to help with the purchase of the newspapers, Maine Trust for Local News CEO and Publisher Lisa DeSisto said funds “came via the National Trust, as well as from dozens of Maine philanthropists and hundreds of Maine Trust readers.”
“As Maine Trust Publisher, I can tell you that while our name is new, our values remain the same,” DeSisto added. “We’ll continue to look out for Maine, find the truth, and help our readers understand their communities.”
DeSisto indicated in a follow-up email the Maine Trust for Local News has a “plan” and “formal protocols” to disclose donations and that she would provide more details by Tuesday, but she had not responded by late Tuesday afternoon.
Unlike the National Trust for Local News website, the Maine Trust for Local News website does not currently have a page listing its supporters. The Bangor Daily News, a family-owned paper, takes donations from readers and generally discloses them online.
Soros, a Hungarian-American businessman who made much of his fortune as a hedge fund tycoon and has donated generously to the Democratic Party, is a frequent target of right-wing critics. Soros, 93, who fled Hungary as a teen to escape the Nazi occupation, has also been the regular subject of antisemitic conspiracy theories.
He and Wyss are major players in national Democratic politics. A conservative group said Soros has given $21 billion to political causes since 2000, while Wyss has given hundreds of millions of dollars to both political and environmental causes. Both are linked with Arabella Advisors, which runs nonprofits including one that spent heavily on the 2020 U.S. Senate race here.
The renewed discussions on which groups are funding Maine’s newspapers come as the state’s news landscape has shifted to become dominated by nonprofit or independently-owned sites as legacy, corporate-owned media sites have continued to shrink nationally.
It includes the BDN, listener- and donor-supported Maine Public, investigative outlet Maine Monitor, Maine Beacon, which is tied to the liberal Maine People’s Alliance, and the Maine Wire, which is affiliated with the conservative Maine Policy Institute.
On Tuesday, the nonprofit Maine Morning Star launched, with three reporters, a columnist and editor working for the online site that covers state policy and politics. The Maine Morning Star is part of States Newsroom, a left-leaning nonprofit that launched in 2019 and has newsrooms in about three dozen states.
The Maine Wire used the Semafor report on Wyss and Soros’ groups purportedly donating specifically to help purchase the Masthead Maine sites to say the majority of Maine’s daily news outlets are now bankrolled by some of the country’s largest donors to the Democratic Party and left-wing interest groups.
The Maine Wire has received financial backing from groups tied to billionaire conservative activist Leonard Leo, who praised the site in a recent interview with editor Steve Robinson.