Print journalism in Portland faces the abyss
by Chris Busby
In February of last year, the Washington Post revealed its slogan, the first official tagline in the paper’s 140-year history: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Many readers interpreted the phrase as a rebuke to Donald Trump, who’d taken the oath of office just a few weeks prior and who, just days before the slogan’s unveiling, called the news media “the enemy of the American people.”
According to legendary Post reporter and editor Bob Woodward, whose use of the phrase caught the attention of Post owner Jeff Bezos, it’s really a comment on the danger of government secrecy. But the line could also apply to the threat to democracy posed by the death of journalism. If government officials meet in public but the press isn’t there to cover it, it may as well be a secret meeting.
Here in Maine, the fate of the print news media — whose coverage drives much of what we get from radio and TV news — has never been more precarious. One wealthy individual, junk-mail mogul Reade Brower, now owns nearly every daily newspaper in the state and most of the weeklies. And while the industry clings to the edge of a cliff, a group of plutocrats much richer than Reade (including Trump, Bezos, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross) are stomping on its fingers.
The latest episode of this cliffhanger begins on the other end of the country, in the ironically named city of Longview, Washington, home of North Pacific Paper Co. A hedge fund called One Rock Capital Partners bought the papermaker in November of 2016. Last summer, One Rock filed a trade complaint with the U.S. Department of Commerce alleging that Canadian newsprint producers, who supply most of the U.S. market, were unfairly benefitting from Canadian government subsidies that allow them to “dump” paper in the U.S., selling it at a cost lower than domestic mills like North Pacific can match. If the American government imposed a tariff on Canadian newsprint, its price would rise.
No other American mill owner joined One Rock’s complaint. Most domestic newsprint producers, and the industry’s trade group, oppose such a tariff, as do newspaper publishers and commercial printers nationwide. In early December, over 1,100 newspapers added their names to a letter to Secretary Ross urging him not to impose the duty. The Longview paper company’s complaint “appear[s] to be driven by the short-term investment strategies of the company’s hedge fund owners … without any regard for the dramatic negative implications for U.S. newspapers in thousands of small cities and towns,” the letter states.
A newsprint tariff “could have a catastrophic impact on community journalism,” the publisher of the Idaho Press-Tribune (circulation 15,000) told Bloomberg in late 2017. Newsprint prices had recently reached a three-year high, and the industry continues to be hammered by declining circulation and ad-revenue losses. A lot of marketing money has migrated to digital competitors like Facebook and Google, but the “bread and butter” for small-town papers has always been the independent, locally owned businesses in their community, and those enterprises are being crushed by big-box stores and investor-backed e-commerce behemoths like, first and foremost, Bezos’ Amazon.
Ross, an 80-year-old banker and Wall Street vulture dubbed the King of Bankruptcy for his skill at buying and flipping distressed companies for profit, was, unsurprisingly, unsympathetic to the newspapers’ complaint about One Rock’s greed. In January, his Department slapped tariffs averaging 6.5 percent on 25 mills north of the border, mostly in Ontario and Quebec. And on March 13, it followed up with additional tariffs on some Canadian producers, including a 22 percent duty on Catalyst Paper Corp., the British Columbia-based company that also owns a mill in Rumford that makes other types of paper.
As predicted, newsprint costs have spiked and small publications are folding or selling out to larger competitors who, in many cases, will soon shutter them anyway. That’s what’s happening in Maine, where Brower now has a near monopoly on newspapers — all of which his company also prints.
Reade ’em and weep
Brower, a scrappy and eccentric entrepreneur from Massachusetts who came to Maine in 1980, made his money by building a successful auto catalogue company and a direct-mail marketing business that he sold as a bundle, for a bundle, in 2004. In 1985 he started The Free Press, a community weekly based in Rockland, but that was the extent of his publishing empire for the next 27 years.
Like Wilbur Ross, Brower’s fortunes have risen in part because he’s been in a position to capitalize on others’ misfortune. In 2012, Courier Publications, which put out a handful of weeklies in the midcoast region, could no longer pay its printing bill. Brower, who ran a printing co-op that included the Courier papers, was owed $75,000 by their distressed owner; he got the weeklies in lieu of that payment. “It fell in my lap,” he told the New York Times last year.
