The Berkshire Eagle, the small Pittsfield daily newspaper that covers a big swath of Western Massachusetts, said Thursday it is being sold to a group of local businessmen after being owned for more than 20 years by national chain Digital First Media.
The deal also includes three Vermont papers owned by Eagle parent company New England Newspaper Inc.: the Bennington Banner, the Brattleboro Reformer, and the Manchester Journal. Financial terms of the sale, which is expected to be completed May 2, were not disclosed.
Retired Pittsfield District Court judge Fredric D. Rutberg said he formed a company, Birdland Acquisition LLC, in December to purchase the newspapers.
“I think that a strong, viable, healthy community paper can do an enormous amount to impact the cultural, social, and economic life in the community for the better,” Rutberg, a Stockbridge resident who will serve as president of New England Newspaper, said in an interview.
Birdland Acquisition’s principals include two other residents of Stockbridge, which is about 15 miles south of Pittsfield: John C. “Hans” Morris, former president of Visa Inc. and former chief financial officer at Citigroup Inc.; and Robert G. Wilmers, chairman and chief executive of M&T Bank Corp. in Buffalo.
The fourth principal is Stanford Lipsey, publisher emeritus of the Buffalo News and former owner and publisher of the Sun Newspaper Group in Nebraska.
Rutberg said the group is committed to expanding local news coverage and plans on adding people to the newsroom and bringing back jobs that were outsourced by Digital First Media. All four properties have about 200 full-time employees, including about 40 newsroom staff.
The papers’ publisher, Edward L. Woods, will remain in his position under the new ownership. An editorial advisory board will be appointed to engage the community after the sale.
The Eagle cites a daily circulation of about 22,000 and 24,000 on Sundays.
The sale is the latest of several recent transactions by Digital First Media, which declined to comment. On Wednesday the company said it had agreed to sell the Salt Lake City Tribune to local investor Paul Huntsman, the son of businessman and philanthropist Jon M. Huntsman Sr.
Last month, Digital First Media, which is controlled by New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital, won a bid to acquire the bankrupt Freedom Communications along with its newspapers the Orange County Register and Riverside Press-Enterprise.
Digital First Media’s portfolio includes 67 daily newspapers and 180 nondaily publications.
While the pending sale of New England Newspapers to a group of wealthy individuals mirrors similar sales like that of the Washington Post to Amazon.com chief executive Jeff Bezos and The Boston Globe to Red Sox principal owner John W. Henry, it does not mean that the big chains are bowing out of the game, said Martin Nisenholtz, professor of digital communication at Boston University.
“The activity is happening because print revenue has fallen much faster than digital revenue has been able to take its place, so it has caused a very serious dislocation in the industry, including the idea that civic-minded, wealthy individuals who care about journalism want to see it protected,” Nisenholtz said. “I don’t think it’s happening to the exclusion of the roll-ups.”
Pittsfield Mayor Linda M. Tyer welcomed the news of the sale.
“For a county such as ours, local news matters,” Tyer said in an e-mail. “Local ownership adds a special connection to all of us.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly labeled the Eagle’s readership figures for weekdays and Sunday.