By Dan Kennedy
Maine newspaper publisher Reade Brower is getting ready to move on. Michael Shepherd and Lori Valigra of the Bangor Daily News, the only daily in Maine that Brower doesn’t own, reported on Thursday that the publisher is seeking to wind down his stewardship of the Portland Press Herald, four other daily papers and a number of weeklies.
In a follow-up by the Press Herald’s Eric Russell, Brower sounded like he isn’t in any hurry, and that he was not yet sure what the transition might look like. Brower put it this way in a memo to the staff:
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. We are watching new ownership models emerge across the country from B-corporations to nonprofit efforts. Transparency has always been a pillar of journalism, and it’s important to me personally. That said, people will speculate because it is human nature. Over the past couple of years, I have been approached and looked at different pathways for the future but did not pull the trigger – either I wasn’t ready, I still felt my job was not completed, or the path just didn’t feel right.
A B-corporation is another name for a public benefit corporation — for-profit that is under no obligation to maximize earnings, allowing revenues to be reinvested in the mission. In the news world, some well-known B-corps include The Colorado Sun, Lookout Santa Cruz and, closer to home, The Provincetown Independent.
Brower, by all accounts, has been a decent steward of his Maine properties. More important, he’s kept the national chains out of the state, and he may well have outlasted them. Gannett is getting rid of papers, as Sarah Fischer of Axios observes, so it would be unlikely that the company would bring its special brand of looting and pillaging newsrooms to Portland The hedge fund Alden Global Capital hasn’t acquired anything for quite a while, so perhaps we can hope that its executives are content with their current holdings. As I told Russell, “Whether this has a happy ending or not depends on who steps forward as buyer.” If Brower’s memo is any indication, he cares about his legacy.
Brower came in after a tumultuous period at the Press Herald, which I recounted in my book “The Return of the Moguls.” In 2008, the paper’s then-owner, The Seattle Times, sold it to a businessman named Richard Connor, who promptly ran it into a ditch. Four years later, the paper was nearly sold to Aaron Kushner, a wealthy Boston-area tech entrepreneur who had previously been spurned in his bid to purchase The Boston Globe.
Union leaders at the Press Herald rebelled at Kushner’s demand for concessions. Kushner moved on, buying the Orange County Register in Southern California and steering it into bankruptcy after a massive, ill-advised expansion failed to produce the revenues he was hoping for. The Press Herald’s fortunes, meanwhile, began to improve. First, billionaire Donald Sussman stepped forward and ran the paper for a few years. Then, in 2015, Sussman was succeeded by Brower, a printer who lacked Sussman’s deep pockets but who cared about news coverage and kept cuts to a minimum.
The Press Herald and its affiliated newspapers have a reputation for doing things the right way, and Brower surely deserves credit for that. I hope this week’s news means the continuation of what he has accomplished — and not the beginning of the end.