Checking in with Maine’s “serendipitous” media mogul, Reade Brower.
“I’ve always just cobbled together a living from about 18 different directions,” Reade Brower told us recently, when we sat down for lunch near the Rockland offices of The Free Press, the weekly paper he founded in 1985. Brower had just closed a deal to purchase Sun Media Group, publisher of Lewiston’s Sun Journal and some dozen weekly papers across southern and western Maine. The buyout comes on the heels of Brower’s 2015 purchase of Maine Today Media, publisher of the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, which itself followed his 2012 takeover of Rockland’s Courier Publications, publisher of three weekly midcoast papers. At present, Brower owns four of Maine’s seven daily papers and more than a third of its weeklies.
But the Camden resident and Massachusetts native never set out to become Maine’s Citizen Brower. The Free Press evolved from a coupon sheet he published after arriving broke on the midcoast in the early ’80s. For years, he churned out tourism brochures and hustled contract-publishing jobs for chambers of commerce. He found his biggest success with a pair of ad-catalog and direct-mail marketing companies that he sold to Autotrader in 2004. Along the way, he did odd jobs, like slinging batteries, sunglasses, and other trinkets at fairs and flea markets, prompting his wife, Martha, to nickname him a “publishing magnate who sells balloons on the side.”
Brower is the first to admit he fell backwards, or at least sideways, into consolidated newspaper publishing. In 2012, he bought Brunswick’s Alliance Press, which printed his midcoast weeklies, largely to keep it from going dark. When he took over Maine Today Media, he says, it was in part to keep any other purchaser from upgrading the paper’s press and competing with his. Nonetheless, he’s bullish on the future of Maine’s papers in a volatile media age — or at least confident that his can adapt. We talked to Brower about paywalls, profits, and “fake news.”
THIS INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.
Did you have newspaper experience before founding The Free Press?
I got a job at my university newspaper at UMass, the Daily Collegian. It was a good paper, and I liked it because I sold ads and it paid commission. It was the one place I’d worked where there was teamwork and where it was interesting and exciting.
But after arriving in Maine, a career in journalism didn’t appeal to you?
I wasn’t still a fan of the editorial product, it wasn’t my core competency. I’m all about making the money. . . .
I don’t have any say in any of the editorial at any of the papers that I own. I do write a column for [Rockland’s Courier-Gazette], only because I felt like I should at the beginning — and I’m thinking seriously of bowing out of that. I’m not the publisher anymore there. I had that role about six months, and when I stepped aside, I thought I should do something. It’s somewhat problematic for me in that a) it takes time, and b) I’m pretty opinionated in the column. I want balanced journalism — although I know some people would say that we’re not balanced, because that’s sort of the mantra of the day, that nobody is balanced anymore.
What are your political leanings?
I was always a registered independent, and everybody has always just thought that I’m one of them. When it came to election time, I wanted to do your brochure, and I didn’t care whether you were a Republican or a Democrat, so it was always best if you thought I was a Republican and your buddy thought I was a Democrat.
My own political preference: I think we have a spending problem, so I fit a little bit, on the economic piece, on the Republican side of the coin, because I don’t think we have a revenue problem. But on the other side of the coin, I’m socially liberal, and I think that everybody deserves a hand up. I couldn’t go straight Republican for that reason.
Other core values?
A lot of my philosophy comes from Hyde School, where my kids went to school. One of the tenets of Hyde that I always thought was really cool was that each person is gifted with a unique potential that will determine their destiny. Is it to uncover great truth, paint a great portrait, bring something to life?
I believe if you do the right thing, the money will come. I don’t want to say that money isn’t important, because it is. It’s how we keep score. But I also believe if you do the right things, the money will follow.
Would you say you’ve purchased these papers on an altruistic impulse, then? As a social investment?
No, I want it to be a viable business. I want it to be built on common sense, and I want it to be sustainable. But I don’t answer to any board of directors. If you look at some of the bigger organizations, like Gannett and GateHouse, if they’re not putting 15 percent on the bottom line, they get fired. I don’t have a percentage. But we do have to put something on the bottom line, because that’s the only way to sustain the business. I don’t think it serves anybody to do this for nothing.
That’s where the challenge is — how do we continue to grow revenues when our industry as a whole is being fragmented? Those revenues may never come back to where they were, but there are certain things we can do. How do we get more money from our consumers? How do we get more revenue [from other sources]? One of the things we have to get away from, which has really hurt our industry, is the idea that we can give you the news for free. You can’t do that, yet some publishers are continuing to do it. It makes it harder for us when we’re charging to read our stuff, and you can go to [the Bangor Daily News] and read it for free. It’s a difficult climb.