Brower’s next investment was prescient: he bought into Alliance Press, a facility in Brunswick that prints most of the rags around here (including this one). In 2015, Brower asked hedge-fund titan Donald Sussman — owner of MaineToday Media, which publishes the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and three other Maine dailies — if he’d like to do some printing at Alliance. Sussman suggested Brower buy MaineToday instead, which Brower promptly did. The terms of the sale were not publicly disclosed, but according to the paper’s own reporting MaineToday was then worth about 2 percent of what its value was in 1998, when the Seattle Times Company bought it for $230 million. (If that’s not a distressed asset, then I’m Rupert Murdoch.)
Since then, Brower has acquired over two dozen publications in southern and midcoast Maine as, singly or in groups, they have become financially unsustainable. In July of last year, MaineToday snapped up the Sun Media Group, publisher of Lewiston’s daily paper (the Sun Journal) and a slew of free weekly community papers (including the four regional editions of The Forecaster, Westbrook’s American Journal, and Lakes Region Weekly) and free monthly lifestyle titles (My Generation, Maine Women Magazine).
By the end of 2017, the Portland Phoenix was headed back to the ash heap, having lost its best ad salesperson to MaineToday (and a considerable amount of its street cred in the wake of an ugly battle with a rival alt-weekly, DigPortland, in late 2015). According to Phoenix publisher Mark Guerringue, he inked a deal with Brower three months ago that gives MaineToday 50 percent of the Phoenix. MaineToday handles all the advertising for the free paper, with Guerringue’s two-man editorial crew and a gaggle of freelancers producing the copy between the ads.
By late March, when this edition of The Bollard went to press, neither the Phoenix nor the Press Herald had publicly acknowledged the existence of this deal, which has been in effect since late January, and which may very well be unprecedented in the annals of alternative journalism — an alt-weekly co-owned by the mainstream paper to which it supposedly exists to provide an alternative. Guerringue said an announcement was on hold pending final paperwork from “the lawyers.” MaineToday publisher and CEO Lisa DeSisto did not return a call seeking comment.
DiSisto’s paper had a good opportunity to disclose the Phoenix deal on March 23, when it was announced that Brower’s company was taking over another batch of local publications, but it failed to do so. This time it was the two Maine papers owned by Pennsylvania-based Sample News Group (Biddeford’s Journal Tribune, which publishes Tuesday through Saturday, and Brunswick’s Times Record, published weekdays), and the four Mainely Media free community weeklies (the Biddeford Courier, Scarborough Leader, Kennebunk Post and South Portland Sentry).
With that acquisition, Brower effectively took control of pretty much every print media outlet in the southern half of the state that makes any serious attempt to practice journalism. Put another way, it’s now almost impossible to print news in Maine if you don’t also own a printing press.
Brower “refused to discuss any details related to the transactions,” Press Herald arts writer Bob Keyes reported in his article about the sale. Since he bought MaineToday Media, Brower’s been “ridiculously hands off,” DiSisto told the New York Times, showing no inclination to influence news coverage or meddle in management. Keyes was told that any staffing changes resulting from the latest acquisition would be left to “managers who operate the papers day to day.”
In the press release announcing the deal, Brower offered only generalities, saying the Sample acquisition is “based on common sense.” It’s “a natural extension of the work we have already begun,” he added, noting that Sample’s papers were already being printed at Alliance Press and at MaineToday’s South Portland printing facility. He told Keyes the transaction was “a timing thing.”
The timing is interesting, coming just weeks after the newsprint tariff kicked in, and the same month that Alliance Press hiked its printing rates by 8 percent (3 percent of which is specifically to offset cost increases caused by the tariff, according to a letter sent to the printer’s customers). With newspapers already operating on razor-thin margins, a price hike of nearly 10 percent in their second-largest expense (after employee compensation) is a de facto death blow.
None of that was mentioned in Keyes’ story, and that’s unfortunate, because without that context and those facts his article is just another piece of news-you-can’t-use. The real story is that a trade dispute prompted by a hedge fund’s greed and worsened by a government agency run by a Wall Street vulture (who was appointed, lest we forget, by a disgraced real-estate/casino tycoon who openly despises journalists) is stamping out the last vestiges of local newspapering in towns across America — and killing jobs and ruining livelihoods in the process.
