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Business and Economy

Brower Officially Takes Reins at Maine Today Media

Tom Porter
New Maine Today Media owner Reade Brower, and Maine Today Media CEO Lisa DeSisto.

PORTLAND, Maine - It's a big week for Midcoast businessman Reade Brower. On Monday he finalized the purchase of Maine Today Media - the state's largest newspaper group and owner of three daily publications, including the Portland Press Herald.

Brower, who already owns three weekly newspapers in the Rockland and Camden area, paid an undisclosed sum to buy the Portland-based company from billionaire hedge fund manager Donald Sussman. And Brower says Sussman did a lot to pave the way for what he wants to achieve with the organization.

Brower says he regards his purchase of Maine Today Media this week as less of a "sale" and more of a transfer of stewardships. "This is a big responsibility, you know, to take on 400 new associates and a piece of Maine."

Brower says his original intention was not to buy MTM at all. He had approached owner Donald Sussman with a proposition to outsource the printing to Alliance Press in Brunswick, in which Brower is a partner. But Sussman - who bought the debt-ridden organization in 2012 - had a different idea.

"And somehow that got flipped to, 'I got a better idea:  Why don't you guys just do it yourself and take a turn at stewarding these newspapers,' which made a lot of sense," Brower says. "I don't mean to be flippant because it made a lot of sense for us to take it this last step. Donald did all the heavy lifting, he put in the infrastructure, he brought in Lisa."

That's Lisa DeSisto, a former Boston Globe executive who's staying on as CEO of the organization. DeSisto says Sussman left MTM in better financial shape - albeit still not debt-free. As for when the company might become profitable?

"It's really too soon to tell," DeSisto says. "I mean today is their first day of new ownership so we have a lot of financial recalculating or re-forecasting to do, but we have been delivering on our budget year-to-date, and our circulation is up on a year-to-year basis. Advertising still has its challenges, like at any newspaper."

Hear more from Reade Brower and Lisa DeSisto.

In an age when so much news content is freely available online, Reade Brower says he has one rule he likes to stick by: "I think in this environment the biggest challenge we have is to recognize that our core competency is news, and we can't give that away."

Brower's Midcoast newspapers all operate behind a paywall, as do MTM's papers, and he intends to keep it that way. "Starbucks can't give away, neither can Dunkin' Donuts and neither can we."

And that, he says, means it's important not to weaken the the news output of the organization. In fact, Brower has repeatedly described himself as not the type of boss who aims to slash and cut his way to profitability.

However, one area where there is likely to be some consolidation is on the printing side. In contrast to his plant in Brunswick, Brower says the South Portland printing works currently used by MTM employs old and expensive technology that relies on plates that have to be shipped from overseas.

"There's a lot of money that would evaporate with the right equipment," he says. "And nothing is off the table, I mean there could be two facilities, there could be one, it could be here, it could be Brunswick, it could be somewhere in the middle. Who knows?"

Some in the industry are doubtful that  Brower will be able to follow his plan without making some substantial cuts. "Some very dramatic things are coming for that newspaper chain," says columnist and long-time media commentator Al Diamon, who fears cuts in the newsroom staff.

He also fears other changes. "I think they're going to have to seriously consider not publishing seven days a week. I think the day is coming when you're going to see four days a week, perhaps, for a paper like that."

"That's one of people's favorite questions to throw at us," says Maine Today Media CEO Lisa DeSisto. DeSisto is adamant that the daily offerings will continue. "We have no intention - there has never been a plan or a meeting where we have discussed reducing the number of days that we print, absolutely not."

As well as the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram, Maine Today Media operates the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel and The Coastal Journal, as well as the PressHerald.com, CentralMaine.com and MaineToday.com websites.