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Press Herald, other Masthead Maine papers sold to National Trust for Local News

File photo from 2015 of Masthead Maine owner Reade Brower (left) and CEO Lisa DeSisto. The media company includes five of Maine’s six daily newspapers, including the Portland Press Herald, and a variety of weekly publications.
Tom Porter
Maine Public
File photo from 2015 of Masthead Maine owner Reade Brower (left) and CEO Lisa DeSisto. The media company includes five of Maine’s six daily newspapers, including the Portland Press Herald, and a variety of weekly publications.

The sale of the Portland Press Herald, and the rest of Masthead Maine's newspapers to a national nonprofit puts to rest months of speculation about the papers' fates. And it lines up with national trends that are seeing more media outlets get support from nonprofits.

The pending July 31 sale of the papers to the National Trust for Local News was greeted with joy and relief from Masthead Maine CEO and Publisher Lisa DeSisto, who says it is the best possible outcome for the company.

"I never could have imagined an outcome this incredible for Maine, for our employees, for our readers," she said. "It's phenomenal."

Masthead Maine is the largest newspaper company in the state. In addition to the Portland Press Herald, it owns the Lewiston Sun Journal, the Kennebec Journal, Waterville Sentinel and other publications. The National Trust for Local News, a nonprofit dedicated to sustaining local journalism, will purchase the dailies and 17 weeklies in southern and western Maine, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Owner Reade Brower, who bought the parent company of the Press Herald in 2015, had said in March that he was considering selling his company. He has been relatively quiet about his plans since then and did not immediately return a request for comment.

Talk of the sales was shortly followed an announcement from the Maine Journalism Foundation, headed by Maine news veteran Bill Nemitz, to attempt to purchase the papers. The foundation sought to raise $15 million to buy the papers — but when it became clear that would fall short, Nemitz said they started pursuing other options.

"We had a lot of conversations going on with a lot of different organizations during the month of April and into the first half or so of May," he said. "We knew that we couldn't do it without their help. You know, there's only so much money you can raise here in Maine."

Nemitz declined to say how much was raised, but says the funds will go toward financing the deal. An online donation portal lists about $69,000 in individual donations, but Nemitz said that only encompasses a portion of the fundraising.

He said the Foundation will be working with the Trust on the management of the papers, but those details are still being worked out.

"This is what our shared mission has been from day one," he said. "And that was to see these newspapers, not only survive, but transition into a nonprofit mode, and protect them and preserve them and sustain them from there."

Megan Doyle Gray, president of the News Guild of Maine that represents nearly 200 union workers at the Portland Press Herald and Morning Sentinel, says the members are optimistic about the sale.

Gray pointed out that dozens of Guild members donated to the nonprofit Maine Journalism Foundation, which she said underscores the support among union members about the shift to nonprofit ownership.

"We see in this model the opportunity to find a sustainable balance between journalism as a consumer product and the public good," Gray said. "We are both of those things and the nonprofit is an interesting and innovative model to manage both of them."

The Trust has previously partnered with other news outlets including the Colorado Sun to create a conservancy that then acquired Colorado Community Media, a company with 24 local newspapers.

Penny Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, said the nonprofit model is being adopted by more news outlets across the country. But the Trust focuses more on local newspapers, which she says are the prime source of information for most communities.

"One of the really interesting benefits of the National Trust purchasing 20 some odd newspapers in Maine is that it produces a statewide network of news," she said. "(That) provides a bigger base of revenue to support the operation."

The Trust' donors include the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which is the non-controlling owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer. That organization provided more than $500,000 to the trust, according to tax filing data collected by ProPublica.

The institute, in turn, received donations earmarked for the trust from groups such as George Soros' Foundation to Promote Open Society and the Democracy Fund, which was created by the founder of eBay. The National Trust for Local News is headquartered in Denver, Colorado.

Corrected: July 11, 2023 at 7:07 AM EDT
A previous version of this story contained incorrect information about the National Trust for Local News' headquarters.
Reporter Caitlin Andrews came to Maine Public in 2023 after nearly eight years in print journalism. She hails from New Hampshire originally.