Now that’s a good story: news revival in Berkshires
PITTSFIELD — As he was nearing 70, the mandatory retirement age for judges in Massachusetts, Fred Rutberg began thinking about what he might do next. He had served on the bench in Berkshire County for 20 years, and lived in Stockbridge for 40.
Then one soft summer night in 2014, Rutberg and his wife, Judith, were on Nantucket, listening to a talk at the island library by veteran political journalist Joe Klein.
“At some point, [Klein] said, offhandedly, ‘Democracy requires citizenship and citizenship requires a town square,’ ” Rutberg said. “And when he said that, I whispered to my wife, ‘The Berkshire Eagle.’ ”
Five years later, the former district court judge is president and publisher of the Eagle, a once-great daily newspaper whose staff, circulation, and prestige all declined dramatically during two decades of corporate ownership. 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.
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. 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.
“I wanted to do something useful,” said Rutberg, sitting behind his desk at the Eagle’s offices in a converted mill building on the edge of downtown. “I wanted to try to do some good around here.”
Most stories about newspapers these days end badly. According to a recent University of North Carolina study, gloomily titled “The Expanding News Desert,” nearly 1,800 papers in the United States have closed since 2004, and many others, facing steep declines in circulation and advertising, have been taken over by chains whose first priority is profit, not news.
The Berkshire Eagle’s previous owner, MNG Enterprises, is an example. The Colorado publishing company, formerly known as Digital First Media, is a subsidiary of Alden Global Capital, a New York hedge fund with a track record of buying beleaguered papers and slashing costs to raise profits. Called “vulture capitalists” by critics, MNG owns dozens of newspapers, including The Denver Post, The Mercury News of San Jose, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise, and the Boston Herald, which it bought out of bankruptcy last year and promptly cut a quarter of the staff.
“People in the Berkshires won the lottery when [Rutberg’s group] bought the Eagle,” said newspaper analyst Ken Doctor. “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, who grew up in Philadelphia, was 26 when he moved to the Berkshires, opening a law practice in Stockbridge in 1974. As a boy, he’d attended summer camp nearby and enjoyed the natural beauty of westernmost Massachusetts. As a grown-up, he marveled at the area’s thriving cultural scene, including Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home in Lenox, the renowned Jacob’s Pillow dance center in Becket, and the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.
The county also boasted an uncommonly good newspaper that had been owned for decades by the Miller family. With a flatbed press and one typesetting machine, Kelton B. Miller started publishing the Eagle in 1892, succeeded by sons Pete and Don in 1941, and by grandsons Mark and Michael in the 1980s. Throughout, the Millers poured money into the paper, turning a modest profit even as they maintained an unusually large staff for a paper with a circulation, at its peak, of about 35,000.
“My uncle used to say that we put out a much better paper than we should,” said Mark Miller.
Over time, the Eagle earned a national reputation for being tough and meticulous in its reporting. In 1972, Washington Post press critic Ben Bagdikian told Time magazine there were only three great newspapers in the world: The New York Times, Le Monde, and The Berkshire Eagle.
The Eagle became a training ground for talented young journalists. Notable alums include Gustav Niebuhr, who became a respected religion writer at The New York Times; Richard Weil, a longtime editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Helen Donovan, onetime executive editor of the Globe; Priscilla Painton, executive editor at Simon & Schuster; and Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan in 2002 while reporting a story about Al Qaeda. Other celebrated Eagle staffers included Abe Michelson, the State House reporter whose behind-the-scenes “Beacon Hill” column ran in eight Massachusetts papers, including the Globe, and Roger Linscott, the Eagle editorial writer who won the paper’s only Pulitzer Prize in 1973.
The Eagle even had a minor pop-culture moment in the early 1980s when actress Sally Field, playing an embattled reporter in the film “Absence of Malice,’’ said her first job was “the summer when I was 16 on The Berkshire Eagle. I wonder if they’d have me back.’’
“The Eagle was absolutely indispensable,” said Rutberg. “When I was practicing law, I used to say it was required reading. It didn’t happen unless it was in the Eagle. The paper had a real hold on the community.”
But the Eagle’s fortunes turned in the late 1980s when the Miller grandchildren got involved in a questionable real estate deal, buying the former Sheaffer Eaton mill in Pittsfield and spending $23 million to renovate the 11-acre site to house the newspaper and, they hoped, other tenants.
It didn’t work, and in 1987, the same year the Millers bought the decrepit mill complex, the stock market crashed, while the cost of newsprint soared. Soon after, General Electric, which once employed 13,000 people at its Pittsfield plant, announced mass layoffs, devastating the local economy. In 1995, drowning in debt, the Millers sold the Eagle and papers they owned in Vermont and Connecticut to William Dean Singleton, a Denver newspaper executive nicknamed “Lean Dean” because his company, MediaNews Group, pioneered a strategy of buying regional papers and cutting costs by consolidating business operations, ad sales, and printing.
“Dean fired me the day he took over,” said Don MacGillis, who was editor in chief and editorial page editor during his two decades at the Eagle. “I told him I’d seen some of his other papers, and before he did to the Eagle what he’d done elsewhere, he ought to talk to subscribers.
“I don’t think he appreciated that,” said MacGillis, who later worked at the Globe.
Singleton, now retired, said he’d been an admirer of the Eagle for many years, but the paper was losing money when he bought it.
“I always suffered from not being the Millers,” said Singleton, reached at his office in Denver. “I certainly plead guilty to insisting on economic responsibility. If a newspaper doesn’t make money, it doesn’t have a future, and the Eagle was not making money.”
The Eagle continued to do good journalism, but the staff gradually shrunk; in its heyday, there were close to 60 people in the newsroom, well above the industry standard for a paper its size. The contraction did not go unnoticed by readers and advertisers.
