Friday, July 21, 2017

Maine papers consolidate again, but buck national trend toward ownership by investment chains

Reade Brower
(Press Herald photo)
Maine resident Reade Brower will soon own four out of Maine's seven daily newspapers and more than a third of its weeklies, Megan Doyle reports for the Portland Press Herald. He plans to buy Sun Media Group, which publishes the Lewiston Sun Journal and smaller weekly papers; he already owns the MaineToday Media group, which publishes the Press Herald, its sister papers and four weeklies. Brower lives in Camden and also owns media companies in New Hampshire and Vermont.

With the sale, Maine bucks the nationwide trend of local newspapers getting snapped up by large chains or investment companies. Only a handful of Maine papers are owned by investment companies such as NewMedia/GateHouse. A University of North Carolina study found that in 2014 investment companies owned 47 percent (more than 1,000) of U.S. newspapers included in the study. More than a third of the country's newspapers changed ownership from 2004 to 2014, some more than once. 'Today there are at least 600 fewer newspapers and almost 900 fewer owners than in 2004," researcher Penny Abernathy wrote. "Circulation has dropped 25 percent. As newspapers and owners fell by the wayside – and circulation declined along with profits – consolidation in the industry increased. The largest chains grew even larger, as a new type of owner emerged," one organized to make money, not to render public service.

Maine may have avoided the trend because the state did not have many newspapers to begin with. “These chain owners like to have large groups of papers in one geographic cluster, and the population of Maine being what it is, you can’t really put together a particularly large cluster,” Dan Kennedy, a media commentator and associate professor at Northeastern University, told Doyle. But he said a group may be more attractive to advertisers.

Economies of scale, combining functions among several papers, also may help the Maine papers stay financially strong. "In order to meet the changing demands in the digital world we live in, you need scale to do that," said Steve Costello, the vice president of advertising and marketing at Sun Media.

Chains often cut newsroom staff and increase news sharing among papers, but "Brower said he won't try to cut costs by firing employees and consolidating operations." He told her, "We’re not going to do anything to disrupt the autonomy," Brower said. Press Herald Executive Editor Cliff Schectman said Brower is a "hands-off owner" who rehired almost every employee after his 2015 purchase. Rick Edmonds of The Poynter Institute said collaborations between papers could increase while still maintaining a healthy sense of rivalry. "Editors at the Sun Journal and the Forecaster weeklies said they hope a sense of competition will remain between the papers despite a common owner," Doyle reports.

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