After months of doubt, it is now all but certain that the vast majority of Maine’s local news outlets will live to see another day.
The nonprofit National Trust for Local News has entered into a purchase agreement to take over the lion’s share of Maine’s media ecosystem in a sweeping deal covering five daily newspapers and 17 weeklies.
The deal is expected to close later this month, according to Reade Brower, the current owner of the Masthead Maine media group, and Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, the CEO of the National Trust for Local News.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
The news was first reported by the Portland Press Herald, one of the daily newspapers that will be included in the sale. The deal also involves the Lewiston Sun Journal, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, and the Times Record in Brunswick. (The Bangor Daily News is the only major Maine newspaper not under the Masthead Maine banner.)
Uncertainty has surrounded the future of Maine’s largest media group since Brower announced in March that he was exploring a sale. Many were concerned that the publications would be taken over by a venture capital group or hedge fund that would take the newspapers out of local hands.
In an interview with the Press Herald, Brower said that there were “multiple other avenues I could have pursued” for the sale, but he declined to elaborate.
“The deal made sense,” said Brower, 66, in an interview with the Globe on Monday. “There wasn’t a lot of back and forth. They came in during the process, and it just all just sort of came together. It’s everything I really felt was needed, and it checked the most boxes.”
Brower — who will continue to own a handful of papers in the state not affiliated with Masthead Maine, including the Ellsworth American and the Mount Desert Islander — said the “hybrid” approach of the nonprofit owning the for-profit company is what appealed to him.
“I am just a believer that, for the newspapers to thrive, there needs to be some sustainability to it,” he said.
News of the sale was lauded by Masthead Maine leadership, including Lisa DeSisto, the CEO of Masthead Maine, and Steve Greenlee, the executive editor of the Portland Press Herald.
Bill Nemitz, a newly retired Press Herald columnist who launched the Maine Journalism Foundation earlier this year in an attempt to acquire the newspapers, also hailed the deal. Nemitz said the Foundation worked in close consultation with the Trust as the deal moved along, and that this partnership will continue once the sale goes through.
“We’re beyond thrilled,” said Nemitz in an interview with the Globe on Monday. ”The fact that this all came together in such a short time was such a positive outcome exceeds our wildest dreams at this point.”
It remains to be seen what the new ownership will mean for the operations of Masthead Maine, which encompass about 400 employees. As a nonprofit, the National Trust is eligible for philanthropic backing, the Press Herald reported, though the publications will continue to generate revenue.
The Trust declined to comment on the source of the funds used to complete the acquisition, citing a non-disclosure agreement.
“Lisa DeSisto and her team will continue to run the papers and are committed to work closely with the National Trust for Local News to create even stronger local service and long-term sustainability,” Hansen Shapiro said in an e-mail to the Globe. “The newspapers will continue to operate as a business with revenue goals for circulation, advertising, commercial printing, and other earned revenue.”
The News Guild of Maine, which represents just under 200 employees at the Press Herald and the Morning Sentinel, said it was “optimistic” about the sale in a statement late Monday, noting that the union “will seek a meeting with the team from the National Trust in the coming weeks” to learn more about the changes ahead under the new ownership.
”We are grateful that Reade Brower chose to pursue a nonprofit business model rather than sell his companies to the bad actors that have decimated news organizations across the country,” the statement said. “In Colorado and other states, we see a positive track record for the National Trust for Local News, and we look forward to learning more about their plans.”
The sale marks the second major acquisition for the Trust, which was cofounded in 2021 by Hansen Shapiro, a former research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. In the spring of that year, the Trust partnered with the Colorado Sun to form a group to purchase 24 Colorado newspapers.
“We have an overall set of principles and strategies for sustainability and for enhancing the quality of local service,” Hansen Shapiro told the Press Herald, “but all the details of what that means for the papers is really something we’re going to be working closely with [DeSisto] on and working with community members on.”
As local news deserts nationwide continue to grow and circulations plummet, the nonprofit newsroom model has grown more popular. From 2017 through July 2022, over 135 nonprofit newsrooms were launched, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News. A handful of nonprofit outlets exist already in Maine, such as the Maine Monitor and Amjambo Africa, a free publication about the African diaspora.
“I took care of the previous decade. It’s their job to figure out how to envision what the next decade’s going to look like,” Brower said of the Trust.
This story was updated with comments from the National Trust for Local News.