The man behind Maine’s unparalleled consolidation of local news

Image via Lisa DeSisto/MaineToday Media

It’s late on a Thursday morning in August, and 61-year-old Reade Brower is driving south to an afternoon baseball game at Boston’s Fenway Park. Periodically his navigation system beeps, alerting him to trouble ahead—an apt metaphor for any owner in the volatile newspaper business.

In less than a decade, Brower has acquired six of Maine’s seven daily newspapers and 21 of just more than 30 weeklies—a degree of newspaper consolidation unmatched in any other state. Maine is perhaps an unlikely place for a burgeoning newspaper empire: it’s known mostly for blueberries, lobster, and being home to a largely white, old, rural population. I ask how Brower ended up at the head of this domain. “By being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he jokes.

Brower’s properties include the state’s largest paper, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, as well as dailies in Lewiston, Waterville, Biddeford, Brunswick, and the state capital, Augusta. He provides printing services for the Bangor Daily News, the only daily he doesn’t own. His weeklies fill in the spread—ranging from the affluent coastal community of Camden, where Brower lives, to rural western Maine, which is dotted with economically depressed former mill towns.

ICYMI: Meet the journalist tracking Digital First Media’s hedge fund owner

While Brower insists he’s “uniquely positioned” to help the industry in Maine navigate the tough road ahead, he acknowledges he’s previously had some antipathy for the press—for what he saw as bad business practices and a failure to plan for the future. “Where the newspaper industry went astray,” Brower says, “is they spent a lot of years being very greedy and arrogant, and it caught up with them. When the internet came and the industry had to adapt, they couldn’t.”

Brower’s consolidation of newspapers may well prompt media watchers to wonder whether the state is a bellwether for a new media-ownership model. Newspaper industry consolidation is happening across the country, but nowhere is it happening quite like it is in Maine—almost completely under the watch of one person.

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

 

He owns newspapers and he’s making money. I hope that his plan would involve not interfering in editorial matters at his newspapers and not trying to maximize profits at the expense of the journalism.

 

BROWER GOT HIS FIRST TASTE of the newspaper business in college, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, selling ads for the school paper. “I had sold pots and pans the summer before, which was the hardest job I had in my life,” he says. “When I came to the college newspaper, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.” After he graduated in 1978, he moved to Martha’s Vineyard’s for a year and a half, where he sold ads at the weekly newspaper, The Grapevine. When his then girlfriend, Martha—now his wife—got a teaching job in Maine in 1980, Brower went with her, and scrambled to make a living. He became a wholesaler of batteries, cassettes, and other goods. He also designed and managed printing for coupon books, fliers, and chamber of commerce publications in the midcoast area where they settled.

In 1985, Brower conceived of a new way to expand his revenue streams: A weekly publication would allow him to consolidate ads for local businesses. In May of that year, he started The Free Press, an alternative weekly in Rockland. It might have been purely a vehicle for advertising, but his friend Alice McFadden convinced him that good journalism would help sell ads. He hired her to be the paper’s editor and publisher, and she’s still at it today. Brower sold The Free Press in 1989—he says he needed a steadier income stream—but its new owners struggled to keep it afloat, and he reacquired it in 1991.

Brower’s most successful venture in those years was Target Marketing, a direct-mail company that reached every home in Maine with fliers for car dealers, retailers, supermarkets, and other businesses. He started doing direct mail not long after returning to The Free Press, when the midcoast’s biggest car dealer told Brower he was done dealing with newspapers because of advertising-rate hikes at some of Brower’s competitors. Another company started by Brower designed and printed auto catalogs that were distributed across the country.

In 2004, Brower sold both Target Marketing and the auto catalog business to Autotrader and started a small printing cooperative. Although he’d hung on to The Free Press, by that point, he says, he had developed a pretty hands-off approach to the paper.

“I stopped being day-to-day at The Free Press basically six months after I jumped back in there,” he says, referring to his 1991 return to the helm. “That sort of sets it up for how I’ve been dealing with all these other papers.”

His co-op had a printing deal with Courier Publications, a chain of weeklies on the coast of Maine, including Rockland’s Courier-Gazette, which competed with The Free Press for readers and advertisers. By 2012, Courier’s owners had fallen behind on their bills, and its papers briefly shuttered. “The next day,” according to this New York Times profile, “Mr. Brower was meeting with the publisher’s creditors, trying to recoup $75,000 he was owed for printing. He walked out as the owner of the weeklies.” According to Brower, the bank asked him to step in, to keep the papers open and preserve local jobs, and that’s how he found himself the owner of a local-media syndicate. Later that year, he bought a printing press in Brunswick.

In 2015, Brower went to MaineToday Media—owner of the Press Herald and two other dailies—to see if they’d throw him some printing jobs. “I wanted to sell them printing, because they had a press that was very, very inefficient,” says Brower. Instead, he ended up buying the company from Donald Sussman, a hedge fund financier who had purchased the papers in 2012 and invested millions setting them on a more sustainable path following years of mismanagement. (Sussman was married to Maine Democratic congresswoman Chellie Pingree. They divorced shortly after he sold the papers to Brower.)

Last year, Brower bought Sun Media Group, parent company of Sun Journal, in Lewiston, and several Maine weeklies; this spring, he made deals to acquire two more dailies and, this summer, he bought weeklies in Ellsworth and Bar Harbor.

Brower no longer sees newspapers as arrogant and greedy,  and while his business ventures are not ideologically motivated, he says, he is proud to be part of an industry that’s holding President Donald Trump’s administration accountable. At a local level, he’s gratified by his papers’ coverage of topics ranging from the state’s opioid crisis to Republican governor Paul LePage, whose anti-media rhetoric is often compared to Trump’s. (Before Brower bought the paper, LePage once joked that he’d like to blow up the Press Herald building.)

