Monday, June 03, 2019

Berkshire Eagle in rural western Massachusetts is thriving after group of local investors bought it back from a chain

UPDATE, June 19: Alexandra Olson of The Associated Press reports in a 2,700-word story, "The Eagle is still struggling, and its survival is far from assured. Readers are trickling, not flocking, back. But if it does fail, it won’t be for lack of effort. The Eagle’s owners, editors and staff are waging an all-out campaign to revitalize local journalism in the Berkshires and southern Vermont."

Fred Rutberg (Boston Globe
photo by Nathan Klima)
A daily newspaper in rural western Massachusetts has experienced a revival after locals bought it back from a chain in 2016.

The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield was a "once-great daily whose staff, circulation, and prestige all declined dramatically during two decades of corporate ownership," Mark Shanahan reports for The Boston Globe. Until recently, it was owned by Colorado-based MNG Enterprises (formerly known as Digital First Media), a hedge fund subsidiary that owns dozens of papers and has been derided as "vulture capitalists."

In 2016 a retiring local district court judge, Fred Rutberg, decided to buy the Eagle back. "Backed by a group with local ties and deep pockets, Rutberg bought the moribund paper in May 2016 and began investing in it, hiring reporters and editors, adding new sections, revitalizing its website, even spending money on better-quality newsprint," Shanahan reports.

Under Rutberg's leadership, "So far, the results are promising. Print subscriptions, which had been dropping for years, are holding steady, and the Eagle’s digital subscriptions are growing — by an impressive 60 percent since June 2018," Shanahan reports. "Last year, the Eagle received the New England Newspaper & Press Association’s award for general excellence, and its daily and Sunday editions swept the Newspaper of the Year awards for papers of its size. And not coincidentally, there has been an increase in furrowed brows among local officials who are now being confronted by a more active press." The Eagle also won the 2019 John F. Kennedy Commonwealth Award for "demonstrating the enduring civic value of community journalism."

Rutberg said he was inspired to buy the paper after a 2014 lecture by political journalist Joe Klein. "At some point, [Klein] said, offhandedly, 'Democracy requires citizenship and citizenship requires a town square'," Rutberg told Shanahan. "And when he said that, I whispered to my wife, 'The Berkshire Eagle'."

Newspaper analyst Ken Doctor told Shanahan that the paper's new ownership was a boon to the community: "People in the Berkshires won the lottery when [Rutberg’s group] bought the Eagle . . . It’s rare to see local people with the willingness, the capital, and the stamina to step up and do the really heavy lifting to transform an old newspaper in the digital age."

Rutberg remains modest. "I wanted to do something useful," he told Shanahan. "I wanted to try to do some good around here."

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