“They just kept scaling back and back,” said state Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli, a Lenox native who grew up reading the Eagle. “It was sad because it had been a lifeline for so many people.”
By 2014, when Rutberg was contemplating his next step, the Eagle had lost much of its luster. Alden Global Capital had gained a majority stake in MNG Enterprises and made even deeper cuts. Overnight, it also boosted the price of an annual Eagle subscription from $180 to $300.
Kevin Moran, the Eagle’s executive editor, recalls a 2015 visit to the newsroom by Alden Global president Heath Freeman. Moran had been told Freeman was just dropping by to introduce himself, but then watched as the 35-year-old fund manager (once dubbed “the Gordon Gekko of newspapers” by business columnist Joe Nocera) spent six hours eliminating 20 positions from the newspaper’s budget. At its lowest ebb, Moran said, the Eagle had five reporters scrambling to cover Berkshire County’s two cities — Pittsfield and North Adams — 30 towns and many arts-and-culture organizations.
“Heath left that meeting saying Alden is a hedge fund and it’s his job to maximize operational efficiencies and increase profits for shareholders,” Moran said. “I want to be operationally efficient, too. I want this business to thrive. But people were picking up the Eagle at the end of their driveway and wondering what they were paying for.”
Freeman, who seldom gives interviews, declined to comment for this story.
“Alden Global has a turn-out-the-lights strategy, a milk-it strategy,” said Doctor, the newspaper analyst. “As revenues decline, they just continue to cut the enterprise to maintain cash flow. They know it won’t last forever, and if they have to close a property, they will.”
Even Singleton, who had a reputation as an enthusiastic cost-cutter, questions whether Alden Global chopped too much from its newspapers, including the Eagle.
“They’ve cut costs much more aggressively than we ever did,” he said. “Sitting in a big office building in New York, they didn’t care. We cared. I particularly cared about the Eagle.’’
Rutberg admits the idea of buying the Eagle was “pollyannaish.” He didn’t know the newspaper business, had no idea whether Alden Global was interested in selling, and, if it was, didn’t have the money. Nonetheless, he started making calls, beginning with Hans Morris, managing partner of the venture capital firm Nyca Partners and a former president of Visa. An inveterate newspaper reader who has owned a house in Stockbridge for 30 years, Morris agreed to meet Rutberg for coffee. The notion of a local owner resuscitating the Eagle intrigued him, but Morris was hesitant to encourage Rutberg.
“It was a noble thing to do,” he said. “But I didn’t want to get into something that’s just going to be a financial mess. I said, ‘Let’s see if there’s any interest in even talking to us.’ ”
There was, but the two sides were far apart on price. A year later, in 2015, Alden Global came back with a lower number, and Rutberg assembled a group of investors that included Morris; Bob Wilmers, chief executive of Buffalo-based M&T Bank Corp. and a longtime homeowner in the Berkshires; and Stanford Lipsey, former owner of the Sun Newspaper Group in Nebraska and a part-time Berkshires resident.
A deal was struck in May 2016 — the sale price hasn’t been disclosed — and in a letter to Eagle readers, Rutberg pledged to invest in the paper. (His group also bought back the Vermont papers formerly owned by the Millers: the Bennington Banner, the Brattleboro Reformer, and the Manchester Journal.)
“The goal is to make the Eagle a part of the finest community newspaper group in America,” Rutberg wrote. “Our business plan is simple. By improving the quality and quantity of the content in our publications, we expect to increase our readership which will, in turn, increase our revenues, and ensure the future of these publications.”
Three years later, Moran, the Eagle’s executive editor, has a staff of 13 reporters, including two in the paper’s reopened Great Barrington bureau. One recent hire is Larry Parnass, a longtime reporter and editor at The Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, who is the Eagle’s new investigations editor. In September 2017, Parnass wrote a 10,000-word story scrutinizing Van Shields, the former Berkshire Museum director who quarterbacked a controversial plan to sell 22 works of art, including paintings by Norman Rockwell, to raise money for museum renovations. The story generated enormous buzz in the community, and Shields left the museum less than a year later.
But the Eagle’s energetic coverage has not been welcomed by everyone. Reporter Amanda Drane, who joined the Eagle in 2017, also from The Daily Hampshire Gazette, said some city officials in Pittsfield had grown unaccustomed to being questioned.
“A lot of what I do is educate prominent people who should know what an active press looks like,” said Drane, laughing. “I’ve made some inroads with the Police Department, but, honestly, they’ve struggled to keep up with my demands.’’
Not long after the sale, Wilmers and Lipsey, who were both in their 80s, died. Rutberg declined to say if the business is profitable, but said their deaths have not affected the Eagle’s viability. For the past year or so, to promote the paper and boost subscriptions, Rutberg has been hosting “Coffee with the President” events around Berkshire county, and turnout has been good.
“Wherever I go, I hear ‘You don’t cover south county’; ‘You don’t cover north county.’ But that’s great because it shows they want more,” he said.
There’s some evidence the Eagle is rebounding, albeit slowly: daily circulation is holding at 14,179 and at 16,711 on Sunday, according to the latest figures from Alliance for Audited Media, while digital subscriptions increased to 3,976, as of March, from 2,474 last June.
Former owner Mark Miller said he noted the Eagle’s improvement in a recent e-mail to the publisher.
“I told Fred I’d like to lodge a complaint: It’s taking me much too long to read the paper now,” he said.
Rutberg said it’s a challenging time for newspapers, including the Eagle.
“Our print circulation is flat, but I like to say, ‘Flat is the new black,’ ” he said, smiling. “I tell people to read one copy and buy two.
“Look, I’m very conscious that what we’re doing is counter to national trends,” Rutberg said, “but we’re committed to making this the finest community newspaper in the country again.”