“I think it’s a very noble industry, I honestly do,” says Brower. “People are coming into this industry for the right reasons, the same way that teachers go to teach.”

Still, he concedes, now that his empire has grown, he needs a business plan. He recently hired a consultant to help him develop a long-term strategy. Having a near monopoly has already led to some cost savings; he now speaks of “buying power” and “synergies.” He installed a more efficient press for the Press Herald, and because they’re now under the same ownership, the papers are able to share content more easily.

At multiple points in our conversation, Brower says he might decide to get out of the newspaper business, and mentions employee ownership as one possible outcome. But he backtracks when I ask if he’s serious about the idea, saying he doesn’t want to create any expectations.

“All I’m saying is that if you’re a profitable company, you have a lot more opportunities, including employee ownership, including finding buyers that are in the state,” says Brower.  “That’s my preference,” he adds, “to make sure that these papers stay in the state.”

 

I still touch things, because of how complicated the puzzle is. But I try to touch as few things as I can.

 

DAN KENNEDY, associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and author of the book Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-first Century, says ideally Maine’s newspapers “would have their own local ownership, and it would be a more competitive environment.” But, given that Brower has so far prevented a national chain like GateHouse or Digital First Media from coming in and slashing newsroom costs while extracting huge profits, Kennedy says, Maine could do worse.

“He owns newspapers and he’s making money. I’m not really sure whether he needs any sort of grand plan,” Kennedy says. “I hope that his plan would involve not interfering in editorial matters at his newspapers and not trying to maximize profits at the expense of the journalism.”

The three MaineToday Media papers are unionized: the News Guild of Maine represents the largest group of employees at the Press Herald and Waterville’s Morning Sentinel, and employees at the Kennebec Journal in Augusta are represented by the Communications Workers of America. The news guild’s current contract expires at the end of this year. Although there’s concern Brower’s grip on newspapers in the state will give him an advantage in negotiations, guild president Peter McGuire says the union is happy to have an owner in the state—someone who, as McGuire puts it, “understands the state of Maine, who understands the value of journalism in Maine, and who has been willing to invest in local control and local perspectives.”

But others are more skeptical of Brower. “Is Reade Brower an angel or a devil?” asks John Christie, a former publisher of both the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. “I think that he’s the only angel we’ve got, and we’ve just got to hope he doesn’t turn into a devil.”

Christie, who cofounded the independent, nonprofit investigative-journalism organization Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting in 2012 and is a consulting editor for its website, Pine Tree Watch, concedes that it’s a good thing somebody wants to buy Maine’s papers. The problem, he says, lies in the steep declines in print subscriptions that newspapers have been experiencing since the beginning of the 21st century, threatening the advertising that’s historically been their main source of revenue. Pine Tree Watch analyzed audited circulation reports for four daily papers in Maine—three of them owned by Brower—and found that collectively they’ve lost nearly 52 percent of weekday and 54 percent of weekend subscribers over the past 20 years. As circulation goes down, Christie says newspapers reach a smaller percentage of homes in the geographic area they serve—a decline in what advertisers call household penetration.

“It’s to the point that newspapers are no longer a mass-market product,” he says.

So even if Brower finds savings in consolidated advertising operations, printing, or distribution costs, Christie says these cuts will likely provide one-time reductions to operating expenses. And though Brower has said he wants each paper to operate individually, Christie fears Brower might be tempted to consolidate their editorial operations and lay off staff.

Tom Bell was a reporter at the Press Herald for 17 years and was president of the news guild when Brower bought the paper, before taking a buyout in January 2016. Buying so many newspapers without a plan, Bell says, “seems reckless.”

“He doesn’t have deep pockets, and we don’t know the source of money for these purchases,” Bell says, acknowledging that he’s had a combative relationship with Brower and says Brower tried to break the union after he bought MaineToday Media.

Bell worries that circumstances outside Brower’s control might force him to sell to a newspaper chain, something observers think could be disastrous to Maine’s news ecosystem.

“It’s always a worry that these entrepreneurs are going to sell,” says Kennedy. “That’s why I hope Brower is turning a profit and is happy with that.” Bell says Brower “has good intentions, but what happens in the next recession when revenues of all his newspapers are tanking all at once?”

For his part, Brower declines to reveal any financial information about his papers. He says his goal is to make them sustainable, by which he means profitable, and he thinks he has at least a decade to figure out a way to do it before he leaves the business.

“I’m old, but I’m not ancient,” he says.

As for concerns he’ll start to exercise influence or control over the editorial decisions of his papers, Brower says that’s not his style. He says he used to be a micromanager and hated it. He tells several stories about employees who don’t recognize him, because he so rarely visits his operations.

“I still touch things, because of how complicated the puzzle is,” he says. “But I try to touch as few things as I can.”

If Brower has an advantage over large, publicly traded national chains, it might be that he has no board of directors or shareholders demanding huge earnings. But he stresses that, in order to survive, his papers must nevertheless earn a profit. The way to do that, he says, is to be relevant.

“Newspapers still present to you, both online and in print, a cohesive story,” he says. So profitability, he adds, won’t come from limiting their ability to do that by cutting editorial operations. “It’s just not a long-term sustainable way to go about business.”

Brower’s navigation system beeps at him again, signaling another slowdown up ahead.

“I just lost another half hour,” he says.

From the archives: Iowa high schoolers power statewide investigations

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Casey Kelly is a former public radio reporter in Alaska. He's currently a graduate student in media studies at University of Maine.