NORWAY, Maine — A.M. Sheehan, the managing editor of six weekly newspapers in western Maine, has journalism in her blood. She’s been a Pulitzer Prize finalist for local reporting, has spent nearly 50 years in the business, and still keeps a police scanner squawking in her home.
Newspapers are more than a job to Sheehan, even though each of the weeklies she oversees has only one full-time reporter, down from two apiece just several years ago. In a recent issue of the Advertiser Democrat, which dates to 1824, reporter Nicole Carter wrote all five stories on the cover.
The only front-page news that didn’t bear Carter’s imprint was a color photo of three Boy Scouts taken during a Court of Honor ceremony at a South Paris church.
Those six weeklies are now on the market, part of a package of five Maine dailies, including the Portland Press Herald, and 25 weekly newspapers that Reade Brower, the state’s media mogul, is expected to sell soon.
The likely buyer is only speculation at this point. But much of Maine’s shrunken corps of journalists is concerned that the papers might go to a hedge fund or venture-capital company that cares less about the news than it does about extracting profit from a profit-challenged industry.
Sheehan said she believes Brower will do right by papers such as the Advertiser Democrat, which covers Norway and 10 other small communities west of Lewiston. But she also knows that business comes with a bottom line.
“I realize every company needs to stay in the black, but if the journalism is as much or more important, that’s great,” Sheehan added.
Brower, 66, owns every daily in the state except for the Bangor Daily News. From selling batteries out of the trunk of his car, to launching a direct-mail company, to becoming the dominant corporate player in Maine journalism, his journey has been as impressive as it once seemed unlikely.
His tenure also has overlapped with a precipitous decline in the number of reporters working in Maine, a trend seen across the country as newspapers downsize or shutter, and compete with a blizzard of social media options — credible and otherwise — to provide information.
By 2018, the number of jobs at Maine newspapers had plummeted to little more than 1,100 from 2,526 in 2000, according to the state Department of Labor. Only jobs in Maine’s paper mills, semiconductor manufacturing, wood-product manufacturing, and vocational rehabilitation fell faster over that time, according to Darren Fishell, a freelance data reporter in the state.
“There has been a decline in coverage, and quite frankly that’s why our organization was founded,” said Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, executive director of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonprofit group that operates The Maine Monitor.
The digital newsroom of the Monitor provides free, in-depth, investigative reporting to its online and newsletter readers. The Monitor also shares its content with other media outlets in Maine and New England, including Brower’s papers, at no charge.
Its operations are supported by a wide array of donations from individuals, foundations, and other nonprofit groups dedicated to supporting local journalism and reporting on issues of public interest such as health and the environment.
“We have a lot of vibrant news outlets, and the important thing is that that continues to be the case, and that Maine continues to be served by a variety of local and independent news organizations,” said Schweitzer-Bluhm, a former Foreign Service officer.
“Nobody in Maine wants to see only one news organization. People want to see richness in news reporting,” she added.
That richness includes reaching out to areas with sparse news coverage, such as Washington County in Down East Maine, where the Monitor is expanding its reporting, Schweitzer-Bluhm said. Other sections of the state could follow.
One of the bidders for Brower’s company, called Masthead Maine, is the Maine Journalism Foundation, a new nonprofit organization led by longtime Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz, who retired from Brower’s flagship paper last year.
“We’ve all seen what happens when venture capital firms — the predominant for-profit buyers of local newspapers these days — swoop into a market seeking only instant payback on their investment,” Nemitz wrote in April when he announced that the foundation would seek to buy the Masthead papers.
“Real estate and other hard assets get liquidated. Newsrooms get decimated. News — from the workings of local government to the drama of high school sports — goes unreported,” Nemitz said.
Nemitz, who has signed a nondisclosure agreement, would not comment about the negotiations.
The National Trust for Local News, another nonprofit group, also is believed to be in the running. Additional offers are believed to have come from out-of-state corporate bidders, according to media observers who asked not to be identified.
Brower did not comment directly on the talks.
“I am in the process of looking at a lot of different paths for the next steward of the Masthead group,” Brower wrote in an e-mail. “I am unable to share any details, or add additional comments because in all the discussions with multiple potential people and groups, both sides signed NDAs which prohibit both me, and them, from sharing information with others.”
Doug Warren, who helped found the nonprofit Harpswell News, which has operated the monthly Harpswell Anchor since 2021, knows how a small, committed group of journalists and community activists can build a successful news operation from the ground up.
“We’re having our biggest edition of the Harpswell Anchor ever in July, 48 pages,” said Warren, vice president of the nonprofit group, who also is on the board of The Maine Monitor. “It’s full of ads and full of news. It’s kind of amazing that it’s been so successful. The town has really supported it, and the businesses have really supported it.”
The free monthly now prints between 6,000 and 8,000 copies, depending on the month; provides online newsletters and news alerts; and maintains a website that serves Orr’s and Bailey islands and other communities near Brunswick. The Anchor is supported by ads, which are also called sponsorships; tax-deductible donations; and grants.
Warren, a career journalist who worked at the Press Herald and the Globe, decided with others that the previous iteration of the Anchor, which had closed during the pandemic, needed to be revived. As a board member for local civic groups, Warren saw firsthand the challenges of connecting with the public.
So, they went to work and raised another Anchor.
“We didn’t have the money to hire anybody at first, so I put out the first one, and another person put out the second one,” Warren said.
The group bought the paper’s name, archives, intellectual assets, and computers for $40,000, and recently hired a second, full-time news staffer.
“We’ve been hitting on all cylinders,” Warren said. “It’s important to me, particularly in these times, that there is a functional media on a state and local level. There are areas in Maine that are essentially news deserts, and it’s hard to know what is going on.”
For Norway’s town manager, Brad Plante, a community newspaper is essential to the workings of local government.
“I’ve always felt it was important that the taxpayers know what we’re up to,” said Plante, who once served as selectmen chairman in North Attleborough, Mass.
On his desk lay a copy of the Lewiston Sun Journal, whose coverage extends to western Maine communities such as Norway. The Sun Journal, part of a corporate group that includes the Advertiser Democrat, also is under Brower’s umbrella and could be dealing soon with new owners.
“This town has more events than you’d believe,” Plante said of Norway, population 5,077. “The little weeklies is where you find out about that.”
Watching the area become a news desert, he said, “would be a big loss to all these towns, not just Norway,” Plante said. “The more the people know, the better off you are. I don’t like secrets.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.