S. Donald Sussman, the Maine financier and philanthropist who rescued the Portland Press Herald from insolvency in February 2012, is selling the newspaper company to another local owner for an undisclosed price.
Sussman plans to sell MaineToday Media to Reade Brower, a Rockland-based newspaper executive who publishes weekly newspapers in Maine’s midcoast. The deal is scheduled to close June 1.
It will be the fourth time in 17 years that the Press Herald and its sister papers have been sold.
MaineToday Media, the state’s largest newsgathering organization, with nearly 400 employees, publishes the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and the Coastal Journal in Bath, as well as the pressherald.com, centralmaine.com and mainetoday.com websites.
Brower, who lives in Camden, publishes The Free Press in Rockland, The Courier-Gazette in Rockland, The Camden Herald and The Republican Journal in Belfast. He is buying MaineToday Media under a new company, MTM Acquisition, Inc.
“I am looking forward to working with the team at MaineToday Media to build on the solid foundation S. Donald Sussman’s investment has created,” Brower said in a written statement Tuesday. “We are focused on a smooth transition and pledge to continue the tradition of excellence that has been re-established.”
The Press Herald, the Telegram and pressherald.com have been named the best daily paper, weekend paper and website, respectively, by the Maine Press Association in each of the past two years. The paper also has earned national recognition under Sussman’s ownership, including a George Polk Award, a Scripps Howard Award and a New England Emmy.
“It is my honor to have been the steward of these trusted newspapers for the last three years,” Sussman said in a prepared statement. “The quality of journalism has been restored, and the people of Maine can continue to rely on MaineToday for exceptional investigative and watchdog reporting. I am thrilled to hand the reins over to Reade Brower, a media entrepreneur with newspaper operating and commercial printing experience who has made Maine his home for more than 30 years, and who shares my deeply held belief in the value of local, quality journalism and the civic responsibility the paper has to its community.”
‘IT’S TIME TO TURN IT OVER’
Sussman, who was traveling Tuesday, was asked why he decided to sell the newspapers.
“My mission was to save the newspaper from bankruptcy, make some long overdue investments in this business, and provide some financial stability while they got back on their feet,” he said in an email. “That mission is largely accomplished so it’s time to turn it over and transition to the next chapter for MaineToday Media.”
Sussman also was asked how Brower’s offer compared to other potential buyers.
“Reade was not the best option financially for me, but he shares my values and philosophy regarding the civic responsibility of newspapers. That makes him the best heart and soul to take on the stewardship of this critical community resource,” Sussman wrote.
Brower said in an email late Tuesday night that he planned no major changes to the leadership of the company, and that no layoffs are planned.
“The challenges of MTM is simply to create a self-sustaining business that is based on the rules of common sense,” Brower wrote. “My history is not cut, slash, or burn. Rather it is to invest and ask associates to do what is best for the team.”
Brower also said he is confident about the company’s prospects, and that newspapers still play an important civic role.
“I wouldn’t be in this position if I was worried,” he said. “We have gone through a tough decade and have come out of the abyss. We will continue to navigate a path where newspapers help create and steer the important conversations in a way that social media cannot.”
Lisa DeSisto, MaineToday Media’s publisher and CEO, said in an email to employees late Tuesday that the company owes “tremendous gratitude” to Sussman for his investments, which have strengthened the newsroom and have begun to reverse years of circulation declines.
“We couldn’t be prouder of the quality journalism we produce day in and day out,” DeSisto said.
Her email added that the deal will enable the company to overcome two major challenges it faces: “the outstanding debt on our balance sheet that was inherited when Maine Values, LLC acquired the paper and the cost to print the papers on our expensive and aging presses.”
Cliff Schechtman, executive editor of the MaineToday Media newspapers, expressed optimism about the sale.
“We have built a news organization devoted to public service journalism,” Schechtman said. “Our mission does not change. In fact, this new arrangement helps ensure that our probing journalism continues to be a positive force for good in our communities.”
UNION AWAITS INFORMATION
Tom Bell, president of the News Guild of Maine, issued a statement on behalf of the union, which represents more than 230 dues-paying members. He said guild officials are assessing what the sale could mean for its members and “are eager to learn more about Brower’s intentions and his business plan.”
“We plan to meet with him as soon as possible,” Bell said. “Our international has been notified of the situation and stands ready to help us. We are focused on protecting our members.”
Brower said he didn’t approach MaineToday Media with the intention of acquiring the newspapers. In a brief telephone interview, Brower said he initially wanted to partner with the company on printing its newspapers, and that those conversations developed into talk of a sale and the eventual purchase agreement.
“They looked at us and thought we would be good stewards to take over this newspaper,” he said. “This seemed a like a natural transition into the next phase of what we all consider to be the best newspaper group in the state of Maine.”
SOLD FOUR TIMES IN 17 YEARS
The Press Herald and its sister papers were sold in 1998 by longtime owner Guy Gannett Publishing Co. to the Seattle Times Co., which took on heavy debt to finance the purchase. As the economy and ad revenue slowed, the company laid off employees and made other cuts.
In 2009, the Seattle Times Co. sold the papers to an investment group led by Richard L. Connor, with Texas-based HM Capital Partners holding the largest share. Financial problems left the company insolvent and negotiating with creditors, prompting further cuts. Connor left the company in 2011, and HM Capital put the business up for sale again.
Two years later, MaineToday Media executives accused Connor of misusing more than $500,000 by giving himself unauthorized salary increases and using company money for personal expenses.
After a proposed agreement with another potential investor fell apart, a group of employees contacted Sussman, who agreed to invest in the company and became the majority share owner. Sussman has since put more than $13 million into the company, which added more than a dozen journalists to the Portland newsroom in the first few months of his ownership.