Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Dramatic rescue of Eagle a win for paper, community
LENOX — I've never played the lottery, but the announcement Thursday that an impressive team of local investors is purchasing The Eagle and its three sister papers in southern Vermont felt like a big, winning ticket.
Eagle staffers who gathered at a hastily summoned meeting appeared shell-shocked, in the most positive way, when they heard the news from the team with deep pockets and a strong commitment to restore the paper to its glory days when it was recognized as one of the nation's best local papers.
Later, at a media event attended by more than 100 business and community leaders at the Berkshire Museum, the reaction was jubilant.
Even the cynics among us are unable to find any downside — assuming the area's readers and advertisers respond by subscribing and supporting the reinvigorated community linchpin.
Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer's reaction summed it up: "For a county such as ours, local news matters, and local ownership adds a special connection to all of us."
On a personal note, I consider Thursday the best day of my professional life here in the Berkshires since I first entered the old Eagle Street building 29 years ago.
Remarkably, in a county where few secrets are kept — especially in the age of instantaneous social media gossip — the dramatic white-knight rescue of the newspaper group from the clutches of distant corporate ownership had remained confidential over the four months of planning led by retired District Court Judge Fredric D. Rutberg of Stockbridge, with former Eagle Publisher Martin Langeveld a key player.
Just like most other legacy media, The Eagle's wings were clipped after being acquired 20 years ago by MediaNews Group, which was absorbed into Digital First Media three years ago.
The explosion of the Internet combined with Denver-based ownership that claimed it needed to slash expenses in order to stay afloat caused staff reductions in the newsroom and other departments.
News coverage was compromised, up to 25 jobs in the design, production and advertising departments were outsourced, and total employment at the four NENI papers was reduced from about 400 to less than 200.
Over the years, paid circulation for the print edition dropped by more than half from the peak years of the late 1980s to about 15,000 daily and 18,000 Sunday currently. It should be pointed out that when digital readership is included, The Eagle reaches well more than 20,000 people. Advertising declined sharply, some of it migrating from print to digital, where the cost is much lower.
The past week's developments amount to one of the very few "good news" stories about the future of legacy media, meaning long-established newspapers, magazines and broadcasters.
Most of what we see is retrenchment, a dispiriting avalanche of lost jobs and dwindling resources to cover local news.
If The Eagle and its Vermont brethren had remained under Digital First Media ownership, there's reason to believe that more severe cuts were just ahead as the company — with 67 daily and 160 non-daily papers in its portfolio — sheds more publications in favor of focusing on its southern California properties. Just last week, DFM sold the Salt Lake Tribune to a prominent local family a few days after acquiring the Orange County (Calif.) Register.
The new local owners are sailing ahead against the tide, promising new positions in most departments, including the return of those outsourced jobs, a sharp focus on quality local news gathering, especially investigative and enterprise reporting, more arts coverage and closer ties with the readers and the business community.
The print edition will be redesigned to eliminate the current "cookie-cutter" look, while the online and mobile sites will be cleaned up and improved.
While the terms of the deal were not divulged by the new team, whose company is called Birdland Acquisition LLC, Hans Morris, one of the Stockbridge-based lead investors, called it a "fair price." Evidently, far less than the $39 million figure I reported in July 1995 when I covered the saddest day of my career here — the forced sale by the Miller family to MediaNews Group. Without that rescue, we were told, bankruptcy was days away.
Morris, a former president of Visa Inc., said he has specialized in "venture-capital early stage companies, all technology, so I'm a big believer in technology."
"Our future incorporates technology just as much as print," he emphasized. "We're patient, we're not going to sell the paper, we're not flipping it, we view it as something we'd like to own forever. But there's a lot of work to do, we've got to move fast. The world's changing and we need to establish something soon that changes the way people in the community think about us."
There's a clear sense of urgency in the Birdland group, and we've been told positive changes will be visible within the next few months.
Judge Rutberg, whom I've known for 40 years, is an ideal choice as the new president of NENI starting May 2. He'll work in the Eagle headquarters on South Church Street with the current management team and staffers led by Publisher Ed Woods and Vice President of News Kevin Moran.
Rutberg came up with the idea of regaining local control of the newspapers last December and was wise to recruit former Eagle Publisher Martin Langeveld to shepherd strategy and details of the hush-hush plan.
"The Berkshire Eagle has been the town square of Berkshire County for the last 100 years," Rutberg told the crowd at the Berkshire Museum. "I firmly believe that enhancing the quality of the paper will enhance the quality of life in this community. Our pledge is to grow, not to shrink the paper and to become the best regional news group in America."
"This is a local business and we're going to be doing business locally whenever possible," said Langeveld, who will be a member of the new NENI board of directors.
"Having Martin Langeveld consult with these folks through this process has allowed them the insight from an insider," Woods stated. "Understandably, there was no other way they could get inside, it was a secret, covert operation until today. We all should be grateful that Martin has been involved in representing us from the beginning of the process."
Woods acknowledged that Digital First ownership has set the stage for the new local ownership to grow the technological side while reinvesting in print.
"We've been using the term, 'Don't jump over the present to get to the future.' So, 'Don't jump over the print business to get to the digital business faster.' Now we can go back to the root of our business, which is audience and content," Woods said.
A key investor is Robert G. Wilmers, chairman and CEO of M&T Bank Corp. in Buffalo, N.Y., for the past 33 years. When he took over, the bank had assets of $2 billion. Now, its assets exceed $133 billion. He has owned his second home in Stockbridge for 44 years and spends about a quarter of his time here.
"I've not been involved with newspapers except as a newspaper addict. I read five papers a day. The only newspaper I've ever considered an ownership in would be The Berkshire Eagle," he pointed out. "I'm optimistic that the economy in the Berkshires is on a sound footing, getting better very slowly but still in the right direction."
As a realist, Wilmers added that "we're very cognizant that circulation has been going down for many years. Many believe that the newspaper industry is a dying industry. We believe that communities like ours need a voice. I think all of us are very optimistic."
Another key player in the new Birdland group is Stanford Lipsey, publisher emeritus of the Buffalo News and former owner and publisher of the Sun Newspaper Group in Nebraska. Both Wilmers and Lipsey have ties to financier Warren Buffett.
No doubt, the team will encounter headwinds. But there's every reason to believe that the group has the financial firepower and the dedication to quality that will enable the current management team and staff to produce a newspaper and website that will make us all proud.
Bottom line: The Eagle is set to soar again.
Contact Clarence Fanto at email@example.com.
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