Nonprofit to buy Portland Press Herald and other Maine papers

National Trust for Local News is the buyer, but details of the financing are not disclosed.
Reade Brower leans against a railing.
“This is the most independent route I think I could have taken that maintains both the independence of the press and continuity for staff and readers,” Reade Brower, owner of Masthead Maine, said. Photo by Sarah Rice.

The owner of the Portland Press Herald and its affiliated newspapers in Maine announced Monday a nonprofit organization is buying the operation for an undisclosed amount.

The National Trust for Local News has entered into an agreement to purchase the Portland Press Herald and all of the other assets of Masthead Maine, the Press Herald reported Monday. 

The closing date is in late July.

“This is the most independent route I think I could have taken that maintains both the independence of the press and continuity for staff and readers,” Reade Brower, owner of Masthead Maine, said in an interview published by the Press Herald. “I believe they want to continue to run this as a sustainable business, which I like, and I don’t believe they will try and drain resources, which I like.”

There are several nonprofit news organizations in Maine, including The Maine Monitor, Maine Public, the Harpswell Anchor, and Amjambo Africa. 

The Monitor, a 13-year-old, digital news organization, provides its stories for free to its readers and to legacy news organizations. The Bangor Daily News and the Press Herald frequently republish the Monitor’s stories. 

“It’s welcome news that Masthead Maine’s newspapers will go to an organization interested in the survival of local news,” said Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, Executive Director for The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, the nonprofit organization that publishes The Maine Monitor.

“We look forward to continuing to partner with Masthead publications and providing them with The Maine Monitor’s robust, independent reporting free of charge to help inform their readers,” she continued.”

In a statement released Monday night, Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, CEO and co-founder of the National Trust for Local News, refused to release information about the underlying funding of the purchase.

“Our NDA prevents us from disclosing or discussing information related to the transaction in process,” Hansen Shapiro’s statement said. “As a nonprofit, NTLN is supported by a diverse mix of national and local funders who support our overall mission of quality, nonpartisan local journalism.”

Hansen Shapiro said in an interview with the podcast “What Works” last year that the organization planned to put extensive resources into the papers it acquires.

“So many of these papers are in such dire need of investment in their staff and their product,” said Hansen Shapiro, that “for every dollar of acquisition cost you need $3, $4, $5, of investment over 3-5 years to bring these papers up to a new standard of quality and service.”

Here’s what we know so far:

The National Trust for Local News disclosed $2.79 million in assets in 2021, according to its statement to the IRS. The IRS document says the trust is based in Lexington, Massachusetts, though a spokeswoman said Tuesday that it is headquartered in Denver. 

“The National Trust for Local News is a nonprofit dedicated to keeping local news in local hands,’’ it says in a filing to the IRS. “We work with communities to catalyze the capital, new ownership structures, and business model transformations needed for established local and community news organizations to thrive and remain deeply grounded in their communities.’’

The trust was founded in 2021. It also owns a chain of 24 community newspapers in suburban Denver, a transaction that was financed with a loan from FJC, a philanthropic investment foundation, according to an interview with Hansen Shapiro last August.

The five dailies and 17 of the weeklies owned by Brower are part of the deal, the Press Herald reported. The Bangor Daily News reported Masthead Maine Publisher Lisa DeSisto and her team will remain at the head of the papers. 

Monday evening, the Bangor Daily News reported that six weeklies serving part of Maine’s northern coast were not included in the planned sale.

The Bangor Daily News said those six are The Ellsworth American, The Mount Desert Islander in Bar Harbor, The Courier-Gazette in Rockland, The Republican Journal in Belfast, The Camden Herald and The Free Press in Camden. Brower will continue to own those publications.

Most, if not all, of the Maine outlets involved in the sale provide their coverage in both print and digital formats, even as more and more readers and advertisers around the country are abandoning print.

Hansen Shapiro said the newspapers will continue to rely on revenue from ads and subscriptions, according to the Press Herald.  

According to the Press Herald, the trust has promised to “recognize the four labor unions currently representing Masthead employees and will honor their contracts.’’ Masthead Maine has about 400 full- and part-time employees. “DeSisto said employee benefits will continue unchanged through the end of the year while more details of what the sale will mean are worked out,’’ the Press Herald reported.

Brower announced in March that he was exploring a sale. Last year, retired Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz disclosed that he and two other supporters formed the Maine Journalism Foundation, a new nonprofit organization.

That foundation told supporters Monday their donations will be used to help fund the sale of Masthead Maine to the National Trust, according to the Press Herald.

“More details will be forthcoming in the days and weeks ahead on the operating structure of the new nonprofit entity,” the email from the Maine Journalism Foundation said, according to the Press Herald. “Until then, rest assured that the future for local news in Maine has never been brighter.”

Not all entities owned by Brower were included in the sale, however, according to the Bangor Daily News.

The Ellsworth American, The Mount Desert Islander, The Courier-Gazette, The Republican Journal, The Camden Herald and The Free Press, all weekly coastal publications, were not included in the sale. Six specialty publications and Brower’s direct mail product also were not in the sale.

Brower is unsure how long he’ll continue to hold onto the publications not sold in the Monday transaction, according to the BDN. “I live in this area and I may retain them, but I don’t really know,” he told the BDN. “But they’re important to me because my home is in Camden.”


The Maine Monitor

The Maine Monitor is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting that holds Maine state government and institutions accountable. Our team of investigative journalists use data- and document-based reporting to produce stories that have an impact.
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