So did you go into Courier, Maine Today Media, or now Sun Media Group because you had new revenue approaches you wanted to try?
No. It was that now [after buying Alliance Press], I own a printing press that I have to support. All things lead to another thing.
Don’t you suppose the graveyard of American publishing in 2017 is filled with small companies who feel like they did the right thing?
Well, there’s more to it than just doing the right thing. What they didn’t do was create a sustainable business in the process of doing the right thing. So for instance, if you have to cut off your finger to save your hand — say, you have to lay off six people to save 100 — you have to do that. That is doing the right thing. . . .
So it’s not only about wanting to do good. It’s more that there was a pragmatic thing there that said, we need to do this. We can buy newsprint cheaper than [the Press Herald could before]. We can split up the jobs between our plants. We knew when we took it over that we were going to put a new press in at some point. We have a lot more puzzle pieces to play with than [the previous ownership] did.
If you’re optimistic about the future of these papers, then, it’s not because you have ideas for new revenue streams, but more because you’re confident in your ability to make hard business decisions that maybe other media companies haven’t made?
It actually has more to do with synergy. As we’ve come to this place of adding on, serendipitously, each time we’ve added, it’s given us some scale that allows us to do things cheaper.
Is content sharing a potential benefit of owning several papers?
Yeah, content sharing could help, without the papers losing their identities.
I’m told you’ve been to the Press Herald offices exactly once.
I just went with my wife to take a look at the place.
You’re not interested in dropping in on the Press Herald or your other papers to discuss or influence their approach?
Not at all. Not one iota. Lisa DeSisto is an incredibly capable publisher, just like Alice McFadden of The Free Press is an incredibly capable publisher. They will take this to levels that I couldn’t take it to. So it’s the opposite — the key is to stay away.
There’s nothing you would try to affect? What if they wanted to do away with the website’s paywall, for instance?
The paywall might be one that would take some discussion. But if there’s a plan in place, if I said, “How do you monetize the eyeballs?” and she said, “Well, it’s going to be this, this, and this,” I’d probably let them do it. I have this idea that once you touch something, you own it, so it took me a couple of decades to learn not to touch. It comes right back to the old Zen philosophy of water over rocks. You never know how the rocks are going to force the water, and if you try to control it, you get in trouble.
You don’t have, say, a five-year plan or a 10-year plan?
I have a 10-minute plan.
The Press Herald has done some great work lately: Colin Woodard’s Pulitzer-finalist six-part series on climate change, a special report on opiates that was a year in the making. Do you derive pride from this stuff?
It’s at a bit of a remove because I’m not the one doing it. It’s almost like I’m a sports fan. If the Red Sox come back in the ninth, if Vázquez hits that home run, I’m really happy for him, for me, for Red Sox fans. But I didn’t do it. I didn’t sign him to a contract or tell the team, you know, you guys got to get behind this kid.
So what do you bring to the team? What do you suppose is your unique potential?
My wife always called me “puzzle boy” back in the day, when I was a publishing magnate who sold balloons on the side. I think that’s what my unique potential is, to be able to take these pieces and put them all together, to look for these synergies. And I think that’s my unique potential because I’m doing it for the greater good. I’ve already had my success, so I don’t have the personal need for another success.
But do you have something riding on the success of these businesses?
Oh, there’s a lot riding on it, because I went from debt free to not debt free, let’s just put it that way. I’ve had to put a lot of skin in this game. But again, I do feel the responsibility of it being important. Just like I see The Free Press and the Courier being very important for their own reasons to this local community, I also see it’s important that Maine Today Media continue forward — especially now with what’s happening with Trump’s “fake news” thing.
With that attack on its credibility in mind, I’d planned to ask what you thought journalism might look like in 10 years. But I’m getting the impression you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.
I don’t. I think that if it’s important, it’ll stay, and we’ll figure it out. We’ve tried different things. I don’t know how you guys get paid at Down East, but I hope it’s not by the click. That’s not really where I want to see the industry go. In the end, I think that the public needs to be served, and whatever the public will pay for is what we need to give them.
The analogy I think of is movie theaters. The movie industry changed a lot when VCRs came out and you could rent movies and this and that. But movies are still date nights. Now the theaters are more comfortable. Some you can buy food or beer or wine in. They’ve morphed to figure out what that viewing experience was going to be, and they turned obstacles into opportunity by saying, okay, now we have five ways to get someone to see this movie — we’d love to have them see it on date night and spend $9 to do it, but if we can’t get them to do that . . . . So the whole thing changes. Everything is changing, and there’s always this puzzle we have to put together. That’s the piece I like.