Four New England newspapers including The Berkshire Eagle are being sold to local investors who plan to increase news coverage and community engagement. The sale also includes The Bennington Banner, The Brattleboro Reformer and The Manchester Journal.
A group of investors under the newly formed Birdland Acquisition recently announced that it will complete the purchase of New England Newspapers Inc. from Digital First Media on May 2. Former Pittsfield District Court Judge Fred Rutberg is one of four principals in the ownership group, three of whom have homes in Stockbridge.
“By increasing the quality of the paper we are going to attract more readers and more advertisers,” Rutberg said. “The focus is on increasing the quality of the publications, both digitally and in print.”
The rest of the investment group consists of Hans Morris, former president of Visa, Inc. and Chair of MASS MoCA’s Board of Trustees; Robert Wilmers, CEO of M&T Bank; and Pulitzer Prize-winner Stan Lipsey, who is publisher emeritus of The Buffalo News. The new owners pledged that all 154 New England Newspapers employees will keep their jobs. They also plan to bring back about 25 jobs outsourced by Digital First Media along with adding staff across the board including in the newsroom. Morris says there are plans for new features such as social scene and local history sections along with special editions.
“Good investigative journalism,” Morris explained. “We want to create a network of citizen writers. We have an extraordinary collection of talent in the Berkshires. I think there are something like seven Pulitzer Prize winners who live in the community. We want people to help us create more interesting things to read. That could be covering a sports team, a town meeting in Sandisfield, but it could also be writing about environmental issues or something else which is very serious.”
Digital First Media has been attempting to sell of a number of its properties, but the New England Newspapers deal does not include any real estate. The sale price has not been disclosed.
The Berkshire Eagle has roots reaching to 1789 as a weekly before being launched as a daily in 1892. It was locally-owned by the Miller family for more than 100 years before being sold to MediaNews Group in 1995. The company later merged into Digital First Media. Circulation peaked at 33,000 in the 1980s. Weekday circulation is now roughly 15,000, though digital readership has grown with the rise of the internet. The ownership group acknowledged the struggles of the newspaper industry as a whole, but Rutberg says he believes improving the quality of the papers is key to maintaining their important community roles.
“And why did we do this?” Rutberg said. “We did it because we are committed to the community. This is done not as an attempt to flip it over, make a ton of money and sell it to somebody else. We’re here. We care about journalism. We care about print journalism. Some people might think we’re fossils or anachronistic, but I don’t. There is a lot of evidence to show that newspapers are still hugely important to the social fabric of any community.”
Some 100 business and community leaders attended the press conference announcing the sale in Pittsfield with word of local ownership being well received. Jonathan Denmark, president of Coakley, Pierpan, Dolan & Collins insurance agency, says it takes a brave group to invest in the newspaper industry. Denmark’s agency, a division of MountainOne Bank, currently runs ads in The Berkshire Eagle.
“As a business owner we have an obligation to follow that example and look at where we’re spending our advertising dollars,” Denmark said. “There’s never been a better time to invest and advertise in the paper.”