Big splashy headline in my morning paper: “Mitchells Agree to Sell Times Argus.” Actually, they’re selling the whole megillah: the Times Argus, Rutland Herald and associated print and online media entities.
You see that headline and you fear the worst: a big national chain like Gannett that’d commodify and multiplatform the papers into mush, or a low-budget media outfit that would strip-mine the papers into irrelevance.
But no, the Mitchell Empire is being sold to a guy. One guy, not some faraway corporation. The guy is Reade Brower, who seemingly owns just about every newspaper in the state of Maine. From a 2015 account of his purchase of MaineToday Media, which cemented his dominant position in Maine journalism:
MaineToday Media publishes the print editions of the Maine Sunday Telegram, the Portland Press Herald, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, and The Coastal Journal in Bath. MaineToday Media also operates the news websites MaineToday.com, PressHerald.com, and CentralMaine.com.
Brower, a longtime resident of Camden, currently owns The Free Press and Courier Publications – which publishes the Courier-Gazette in Rockland, The Camden Herald, and The Republican Journal in Belfast.
That passage, you should know, appeared in The Free Press — owned by Reade Brower. And there’s the rub: when you do a Google search for “Reade Brower,” you get a whole lot of links to articles from Brower-owned media operations.
As far as I can tell, which isn’t far, Brower is no Sheldon Adelson. He didn’t wade into the newa business to further his own interests. He built his empire bit by bit, and his origins are in printing and marketing, not casinos or fossil fuels. He seems to have a legitimate desire to preserve print journalism and find ways for it to survive the modern era.
So, for central Vermont news consumers, this is about the best possible outcome. Which doesn’t mean it’s a good outcome, it merely stands a chance to be the best of a bunch of bad options.
If you want to see glass half full, we may be entering an age when big corporations have wrung all the profit and good will out of the newspaper business, and no longer see journalism as a smart investment. That would leave the door open for ownership by people with an actual interest in the field, as opposed to a corporation seeking profit by any means necessary.
There are a couple of recent examples of actual humans buying papers from corporations, with the spoken intent of preserving local journalism. One is the purchase of southern Vermont’s dailies from a strip-mining outfit by some guys from western Massachusetts who seem well-intentioned. The other is John Henry’s purchase of the Boston Globe from the New York Times.
This is a good thing when the ownership actually has good intentions. When it doesn’t, it’s disastrous — worse than corporate ownership. Before Adelson, there was Richard Mellon Scaife, notorious ultraconservative heir to the Mellon fortune, who owned one of Pittsburgh’s two dailies and used it as a platform for right-wing conspiracy theories. Think “the Clintons killed Vince Foster.”
(Until his death in 2014, Scaife also owned 42 percent of Newsmax, the far-right “news” operation that combines the worst aspects of conservatism, Christianity, and conspiratorialism. Makes Sean Hannity look sane by comparison.)
From all appearances, Reade Brower is more John Henry than Richard Mellon Scaife. But it’s kinda hard to tell, because so much of his paper trail comes from his own printing presses.
I’ve taken the long way around to the crucial question: is his purchase of the Mitchell family operation a good thing?
Well, I’m cautiously optimistic. By their own account, the Mitchells looked long and hard for an owner who would carry on the papers’ legacy:
“We have always held these newspapers in trust for the public. While we’ve always been a privately held company, we believe they are an asset of the communities they serve and of the state of Vermont,” said R. John Mitchell, chairman and president of the Herald Association.
… “In Reade, we believe we have found a steward for the newspapers who has both the entrepreneurial spirit and record that is crucial, and the community focus and commitment to journalism that has been at the core of our mission for decades. The simple truth is that, as a family, we felt that if we were unable to continue that mission, we needed to find someone who could.”
And there’s the rub. The Mitchells had run out of gas. Their long-promised digital turn has been painfully slow. Their websites are ugly and clunky. You practically expect to hear a GeoCities-style eight-bit music track when you click on TimesArgus.com.
Maybe it’s because they were looking for the right buyer, but they nearly ran the papers into the ground. The denouement, with bounced paychecks and unpaid invoices, was a stain on the papers’ reputation.
Now, if Brower comes in and does a good job, that stain will quickly fade. I do feel gratitiude to the Mitchells for stewarding the papers as long as they did, and making the effort to find a buyer who’s plausibly interested in maintaining the enterprise.
A few days ago, I was actively wondering if there would be a Times Argus in the box, ever again. Now there is solid reason for optimism.
Of the decidedly cautious variety.