Questions and coffee with your newspaper’s president

New England Newspapers President Fredric Rutberg enjoys coffee in Pittsfield with readers and friends of the Berkshire Eagle at Otto’s Breakfast and Deli on Park Square in May 2017.

When Maine's largest daily newspaper decided to eliminate its reviews of books written by Maine writers or about Maine, it upset readers, including Maine's most famous author, Stephen King.

As The New York Times reported, Mr. King took to Twitter to rage against The Portland Press Herald, claiming the publicity that these reviews yielded allowed the writers "to buy bread and butter." Not to be outdone, the Press Herald responded via Twitter that if Mr. King were able to persuade his followers to buy 100 new digital subscriptions to the paper, it would reinstate the book reviews.

Within 48 hours, the Herald had about 200 new subscribers and the readership had its reviews. Showing the creativity and spunk we like to associate with good journalism, the Press Herald's CEO put a coda on the story, saying that, "It's a Stephen King story with a happy ending."

Happy-ending stories about newspapers are as rare today as they are in Stephen King's books, like "Carrie" or "The Shining."

We at The Eagle have been working day and night for almost three years to bring about a journalistic happy ending. In 2016, new ownership announced its goal to make The Eagle the finest community newspaper in America, and we would do so employing a rather novel strategy: By improving the paper and its websites, we will attract more readers, which will guarantee sustainability for our staff, our readers and our community.

There is no need to itemize the investments and additions that we have undertaken; indeed, I have written about them before.

For those not already convinced, think Berkshire Landscapes; the High School All-Star Sports Gala; new reporters such as Haven Orecchio-Egresitz; Amanda Drane, Heather Bellow or Larry Parnass, or longer-term Eagle newsfolk such as Jenn Smith, Adam Shanks, Jeff Borak or Lindsey Hollenbaugh — and the list goes on. At the risk of bragging, The New England Newspaper & Press Association thought so much of The Eagle that it named us their 2018 Newspaper of the Year — twice, once for the daily editions and another for our Sunday editions.

The achievements in the past year or so allow us to feel that we are on our way toward accomplishing the first step of our plan. We have improved the paper and the websites. We do not believe for a minute that we are even nearing our goal of making this the finest community newspaper in America, but we are confident that we are on the right track. Despite what has been accomplished, readers continue to ask for more coverage of North County, more coverage of South County, more sports, better business coverage and more news about our schools.

This is where the Press Herald's challenge to Stephen King comes in, because we want to say yes to each of the above suggestions and more. But unless we increase the number of subscribers, we must view these suggestions as part of a zero-sum game, since we can only add coverage at the cost of limiting it elsewhere.

But, I believe several hundred to a thousand additional subscribers would be a game changer for us, for you and for the Berkshires.

Not only would the additional revenue be remarkable and useful in supporting local journalism, but such an addition to our base would send a stunning message to our advertisers and the wider world of national advertisers that something significant is happening here, perhaps, the beginning of a true renaissance of local journalism built on the foundation of quality reporting.

At this point, many, if not most, readers might be asking, "Why should I care? And, if I care, what can I do because I already subscribe?" These are questions with which I have been wrestling for three years.

I found a fascinating answer as to why you should care: Economic researchers determined that communities with newspapers pay lower taxes for the same services than those without newspapers.

How is it that a local newspaper, like The Eagle, could help keep your real estate tax bill down? The short answer is that newspapers play a watchdog role holding public officials accountable; and, where there is no newspaper, the opportunity for waste, fraud and abuse of local funds increases. You might not agree with this conclusion, but it does not matter because, as the researchers found, the municipal bond market does. They determined that the cost of borrowing is one-tenth of 1 percent higher across the country in counties without daily newspapers than in those with dailies. One-tenth of 1 percent might sound tiny, and it is tiny when you are borrowing $15,000 to buy a car. But the average municipal bond issuance is $65 million.

Some might say that internet news services can be as good a watchdog as daily newspapers, but the research does not bear this out. For this purpose, substituting online services for newspapers has been compared to swapping a city's police department for a neighborhood crime watch. The latter just does not keep us as safe.

It is not the printing presses or the paper itself that makes newspapers effective watchdogs; it is because we employ scores of full-time, well-trained, hardworking reporters who themselves become the watchdogs. This is why we posted billboards throughout Berkshire County that show a large part of our news team. Their work not only enlightens us, but indirectly it eases our tax burdens.

I believe this corner of the world will be an even better place to live and work if more stories are told about the people, places and things that make the Berkshires the Berkshires. Some of these untold stories might look to uncover misdeeds, but at least as many will celebrate hope, achievement and beauty. But these stories could remain untold, like the book reviews in Portland, Maine, that almost went unwritten.

The good news story is that you can help us get the stories told and help yourself to [slightly] lower taxes by spreading the word to others that buying The Berkshire Eagle, in print or online, is not only good, but it's good for you.

Thanks for supporting local news, and I hope that 2019 is a healthy and productive year for everyone.

P.S. If you don't believe there is a connection between newspapers and municipal bond ratings, check out the Hidden Brain website and listen to, or read, the podcast titled "Starving the Watchdog: Who Foots the Bill When Newspapers Disappear?" A shorter version was aired as a segment of NPR's "Morning Edition" a couple of weeks ago.

Fredric D. Rutberg is the publisher, president and co-owner of The Berkshire Eagle.