On Tuesday, the Berkshire Eagle announced that each member of its staff would take a week-long furlough as the daily Pittsfield, Massachusetts-based paper takes a financial hit during the COVID-19 outbreak. On Thursday, New England Newspapers, Inc. President and Publisher Fred Rutberg spoke with WAMC Berkshire Bureau Chief Josh Landes about the move, which is accompanied by a reduction in the size of the physical publication and the expansion of the Eagle’s online content. The company also owns The Bennington Banner, the Manchester Journal, and The Brattleboro Reformer. Former Judge Rutberg bought the 128-year-old paper in 2016 along with two bankers, and a retired publisher and friend of Warren Buffett. He declined to confirm the number of staffers affected by the new measures.
RUTBERG: We imposed a one week furlough on all of our employees. Simply a one week furlough, because of the unforeseen drop in revenue that resulted from the response to the virus, [which] included closing schools, businesses, and cancellation of events. All that affected our bottom line. The overwhelming response of our readers and our staff has been supportive, and they understand that this is a strategic move necessary to keep our company strong, and that's what it is.
WAMC: So each staff member will experience a 40 hour furlough split up into segments over the coming weeks?
Each employee will be asked to take a furlough for one week of whatever their normal schedule is.
The physical paper itself will also be reduced for the foreseeable future. Can you give me a sense of how long that will be going on for and if there's any sense that the Eagle or other papers that you own might shift towards a digital-only format in the future?
We obviously have to cut back the printed edition, because we've got fewer people working in the press room. And we're accommodating that, as far as... And we're adding pages on our website, in addition to those that are on there in the print edition so that... In the bottom line, there will be probably more news reported. We have not considered going to a digital-only configuration at this point.
Is there any chance of layoffs coming if the furloughs don't do enough to stem the financial strain that you're experiencing during this time?
Is there any chance? There's... I can't... It is not foreseen. It is not anticipated. The purpose of the furlough was to avoid having to take layoffs and there's no reason to think it won't. This is a temporary situation, but tell me when – you tell me when the virus epidemic, pandemic is over, and I can answer your question.
There's a considerable amount of resources among the owners of these papers. What are the owners doing to help support the paper besides the furloughs during this time?
The owners are supporting the paper, the owners have increased their participation, and it is a private company and we won't comment on that.
As far as the dips that you're talking about in advertising, do you have any sense of a percentage of what that might look like?
It's private company. We don't discuss our numbers.