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PORTLAND — Reade Brower, who already owns most of Maine’s daily newspapers and many of its weeklies, on March 23 announced he will add to his holdings with the acquisition of The Times Record of Brunswick and the Journal Tribune of Biddeford, as well as the Mainely Media weekly publications.
Brower, who lives in Camden, owns MaineToday Media, which publishes the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, the Coastal Journal in Bath and the things-to-do website MaineToday.com; Sun Media Group, which publishes the Sun Journal in Lewiston and several weeklies, including The Forecaster, American Journal and Lakes Region Weekly newspapers in greater Portland, and four weeklies in the midcoast.
Brower’s company, RFB Enterprises, is acquiring the papers in Brunswick and Biddeford from Sample News Group, which is headquartered in Pennsylvania and publishes papers in six states.
The transaction closes April 1. Brower declined to discuss terms of the deal.
The Maine publications of Sample News Group will become part of Alliance Press, a commercial printer in Brunswick that Brower also owns.
Brower said the deal was “based on common sense” and resulted from previous collaborations between the media companies.
“We’ve been printing Sample’s Maine properties for years at both Alliance Press and at the MaineToday Media printing facility in South Portland,” he said. “This transaction is a natural extension of the work we have already begun.”
Brower’s acquisitions are part of a larger transaction of New England newspapers involving RFB Enterprises and Sample.
On March 23, Vermont Community Media announced the pending sale of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald to Sample. Brower is a partner in Vermont Community Media, which acquired the Vermont papers in 2016. Sample’s acquisition of the Vermont papers and RFB’s acquisition of the Maine papers made sense geographically, Brower said.
“(Sample’s) properties in Maine are off his contiguous map,” he said, referring to George Sample, president of Sample News Group. “We’ve had a relationship over the last eight or nine years, and an extension of that relationship made sense for both of us. It was a timing thing. Vermont to (Sample) and Maine to Reade just made sense.”
He refused to discuss any details related to the transactions. Any decisions about staffing changes at the Maine newspapers will be left to managers who operate the papers day to day, he said.
Mainely Media publishes the Biddeford Courier, Scarborough Leader, Kennebunk Post and South Portland Sentry, which are distributed for free to homes in Cumberland and York counties. Brower got his start in the direct-mail business, and said that owning Mainely Media “takes me back to my roots. The weeklies are an important part of this deal.”
In a statement, George Sample said his company enjoyed its 20 years in business in Maine.
“But in today’s rapidly changing environment, having a larger scale with more resources is necessary for the growth of the papers and our employees. Reade is a true believer and innovator in community journalism and has the focus on the needs of these communities,” he said.
With last week’s announcement, Brower’s company will own six of Maine’s seven daily newspapers. The only daily he won’t own is the Bangor Daily News. Brower laughed when asked if he intends to buy the Bangor paper next.
“That’s not in the plan,” he said. “Bangor is very happy operating autonomously, and they’ve done a great job doing so.”
As a local owner, Brower is bucking a national trend. Most newspapers in the United States are owned by large chains and investment groups. Brower purchased MaineToday Media in 2015.
According to data from a 2017 national study of newspaper ownership by the University of North Carolina, more than a third of the country’s 7,900 newspapers have changed owners since 2004. 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.
They also manage their newspapers as a portfolio of assets, buying, selling and trading them with a focus on shareholder returns. According to the UNC study, many of the papers owned by investment firms have been sold at least twice in the past decade.
Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and author of “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century,” said Brower’s concentration of newspapers isn’t ideal, but it’s better than the alternative, which is a non-local hedge fund owner.
“If Reade Brower had a bad record, that would be one thing,” Kennedy said. “But in this era when huge corporations controlled by hedge funds are acquiring papers by the dozens and hundreds, I think it’s a good thing when somebody based in Maine is investing in the papers in Maine.”
The downside of Brower’s acquisition is the concentration of editorial content and advertising opportunities, he said. Ideally there would be more competition, Kennedy said.
“If you are an advertiser and newspapers are important to the way you get your message out, you only have a few places to go now, and that can result in higher costs,” he said. “And there are fewer different takes on the news for readers than there would be if there were other owners. But given the realities of the newspaper business, this may be the best you can hope for.”
Brower said the newspapers in Brunswick and Biddeford are healthy financially and otherwise. “They’re both sustainable papers and not in any kind of distress,” he said. “They’re both very healthy papers.”
In addition to MaineToday Media, RFB Enterprises’ print and online publications and printing services include Sun Media Group (the Sun Journal, The Forecaster/Current Newspapers, Franklin Journal, Livermore Falls Advertiser, Penobscot Times, Advertiser-Democrat Norway, Bethel Citizen, Rumford Falls Times, Rangeley Highlander, Maine Women Magazine, My Generation, 95 North); Courier Publications (The Courier-Gazette, Rockland, Camden Herald, Republican Journal, Belfast), VillageSoup.com, Free Press Rockland, RFB Print Co-Op, Alliance Press and specialty publications including travelMaine, TREB (The Real Estate Books) of Mid-Coast Maine, Portland and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.