This too was left unsaid, but there’s no way it makes “common sense” for Brower to operate multiple community-news publications in the same micro-markets, like South Portland (where the Sentry goes head-to-head with The Forecaster’s Southern edition) or Bath/Brunswick (where Brower’s now got The Forecaster’s Mid-Coast edition, the free weekly Coastal Journal, and the Times Record). The shuttering of several of these papers and/or significant layoffs across all departments are almost certain to happen in the coming months.
The Press Herald itself is in jeopardy due to the tariffs, according to DiSisto. “The Trump administration is looking to impose a tariff on newsprint from Canada, which would have a disastrous effect on the entire newspaper industry,” she wrote in a note to readers at the end of last year. “We purchase all our newsprint from Canada, as Maine mills no longer produce it. It would be near impossible for us to absorb a 30 percent increase in newsprint costs.”
Revenue from the newsprint tariffs is being held in an escrow account while the trade case is under investigation, and could conceivably be returned to the Canadian companies if the case is ultimately dismissed. A final decision is expected this summer.
No (good) alternative
Keyes’ March 23 article did offer some context. He pointed out that as “a local owner” of a daily newspaper, “Brower is bucking a national trend. Most newspapers in the United States are owned by large chains and investment groups.” In the past decade or so, many papers “were purchased at depressed prices by hedge funds, private equity funds and other investment entities, which lack journalism experience and operate with less civic engagement than local owners,” Keyes wrote. “They also manage their newspapers as a portfolio of assets, buying, selling and trading them with a focus on shareholder returns” — not, one could add, the interests of readers, employees, or their community as a whole.
Compared to the corporate chains and Wall Street financiers who control most of the “fourth estate,” Brower is a beneficent shepherd. Again, he doesn’t dictate editorial content, and he’s proven to be a competent overseer of his business empire so far. (He’s also been patient and lenient with this publication — which has had its own financial challenges over the years — for which I am personally grateful.)
That said, two major problems remain: the current situation is far from ideal, and the future looks even worse.
“You have one guy controlling the bulk of Maine media, and that has to be concerning,” said Al Diamon, a veteran Maine journalist who’s previously written media criticism for Down East and The Bollard (Diamon’s political column, “Politics and Other Mistakes,” which runs in numerous Maine publications, moved from the Phoenix to The Forecaster last year, so he’s now on Brower’s payroll, too). “I think a diversity of opinion is important, and in terms of print, we don’t have that anymore,” he added.
Contrary to DeSisto’s assurances when MaineToday bought the Sun Media papers, there’s virtually no competition for stories among reporters working for Brower’s papers, Diamon said. Cost-saving content sharing has, instead, increased, with Forecaster articles now routinely appearing in the Herald days after they show up in the weekly, for example. There’s precious little time or effort devoted to digging into big issues or practicing investigative journalism, and scant impetus to hustle for scoops or get a fresh angle on a previously reported story. Ultimately, it’s the public’s ability to understand and engage with its own government and community that suffers when journalism falls short — thus the dimming of democracy.
Brower is in his early 60s. If he has a retirement or exit plan for his Maine newspaper empire, it’s a secret. When he does decide to sell, “I think almost certainly you’ll see a big national chain come in,” said Diamon, who’s previously written about the GateHouse Media chain’s interest in acquiring Maine papers [see his January 2015 Media Mutt column, “Barbarians at the Gate(House)”]. “You’ll see seriously diminished newsrooms” under a chain’s ownership, Diamon said. “It ain’t gonna be pretty.”
Full disclosure: The Bollard still, technically, has a media partnership with the Bangor Daily News, MaineToday’s only remaining daily newspaper competitor in the state. Five years ago, when the partnership began, the BDN distributed copies of The Bollard in northern Maine, featured our content on its website, contracted with me as a weekly columnist and, briefly, attempted to sell ads for us in that market. The partnership has since withered to the point where, at present, the BDN only hosts our website and helps with minor online maintenance issues (which I still appreciate). The Bollard has always been independently owned and operated by yours truly.