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Robert Wilmers is one of four investors to purchase the four papers.

Local Investors Purchase Berkshire Eagle, Three Vermont Newspapers

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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Fredric Rutberg said he first thought of the idea two years ago after hearing a lecturer say 'citizenship requires a town square.' For him, The Eagle is the Berkshires' 'town square.'
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshire Eagle and three Vermont papers have been sold to a Stockbridge-based group of investors.
The Eagle announced the sale Thursday morning during a press conference at the Berkshire Museum to frequent applause from an invited group of community stakeholders.
There the new owners promised to invest in the papers, raise the quality of the product, and ultimately restore the century-old paper as the "town square" of the community.
"Our plan is to grow the newspaper, not to shrink it," said former Judge Fredric Rutberg, one of the four investors purchasing the papers.
"Quite simply, our business plan is by increasing the quality of the paper, we're going to attract more readers and more advertisers. The focus is on increasing the quality of the publications both digitally and in print."
Digital First Media is selling New England Newspapers Inc., a group of newspapers including The Berkshire Eagle, Bennington Banner, Manchester Journal and Brattleboro Reformer, to Birdland Acquisition LLC, on May 2. Rutberg is being joined by Robert Wilmers, CEO of M&T bank; John "Hans" Morris, former president of Visa Inc. and chairman of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation; and Stanford Lipsey, publisher of the Buffalo News, as the principals of Birdland. Rutberg, Morris, and Wilmers are all Stockbridge residents.
"Under local ownership, we understand that the needs of the community will be met a little bit more readily, steadily," Publisher Edward Woods said. "The investment the new ownership has committed to will enhance the product in terms of the quantity of the content and the quality of the content."
The Eagle was founded in the 1890s, although its roots in the county date back another hundred years. It was owned by the Miller family for most of its existence until being sold some 20 years ago to Denver-based Media News Group, which was later absorbed into Digital First Media. Parent company Alden Global Capital had attempted to sell off its entire national holdings wholesale but the prospective deal fell through about a year ago.
Since then, the company has been selling individual papers or groups of papers such as New England Newspapers. The newspaper group had been quietly shopped around to potential local investors over the last year.
Digital First had scaled back its properties in recent years for cost savings and as it prepped for a sale. That included outsourcing a number of jobs as it centralized production among its holdings. Morris said starting as early as tomorrow morning, the new owners will be setting up a plan to bring those back.
"We want to bring back the jobs to the Berkshires. All of the stuff that was outsourced by Digital First Media will be brought back here," Morris said. "A lot of that includes all of the digital offerings. So we will have some very talented digital people with design and tools for advertisers."
There are 154 current employees among the four papers and Woods estimated that at least 20 to 25 jobs will be brought back to The Eagle. However, he was uncertain about an actual number or if there would be additional positions available or if there is room for efficiencies. Nonetheless, he said there will be a "fair number" of jobs coming back to the Berkshires with the sale and current employees will not see a change in salary.
One thing Digital First Media will retain is ownership of the real estate. Running the Clocktower building with numerous offices had become somewhat of a struggle for the paper over the years and the building has been on the market for some time. The sale now separates management of the building with the operations of the paper.
"We are no longer responsible for managing a very large, piece of real estate. It is a large office park. These investors are coming on board and enhancing the quality of the newspaper. Digital First Media will continue to own the real estate," Woods said. "We will not relocate. Our home is at the Clocktower. We will simply be leasing from a different entity."

John Morris said the focus will be to improve the quality of the product to attract more readers and advertisers. 
Morris said the new owners have a number of conceptual improvements planned. Some of those include increasing investigative reporting, creating a team of "citizen writers" to report on their towns or issues of concern, and new sections and features. Management will also create a content advisory board.
"We're going to cover more of the Berkshires' social scene. We are going to cover more local history sections, enterprise reporting, and we expect to do many special editions that cover unique aspects of the Berkshires," Morris said.
Print journalism as a whole has been a struggling industry recently. A number of papers have been closed over the years — including the North Adams Transcript locally — and staff sizes have been reduced. Meanwhile, smaller papers have been bought out by larger corporations. Rutberg said the local ownership group is looking to reverse that trend.
"This was done not as an attempt to flip it over and make a ton of money and sell it to somebody else. We're here. We care about journalism. We care about print journalism," Rutberg said. "Some people might think we are fossils 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."
Wilmers added, "circulation has been going down for years, advertising has gone down, and many believe the newspaper industry is a dying industry. We believe that communities like ours need a voice."
While Thursday's press conference focused mostly on The Berkshire Eagle, Woods said the other three papers in the group will reap the same benefits and investments. 
"These communities are closely tied together geographically and much of our management team is traveling among those communities," Woods said. 
The four investors have been meeting since January to work out the deal. Wilmer said there is an agreement with Digital First Media in place to keep the sale price from being disclosed.
For Rutberg, though, the idea of purchasing it was conceived two years ago when he heard a lecture in which the speaker said citizenship requires a town square. Then, he set it in his sights to take over the paper upon retirement.
"The Berkshire Eagle is the town square of Berkshire County and has been for the last 100 years. But it needs some help," Rutberg said.

Tags: commercial purchase/sale,   newspaper,   

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