Sep. 25—Seven weeks after the sale of Maine's largest chain of newspapers, information about the donors who contributed to the purchase by a national nonprofit remains unclear, and a local oversight board has yet to be created.
The Maine Trust for Local News said it plans to provide more information and name board members in the coming weeks.
Speculation grew last week after a report by Semafor, a national news outlet, said two well-known left-leaning funders — George Soros' Open Society Foundations and Swiss businessman Hansjorg Wyss — contributed millions to the Maine purchase.
Semafor cited an unnamed "person with direct knowledge of the project," and neither the donors nor the National Trust have confirmed the report. But it was picked up by Maine outlets, including a conservative website that said it underscored the influence of liberal forces on media.
Leaders of the Maine Trust said the newspapers remain committed to independent, nonpartisan journalism and that there hasn't been any change in newsroom operations since the purchase.
Media observers are watching closely to see how the purchase of five daily papers, including the Portland Press Herald, and 17 weeklies in Maine by the National Trust for Local News, a Denver-based nonprofit, plays out. It set up the The Maine Trust for Local News as a subsidiary.
"I definitely think people around the country are watching what's happening in Maine to see how well this arrangement works," said Dan Kennedy, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University. "This is the biggest deal the National Trust has been involved in, and there's a lot of hopes out there that they are going to be able to do this in other places."
BOARD IN WORKS, MAINE DONORS TO BE NAMED
The National Trust for Local News closed on the sale of the Maine newspapers Aug. 1, pledging to conserve and invest in local journalism in the state. The price of the sale has not been disclosed. The National Trust said at the time that it "looks forward to sharing more about the funders who support this acquisition when we constitute our local board in September."
The local board is in the process of being set up, according to Maine Trust for Local News Publisher and CEO Lisa DeSisto, who said the Maine Trust intends to share more information about donors.
"We want to make more of a splash and have a more comprehensive introduction to the Maine Trust rather than just (putting things out in) pieces," she said. "We're really waiting to announce a broader vision."
Some of the money for the Maine purchase came from a standing fund the National Trust uses to acquire and preserve local news outlets, said Will Nelligan, Maine project lead for the National Trust.
More than 600 small donors and Maine foundations also contributed to the purchase, he said.
"We will announce that coalition of Maine funders when we announce the Maine Trust," Nelligan said. That is expected to happen later this fall.
Bill Nemitz, president of the board of the Maine Journalism Foundation, said he is not involved in setting up the local board. He said he could not discuss key donors and financing behind the sale because of a nondisclosure agreement.
The foundation, which was formed with an initial goal of acquiring and operating the former Masthead Maine papers, is in the process of dissolving and plans to transfer about $171,000 in remaining donations to the Maine Trust.
Reade Brower, the former owner of Masthead Maine, said he didn't know much about where the National Trust's money had come from. But his general understanding was that many donors at the local, regional and national level contributed.
"The hope was to save journalism. ... I think short of a philanthropist buying the papers outright, this was the best alternative that could happen," Brower said.
WHO ARE MAJOR DONORS?
General supporters of the National Trust are listed on its website, though it's unclear if there are additional major donors who are not listed and how much the donors gave.
"All our donors who have announced their support to the National Trust are on our website," Nelligan said. "Every funder to the National Trust and our subsidiaries supports our donor and editorial policies, which are also on the website, and make clear that we are committed to independent nonpartisan local journalism."
Soros' Open Society Foundations is named on the National Trust's website, along with 17 other organizations. Wyss is not.
Soros is a prominent businessman and philanthropist known for his support of progressive and liberal causes. Wyss earned his fortune in medical device manufacturing and is known for supporting environmental, scientific and progressive causes.
A spokesperson for the Open Society Foundations said it has been a longtime donor to the National Trust, but "our grants to date have not included earmarks for specific projects."
"We have supported the National Trust for Local News since 2019, along with many other foundations that value the contribution of long-established and community-rooted newsrooms," the spokesperson said in a statement.
The Open Society Foundations did not respond to a follow-up email asking how much it has given to the National Trust.
Nelligan said he could not comment on whether Open Society Foundations contributed to the Maine purchase beyond the statement from them.
The Wyss Foundation did not respond to inquiries submitted through its website asking if it or Wyss is a donor to the National Trust, and Nelligan said he didn't have any comment when asked if Wyss is a donor. The Berger Action Fund, which works with the Wyss Foundation, did not respond to an email asking if it has donated to the National Trust.
DO DONORS HAVE ANY INFLUENCE?
On its website, the National Trust says newsroom staff are the only people who decide what stories to pursue, the timing of those stories and their content. It says the trust and its subsidiaries "do not accept gifts from any donor that seeks or expects control over our work," and "donors are never given access to our titles' reporting prior to publication."
Steve Greenlee, executive editor of the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, said donors to the trust do not have influence over news coverage.
Even if all the donors aren't known, "we don't take direction from anyone outside the newsroom," Greenlee said. "I'm not going to allow a donor to influence our news coverage any more than I would allow an advertiser to influence news coverage."
Still, transparency is important, he said. "We're often in the business of reporting on secrecy, so it's important to be transparent with our readers about our donors."
"The quality of our journalism is absolutely unchanged by the sale, and the day-to-day work in our newsroom hasn't really been impacted," said Megan Gray, a Press Herald reporter and the president of the News Guild of Maine, which represents about 200 Maine Trust employees in Portland and Waterville.
The National Trust says its publications are guided by donor transparency standards established by the Institute for Nonprofit News.
Those guidelines recommend generally naming any donors contributing $5,000 or more in a year, ensuring that anonymous funding doesn't make up a material part of revenue — generally no more than 15% — and encouraging outlets to publicly state how much total funding comes from anonymous donations.
Nelligan said the National Trust's website "is comprehensive of all the donors who have given more than $5k and who have announced their support for the National Trust."
He said he did not have a comment when asked if there are donors who have given more than $5,000 but have not announced their support and therefore are not listed on the website.
Nelligan said anonymous donors "make up a single-digit percentage of our supporters."
Kennedy, the professor from Northeastern, said that in general nonprofit, news entities should be as transparent as possible about where their money is coming from and going.
"I think that's part of the nonprofit news mission," he said. "I think the National Trust has been transparent up to this point. ... But if there's anything more to be learned about what went into the purchase of the Press Herald and its sister papers specifically, then I hope they will report that information at some point."