A conversation with Fredric Rutberg, president of New England Newspapers Inc.

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Editor’s note: Good news is good newsNewspapers everywhere are cutting costs and staff in hopes of staying afloat as readership diminishes. And though revenue is sinking, many remain very profitable in the short term due to this slash-and-burn strategy.

But are there alternatives? There is small and growing movement underway to regain local control of newspapers — not so much for profits as for for the greater good of their communities.

This new series on DFMWorkers.org looks at examples of this encouraging trend around the country.

By JULIE REYNOLDS

PITTSFIELD, MASS. — Amid severe budget cuts in the summer of 2015, the Berkshire Eagle reported a new round of layoffs, the kind so many newspapers continue to endure these days. One dismissed employee, seemingly resigned to this new reality, was quoted as saying, “It’s good because it hasn’t been good there for a long time.”

Despite that grim news, the Eagle’s fate was about to change.

After two decades of corporate ownership, four local investors announced last April they were buying the paper from Digital First Media. The men proposed to reinvigorate local news, to invest rather than strip away, and — something unheard of in the struggling newspaper industry today — to hire more employees.

One of the intrepid four was a retired judge by the name of Fredric Rutberg.

Five months after the acquisition, Rutberg sat comfortably in the small but packed newsroom of his 15,000-circulation paper. The bustle was a welcome sight compared to the desolate rows of empty cubicles so often seen in today’s newsrooms.

Rutberg loves it. “I always make it my business to come in through the front door,” he said. “I’m very proud of the people who work here and I’m proud of my team. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment.”

Long ago, Rutberg was a defense attorney in Philadelphia before spending two decades on the bench as a district court judge in Berkshire County. He never expected to land a third career as a newspaperman.

“People would think I’m making this up,” he said, “or wondering, ‘How could you do this with your background?’”

In Massachusetts, judges must retire at the age of 70, and so last year Rutberg began searching for “something useful to do in my dotage.” He once heard political journalist Joe Klein say that democracy “requires citizenship,” he said, “and I thought the Eagle could do a better job of being the town square.”

The sale

The Eagle had already been up for sale as part of Digital First Media’s 2014 attempt to sell all of its papers to another investment firm, Apollo Global Management. DFM is currently owned by hedge fund Alden Global Capital. But after that massive sale failed early last year, Rutberg didn’t believe the company would spin off a few small papers like the Eagle.

“Even if I were interested, it wasn’t going to happen,” he said. But the men who would become his partners contacted him, and, to the group’s surprise, the company seemed interested. Soon, negotiations began with DFM.

The group of four colleagues with ties to western Massachusetts included longtime newsman Stanford Lipsey, publisher emeritus of The Buffalo News and former owner, publisher and Pulitzer Prize winner for The Sun Newspaper group in Nebraska. There were also two seasoned businessmen with backgrounds in finance: Hans Morris, former president of Visa International; and Robert G. Wilmers, chair and CEO of M&T Bank.

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Announcing the Eagle sale in April, from left: Investor Robert G. Wilmers; former publisher Martin Langeveld; Ed Woods, former president and publisher under DFM ownership; investor John C. ‘Hans’ Morris; and Judge Fredric C. Rutberg. Courtesy of The Berkshire Eagle.

Their purchase of New England Newspapers Inc., known locally as NENI, included the Eagle and three Vermont papers, the Manchester Journal, the Bennington Banner, and the Brattleboro Reformer. Rutberg is now president of the company, overseeing the enterprise from his office at the Eagle.

“My partners and I saw this as a community service,” Rutberg said. “We understood that if we improved the quality of the newspaper, we’d be enhancing the quality of life for the community.”

The response from readers, he said, has been “very positive, very supportive… They seem to be delighted.”

Growing a paper

eaglefrontpageFive months after taking over, the owners’ group is now in the process of “creating jobs in various departments,” though Rutberg said he couldn’t yet provide the exact number of new positions.

One challenge is to rebuild departments that had been outsourced to regional hubs by DFM. Even the Eagle’s website design and production were part of a DFM-based system that the new owners are having to recreate independently, though Rutberg said DFM is helping with the transition. The print product was produced by a DFM hub in Michigan.

“We’re taking over services DFM had,” he said. “It’s a lot of work. This whole process is difficult when you’re not a newspaper company. We basically started from scratch.”

For now the Eagle is still using DFM’s template for the website, but a redesign may be coming soon. Despite these challenges, Rutberg is proud to say his group didn’t miss an issue. “I realize we’re stewards of an important organ of community life.”

Local advertisers have been very supportive, he said. Still, Rutberg isn’t ready to proclaim the endeavor a financial success, nor is he comfortable proffering advice to others who might be interested in buying their own local paper.

“It’s too soon,” he says. “I have no wisdom.”

The community connection

On a recent fall afternoon, Pittsfield’s downtown lunch crowd was perusing the Eagle in cafes and restaurants, where scattered sections were left for new readers to pick up. (Rutberg cheerfully urges locals to “read one copy, buy two.”) It’s a hefty paper for a city of 44,000, boasting several print sections where other papers with the same circulation only have one.

The once-thriving factory town has seen a rebirth in recent years with tourism and several remaining manufacturers reviving a once-dwindling population. It’s often listed as once of America’s best cities to live or retire in.

Rutberg, who moved to the area “in the late 80s or early 90s,” said Pittsfield is “bustling now, more so than it was.”

On the newsroom wall behind him hangs an old drawing of the red brick building that now bears the Eagle’s name. It’s a reminder that this is a place where workers have long borne the brunt of corporate mergers and takeovers.

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This paper factory, shown in 1907, is today home to the Berkshire Eagle.

In the early 1900s, paper making was a thriving business in Eastern Massachusetts, and the Eaton, Crane and Pike factory in Pittsfield employed perhaps a thousand or more residents. The size of an entire city block, the looming red brick complex — originally a clock factory — was the largest fine stationary manufacturer in the world.

By the 1970s, locals were still employed producing typewriter paper, cardboard boxes and other products. Bought by the Sheaffer Pen Company, the factory was producing those At-A-Glance calendars every office worker over 40 knows well, and according to a Berkshire Historical Society blog, the company was still “the second largest employer in the city, hiring up to 900, with about two-thirds of its workforce women.”

Then the layoffs came. In 1986, the factory, like so many of the region’s textile mills and manufacturing plants, shut down for good.

It seems fitting, then, that the historic structure be home to a brave new enterprise.

“Fortunately, the community has a real connection to this newspaper,” Rutberg said, adding, “the depth of that connection is surprising.”

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The Eagle building today.

To illustrate the point, he gestured behind him to the framed drawing of the old paper factory with its signature clock tower. The drawing was a gift from one of the paper’s readers, Bill Mulholland, a community college vice president who once worked at the plant.

Mulholland said he decided to donate the art while hearing Rutberg speak shortly after the local group took ownership of the Eagle.

“I was very moved,” Mulholland told the Eagle, “and right then I said, ‘This has to be on your wall.’ In a sense, the drawing is going home.”

“That epitomizes the kind of warm connection people feel,” Rutberg said.