Enthusiasm from community for The Eagle's transition to local ownership
PITTSFIELD >> The Berkshire Eagle is under local ownership again for the first time in almost 21 years, and community leaders reacted to the announcement on Thursday with a collective thumbs-up.
The new ownership group, Birdland Acquisition LLC, which has three local members, will officially take ownership of New England Newspapers Inc. from Digital First Media on May 2.
NENI includes The Eagle, along with the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal in Vermont.
Berkshire United Way President and CEO Kristine Hazzard said the change from corporate to local ownership should allow The Eagle to become more engaged in the local community.
"I think this is an opportunity," Hazzard said following a news conference held by the new ownership group at the Berkshire Museum. "We have things to say, and they're willing to listen."
"We just heard from everybody who spoke that this is going to be local from ownership to focus to engagement," Hazzard said, "and that's thrilling because people have been really hungering for it."
The new ownership group includes three Stockbridge residents: recently retired Central Berkshire District Court Judge Fredric D. Rutberg; John C. "Hans" Morris, the former president of Visa Inc., and current board chairman of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art; and Robert G. Wilmers, chairman and CEO of M&T Bank in Buffalo, N.Y. Wilmers has lived in Stockbridge since 1969, Rutberg since 1972 and Morris since 1987.
The fourth member is Stanford Lipsey, publisher emeritus of the Buffalo News in New York. Rutberg, who retired from the court in 2015, will serve as the new group's president.
"We join with so many others in expressing our appreciation and best wishes for Mr. Morris, Judge Rutberg, Mr. Wilmers and Mr. Lipsey," said David Phelps, president and CEO of Berkshire Health Systems, the county's largest employer, in a statement.
"The confidence their investment demonstrates and the plans they describe to reinvigorate one of the most important community assets is welcome by all," Phelps said. "They deserve our admiration and support."
Brian Morrison, the president of the Berkshire Central Labor Council, believes local ownership will place more of a focus on local news.
"I think it's a good thing that local ownership has taken over the paper," Morrison said, "to get the Berkshires back to where they used to be. I'd like to see a labor beat in there."
"We're very excited about the paper getting back into local hands," said Jonathan Butler, the COO of 1Berkshire, the county's leading economic development agency. "The Eagle is a significant source for getting the word out there, and the fact that it will be under local ownership is very exciting."
Under new ownership, Hazzard hopes The Eagle's emphasis will be more on community news.
"I'm hoping that with local ownership (the news) will be more comprehensive than what they cover instead of, what I'm sorry to say, is the bad stuff," she said.
"There's a lot of bad stuff on the front page, and there is as much if not more good stuff happening," she added. "When you're local you're engaged in that community and know what the community wants and needs. You're going to reflect it more I would think."
Greylock Federal Credit Union President and CEO John Bissell served as a paper boy for The Eagle while growing up in Dalton. "It was my first job," he said.
Speaking on behalf of the credit union, Bissell said: "Greylock loves to see any trend toward buying local, and this seems to be a great example of an important business coming back home.
"If the owners are making a commitment to local ownership, growing the workforce, expanding and improving local coverage, those are all things we would really cheer for."
Corydon Thurston, the executive director of the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority, has previous experience in local media. He served as an executive with Berkshire Broadcasting, which owned local radio stations in Great Barrington and North Adams.
Based on his experiences, Thurston believes the new ownership should concentrate heavily on local news to regenerate the business because that's something that the Berkshire market wants and needs.
"My first reaction is that this is fabulous," Thurston said.
Reaction from Berkshire cultural leaders mirrored the response from those in the business community.
"I know these gentlemen and if Bob (Wilmer) says he wants to make this the best local newspaper in the country, we can believe him," said Kate Maguire, CEO and artistic director of the Berkshire Theatre Group. "It is such a relief to know that The Berkshire Eagle will be in local hands again."
"It is thrilling to have new ownership that is committed to a community newspaper model," said Mass MoCA communications director Jodi Joseph, who also is a Berkshire native.
"When the Transcript closed we all felt a loss in this community," Joseph said, referring to the former North Adams Transcript, which merged with The Eagle in 2014. "It is encouraging to think that that void will now be filled."
Local representatives also applauded the change.
"It's great news," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, a Berkshire native. "A daily newspaper is so important to a community like the Berkshires.
"As long as they keep the reporters and editors it will be fine," Pignatelli said, "and as long as they treat the representative from the Fourth District fairly, I'll be fine."
Contact Tony Dobrowolski at 413-496-6224.
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