For the first time in more than 20 years, The Berkshire Eagle is under local ownership after four investors with ties to the region purchased the paper from Digital First Media. WAMC sat down with The Eagle’s new president Fred Rutberg.
In a challenging time for newspapers across the country, local ownership has often been discussed as a bulwark against more shuttered presses and empty newsrooms. So why is Rutberg getting involved?
“I was always interested in the news,” Rutberg said. “When I went to high school they gave us the New York Times or we had to buy it, but we got them every day. I hate to say it, but television news was just starting. I was a political science major in college so this is something that’s been interesting to me for many, many years.”
Rutberg spent 21 years as a Berkshire District Court judge until he retired in 2015. More than a year ago the Stockbridge resident got the ball rolling into what would become Birdland Acquisition and the new owners of New England Newspapers. The company also runs The Bennington Banner, The Brattleboro Reformer and The Manchester Journal. By way of disclosure, WAMC’s independent Berkshire Bureau is located in the Eagle building.
“I felt like I wanted to do something useful,” Rutberg said. “I wanted to enjoy regaining my First Amendment rights. One of the negatives of being an appointed judge is that your right to speak is seriously circumscribed in Massachusetts for good reason. I wanted to be able to exercise those rights.”
The Berkshire Eagle has roots reaching to 1789 as a weekly before being launched as a daily in 1892. Circulation peaked at 33,000 in the 1980s, but is now roughly 15,000, though digital readership has grown with the rise of the internet. After hearing journalist and author Joe Klein speak about democracy requiring citizenship and a strong town square, Rutberg says his mind immediately flashed to The Eagle.
“I felt that under absentee ownership it [The Berkshire Eagle] wasn’t performing that function to the same degree that I thought it could,” he said. “I thought maybe local ownership could increase that performance so I set about to do it.”
The plan is to increase the quality of the paper’s content, which Rutberg says should show up in the writing, depth of research and breadth of matters covered.
“I represent ownership here,” Rutberg said. “Edward Woods is the publisher, was the publisher and continues to be the publisher. Our editorial staff has their jobs. Nothing has changed that way. I’m here trying to help out in any way possible and to the extent that I have a deep knowledge of the community I bring that to the institution.”
In April the ownership group announced that it planned to bring back jobs outsourced by Digital First Media along with adding staff across the board including in the newsroom. Rutberg says the idea is by increasing quality, readership will rise and therein increase revenue — which could lead to staff raises or some sort of employee profit-sharing.
“We have a pretty detailed plan and we’re going to stick with it,” he said.”One of the things we’ve promised our employees is that if we’re successful we’re going to share some of that with all of the employees. We’re in the process of trying to work out some kind of a plan, but of course that is predicated on economic success.”
In a letter earlier this month, Rutberg asked readers to call or write him with their thoughts about the paper at his office near the Eagle newsroom.
“I’ve gotten scores of responses,” he said. “Almost uniformly they all begin with how deeply connected people feel to these publications. And as a result they care immensely about what’s going to happen to them. So it really has driven home the sense that we as owners have a real public trust here.”