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With pending newspaper sales, nonprofits set to take a bigger role in Maine journalism

Donald Walsh, of Lewiston reads the headlines of a newspaper while eating lunch at a diner in Lewiston, Maine, on Wednesday, November 5, 2008.
Pat Wellenbach
Donald Walsh, of Lewiston reads the headlines of a newspaper while eating lunch at a diner in Lewiston, Maine, on Wednesday, November 5, 2008.

The impending sale of the Portland Press Herald and several other newspapers to the National Trust for Local News at the end of this month represents a big shift in the Maine media landscape. It will mean a large share of news organizations here are owned by a nonprofit.

Maine is one of the few states where newspapers are not owned by a large corporate entity or hedge funds. Over the past two decades, a mix of declining advertising revenues and cuts made by hedge fund owners has contributed to a quarter of newspapers being lost, according to a report from Northwestern University. An estimated 70 million people live in a county with no local outlet or limited coverage.

That's one reason the sale of the Portland Press Herald and other Masthead Maine newspapers to a nonprofit is being greeted with relief from the executive board of the News Guild of Maine.

"We see in this model the opportunity to find a sustainable balance between journalism as a consumer product and the public good," said Megan Gray, the guild's president.

But while they'll be owned by a nonprofit, the five daily newspapers and 17 weeklies that were part of Masthead Maine will still take subscriptions and run advertising, according to the Portland Press Herald. A spokesperson for the Trust says the papers will be able to get donations due to their nonprofit ownership status, but that other business details are not public until the sale closes.

It’s a model that appears similar to the Philadelphia Inquirer, a public benefit corporation owned by the nonprofit Lenfest Institute. The organization was created by the Inquirer's former owner and provides grants mostly to Philadelphia news outlets and consulting services. Its mission is to help news organizations stay afloat, says communications and editorial director Joseph Lichterman.

"Many people like to say nonprofit is a tax status, not a business model," he said. "You still have to generate revenue, you still have to pay your bills and pay your staff, and reporting is expensive."

As newspapers have struggled, using philanthropy and nonprofit status has grown as a way to raise revenue, or gain tax benefits. As newspapers have struggled, using philanthropy and nonprofit statuses has grown as another way to raise revenue, or gain tax benefits. There are outfits like the Seattle Times, which is still a for-profit but has a spin-off foundation to support its investigative journalism. The Salt Lake Tribune went fully nonprofit in 2019.

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University said being a nonprofit also allows news entities to explore a range of ways people can contribute, from memberships to individual donations and membership drives. When it comes to saving local news, a mix of nonprofit, for profit and everything in between is necessary, he said.

"None of those is going to be the solution," he said. "But we need all of those combinations to solve this problem."

There is already a mix of nonprofit models here in Maine. The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, for example, is a 501(c)(3), meaning its earnings don’t benefit private shareholders. It uses a mix of grants and donations to fund its online investigative news outlet, The Maine Monitor.

Rosen, the journalism professor, said the nonprofits also still have to compete against other outlets for dollars, which is another reason why multiple revenue streams are important.

But Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, the Center’s executive director, said people will see the importance of having multiple outlets in the state and support them.

"So it's both that collaboration, as well as that diversity of perspectives, that really is going to serve the public best here in Maine," she said.

Senior audience director Jo Easton said the pandemic was the catalyst for the Bangor Daily News to start exploring donations. The paper is a locally owned for-profit company and relies on ads and subscriptions for revenue. A series of fundraising emails in June with listed a $30,000 goal.

Easton pointed to the success of the Seattle Times as proof that papers can remain for-profit but find support in community giving for projects like investigative work.

"We have reason to believe ... that it's possible to fund a third of a newsroom with philanthropy, a commercial newsroom," she said.

Schweitzer-Bluhm's organization is one of a few nonprofit news outlets in the state, along with Maine Public and the Harpswell Anchor. Those outfits don't keep their reporting behind a paywall, and some have partnerships with other news outlets to share content. But whether nonprofit news is the future of Maine's journalism scene remains to be seen.

Reporter Caitlin Andrews came to Maine Public in 2023 after nearly eight years in print journalism. She hails from New Hampshire originally.