ROCKLAND, Me. — Reade Brower cuts an unassuming figure for a media mogul.
On a drizzly October day here, he could be found tucking into a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon at the Home Kitchen Café, clad in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and a Red Sox cap. He was wearing shoes, which he often foregoes, like he had when he ran a recent marathon.
Appearances aside, however, Mr. Brower’s footprint on this state’s newspaper industry is enormous.
He owns 18 weeklies and four of the seven daily newspapers in Maine, and his presses print the other three. In 2016, Mr. Brower, 61, and a partner bought two Vermont dailies. His latest acquisition came this year, when he bought The Lewiston Sun Journal, Maine’s second-largest daily, along with its presses, and more than a dozen weeklies.
Mr. Brower’s hold on the newspaper industry of a single state stands out, even in an age of increased consolidation that has led to hand-wringing over the influence of giant technology companies and wealthy media owners like Rupert Murdoch, Jeff Bezos and Sheldon Adelson. Maine’s emergence as a national political hot spot — whether for Gov. Paul LePage’s combative conservatism or Senator Susan Collins’s pivotal position as a centrist Republican — adds to the influence Mr. Brower could have over the public discourse through his properties.
Mr. Brower seems to greet it all with a shrug.
“I don’t feel at all powerful,” Mr. Brower said. “My job is to create a sustainable business model that keeps people who want to be working in this industry working. And to have enough money coming in to pay the bills and make a profit so it’s a viable business. I don’t feel this surging power. All of the papers continue to operate autonomously.”
Indeed, Mr. Brower — who describes himself as “an independent moderate who leans a little to the left on social issues and a little to the right on fiscal matters” — does not generate much angst among the state’s media watchers. They instead focus on what they see as an ownership structure that keeps the focus on local news coverage.
“He’s not Jeff Bezos, he’s not John Henry, he’s not one of these guys who has made billions in some other industry and is buying a newspaper as another asset in the portfolio,” said Anthony Ronzio, a past president of the Maine Press Association, referring to the owners of The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. “He’s someone who cares about publishing and is going to run it like a business to make a go of it. And I think that’s the best anybody in the newspaper industry today can ask for.”
Mr. Brower built his fortune with a direct-mail company, Target Marketing, that he began in a shed behind his house. It eventually became the state’s largest such company — its reach stretched to every household in Maine — before he sold it.
He is now the owner of MaineToday Media, Sun Media Group — the Lewiston paper’s publisher — and Courier Publications, a group of coastal weeklies. His base of operations is a cluttered office on the third floor of an old brick building across the street from the Home Kitchen Café.
Lisa DeSisto, chief executive and publisher of MaineToday Media, which publishes The Portland Press Herald and its sister dailies in Augusta and Waterville, said Mr. Brower is “ridiculously hands off” and rarely visits the Portland offices. (He does write a weekly column for The Camden Herald, which he owns but is not part of MaineToday Media.)
“They just gave me a key last week,” Mr. Brower said, fishing it from the pocket of his shorts. “Because when I would get there, nobody would recognize me, and I’d have to wait for them to go find Lisa to let me in.”
But the state’s most notable politicians certainly know who he is. Mr. Brower said both Mr. LePage — who has a famously adversarial relationship with the Maine press corps — and Ms. Collins reached out to him when he became the owner of The Portland Press Herald. He said he had told them that he was willing to meet but that he would not be influencing any of his newspapers’ coverage. He has yet to sit down with Mr. LePage, though he has met with Ms. Collins several times.
“We’ve had great conversations, and that’s the only way to learn,” he said.
The previous owner of The Portland Press Herald, Donald Sussman, was married to Chellie Pingree, a Democratic congresswoman from Maine. That seemed to have exacerbated Mr. LePage’s vitriol toward the paper; at one point he joked that he’d like to blow up their offices. The change in ownership to Mr. Brower has not amounted to a warming of the relationship.
“He doesn’t want to get into those dialogues with people he doesn’t agree with, and then the free press becomes your enemy,” Mr. Brower said.
Peter Steele, a spokesman for Governor LePage, said the newspaper was “still as intellectually sloppy, biased and inaccurate as it was under Sussman.”
“The governor has asked Reade to discuss the paper’s editorial content with him, but Reade has refused,” Mr. Steele continued.
Consolidation in the state’s print media, Mr. Steele added, “leaves Maine readers with no opportunities to find independent and objective journalism.”
Exactly how financially beneficial the consolidation has been for Mr. Brower is unclear; he did not disclose his revenues. He said the operations are sustainable, though each paper is not always profitable. The publications often share content and their websites utilize pay walls.
But Mr. Brower said he has an advantage over publicly traded media corporations like Gannett and GateHouse.
“Most newspapers are trying to put at least 15 or 20 percent on the bottom line for their investors,” he said. “I don’t need to do that.”
When Mr. Brower followed his girlfriend to Maine in 1980, he began printing coupon books for merchants in downtown Rockland, building off skills he had developed as a college student selling ads for the University of Massachusetts newspaper. In 1985, he started The Free Press, a quirky, free weekly serving towns along the west side of Penobscot Bay. After marrying his girlfriend and starting a family, he scrambled to make ends meet, even selling batteries and balloons from the trunk of his Toyota Tercel.
“I’ve really scrapped and hustled for many, many years,” he said.
Then he began Target Marketing. After it became successful, he sold the company in 2004 and formed a printing co-op, bundling print jobs to get discounts from presses.
One of the co-op members owned what is now Courier Publications, which collapsed on a Friday in 2012. The next day, Mr. Brower was meeting with the publisher’s creditors, trying to recoup $75,000 he was owed for printing. He walked out as the owner of the weeklies.
“It fell in my lap,” Mr. Brower said.
Mr. Brower soon bought a press in Brunswick. In 2015, he approached MaineToday Media about doing some of their printing. Mr. Sussman, a hedge fund manager who had rescued the papers in 2012, replied that he should buy the company.
“It was this close to sustainability when he turned it over to me,” said Mr. Brower. “The only thing we had to do was put in a new printer.”
Ms. DeSisto said that circulation has been falling at her papers, but circulation revenue was increasing because of a premium pricing strategy. She has reached agreements with the unions that represent most of her 330 employees, and said staffing has been flat since Mr. Brower bought the company.
As for himself, Mr. Brower said his core competency is grit. He mentioned a marathon in Fenway Park in September that raised money for the Red Sox Foundation. His bare feet were aching when he finished at midnight, long after the other runners.
“It was really epic, those last three laps when they were trying to pull me off the course,” he said. “They shut off the lights, they closed the stadium up, they kicked everybody out.”
In the end, Mr. Brower was the only person left.