The Eagle Has Landed
Flagship paper gets liftoff from new, hands-on owners
Berkshire Eagle publisher Ed Woods, far left, reviews the newspaper with the Eagle’s new president, Fredric Rutberg, center, and vice president of news Kevin Moran.
Photos by Gregory Cherin
Fredric Rutberg isn’t any closer to retiring after, well, retiring from the bench last year. He is quite possibly busier than ever as the new president of The Berkshire Eagle, promising to be at every Rotary Club meeting from Sandisfield to Clarksburg. As the most visible of the four new owners of the Eagle and its three southern Vermont sister newspapers, you are sure to find him in public meeting halls, in the streets, in the newsrooms.
Readers already are giving him suggestions on how to change the Eagle: Get rid of Sudoko, one says. Prince Valiant has to go, advises another. It all comes down to one basic approach: Improve the quality of the publications, digitally and in print, and readership will increase. (The Berkshire Eagle’s paid print circulation is 15,521 daily and 17,957 Sunday, down from a peak of 33,000 daily and 35,000 Sunday in the late 1980s.)
“To quote Churchill, this may be ‘the end of the beginning.’ I spent an enormous amount of time and effort to make this thing happen,” Rutberg says on the second day into his new role, from his office in the Eagle newsroom in Pittsfield. “It took such a long time that you forget that this was a means to the end. Now I will do what I can to make these publications the finest in the country.”
That is something other local papers across the country also strive to obtain or maintain, although it becomes more difficult as costs are cut, editorial staff is diminished, and corporations buy out small publications. Rutberg is bucking that trend, with plans to add editorial positions, including more journalists within communities where greater coverage is needed, and to bring all operations that have been outsourced back home.
So, after 21 years under corporate ownership, the Eagle is returning to local ownership. The wheels started to turn with Rutberg, who lives in Stockbridge and is a retired presiding justice of the Pittsfield District Court. He was inspired by journalist and columnist Joe Klein, who gave a talk in Nantucket in 2014 about democracy requiring citizenship, and citizenship requiring a town square.
“The Berkshire Eagle has been an effective town square for decades,” says Rutberg. Then he caught wind of Digital First Media looking to sell, followed by an interested buyer, Leon Black’s Apollo Global Management. The $400-million deal fell about a year ago. Quietly, Rutberg continued to gather information about the newspaper industry and the Eagle, part of New England Newspapers, Inc. (NENI), and owned by Digital First Media, and hired a newspaper consultant in Santa Fe, New Mexico, after meeting with John C. “Hans” Morris, a hedge-fund investor who also lives in Stockbridge and is a former president of Visa, Inc.
(Pictured left: The Eagle's printing press.)
“Hans said it was not a good idea, but then he became intrigued,” Rutberg says of his idea to buy the papers. The two joined forces with Robert G. Wilmers, chairman and CEO of M&T Bank in Buffalo, who is also a second-home owner in Stockbridge, and Stanford Lipsey, former owner of the Sun Newspaper Group in Nebraska and publisher emeritus of The Buffalo News.
“This is not charitable,” Rutberg firmly states. “But this is a good deed. We aren’t thinking it will make a fortune.”
Fast-forward to April 21, in a meeting in the conference room with about 50 Eagle staff members where it was announced that the local partnership would buy the newspapers. “They were thrilled,” says Rutberg. A press conference followed later that day at the Berkshire Museum.
The purchasing group, Birdland Acquisition, LLC, was created just for the purpose of buying the four newspapers —The Berkshire Eagle, Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer, and Manchester Journal—and on May 2, Rutberg got the proverbial “keys to the kingdom.” The transition is promised to be seamless with no impact on the more than 150 employees of the four publications.
“We are really excited about the change in ownership,” says Kevin Moran, vice president of news for the four newspapers—at the Eagle that means overseeing 25 reporters, photographers, and editors. Needed improvements include more layers of editing and more depth in reporting, which will happen with additional staff, says Moran. “We’ve done this well under difficult circumstances for more than 20 years. It’s nice to devote our energies to growing as opposed to downsizing.”
Rutberg is focused on flattening the downward trend of circulation and advertising and producing better-quality stories, as well as improving the look and style of the newspaper. Right now, the newspapers have a corporate branding. “We want them to reflect the communities they represent,” he says. He plans to establish an editorial advisory board to tap into the vast reservoir of people with expertise in the community.
“I see myself more as a catalyst and an encourager,” says Rutberg. (pictured left) “I bring to the table, besides lots of enthusiasm and commitment, a lot of in-depth knowledge of the community.”
And that sense of community and local ownership is what is important to the Eagle’s new owners. Since it went to absentee ownership in 1995, it hasn’t been the same, with operations being spread out in New York City, Denver, Colorado Springs, New Haven, and Michigan. “We’re bringing it all back here. When you’re here, you feel the pulse of the community,” Rutberg says.
He points to the Berkshires as a unique area, with a mix of loyal customers who care about journalism, about our arts and literature. There’s also the geographical and environmental component of the Berkshires that comes into play. “A newspaper done well can really be a force to improve the culture, social, and economic climate of a community,” says Rutberg, whose wife, Judith, is a journalist who wrote for the Advocate and has freelanced for the Eagle and Boston Globe.
And like many other loyal followers here in the Berkshires, Moran, 45, grew up reading the Eagle. “I feel like it’s a part of me,” he says. “Every day we start at scratch, and at end of day we tell a story to the community about itself. It’s a continuum of life in the Berkshires.”
TO THE READERS In an open letter from Fredric Rutberg in the first edition of the Eagle as president: “I am flushed with pride to have been a part of returning this great institution to local ownership; at the same time, I remain awed by the responsibility that comes with leading such an important organization.”