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A newspaper bucks layoff trend, and hopes readers respond

In this Thursday, April 11, 2019 photo, copies of The Berkshire Eagle newspaper are placed in a machine before being bundled for distribution, in Pittsfield, Mass. The paper now features a new 12-page lifestyle section for Sunday editions, a reconstituted editorial board, a new monthly magazine, and the newspaper print edition is wider. That level of expansion is stunning in an era where U.S. newspaper newsroom employment has shrunk by nearly half over the past 15 years.

Wed, 19 Jun 2019 15:43:49 -0500

PITTSFIELD, Mass. (AP) — These days, the news about local news seems relentlessly bad:

Newsroom employment, down by nearly half over the past 15 years. Waves of layoffs continuing to hit both traditional newspaper chains and digital news startups. Cities and towns so denuded of coverage that they're described as "news deserts ."

But then, there's The Berkshire Eagle.

The western Massachusetts daily has an expanded investigative team. There's a new 12-page lifestyle section for the Eagle's Sunday editions. There's a new monthly magazine focusing on the area's culinary and natural charms. There's an advisory board that includes cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Pulitzer-winning writer Elizabeth Kolbert.

The newspaper is wider, its paper thicker. There's even a second daily crossword puzzle.

The Eagle's revival started three years ago, when four investors with deep pockets and ties to the Berkshires took a leap of faith. They bought it and its three sister Vermont publications from a hedge fund-backed media chain with a reputation for cost-cutting tactics that squeeze profits from struggling newspapers while leaving a diminished staff; the chain has defended its strategy as a way to ensure that local newspapers can survive financially.

Since the purchase, a hiring flurry has brought more than 50 new jobs to the Eagle and its sister papers.

It's easy to get carried away — 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.

"I want our newspaper to love its readers. And I want its readers to love the newspapers back," said executive editor Kevin Moran, before resorting to a journalist's black humor: "Because if they don't have an emotional connection to the newspaper, they are not going to cry when you are gone."

Fredric Rutberg has always had that kind of connection to the Eagle — which is why he has put his body, soul and cash into its rescue.

Rutberg, a local district judge who was looking for a second act as he neared retirement, pulled together the group of investors who bought the Eagle in the spring of 2016 from Digital First Media, also knowns as MNG Enterprises.

Rutberg, 73, relishes his role as newspaper owner, publisher and president. He hosts intimate gatherings with readers called "Coffee with the President," promoting the newspaper's triumphs, including award-winning investigative coverage of the Berkshire Museum's controversial sale of artworks, the decaying state of the region's bridges and the struggle to bring broadband internet to rural communities.

From his office at Eagle headquarters, he fields phone calls from readers complaining if the newspaper is delivered late or too far from the driveway.

"They are always shocked when I answer the phone," said Rutberg, who finally decided to ride along one night with a delivery truck driver and write a column to explain the demands of the job.

Another time, he ended up being the highlight of a chatty Eagle story on favorite kitchen gadgets, posing for a photo with onion glasses and a slightly sheepish grin.

All the while, he regularly travels to Vermont to visit the sister newspapers. He pursues strategies for revenue diversification: The newspaper is developing an in-house ad agency and hosts paid events, including high school sports galas and a "Conversation Series" that bring experts to discuss topics from faith in politics to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

For Moran, this level of involvement is a thrilling contrast to the Eagle's former corporate owners. During a rare visit from them in 2015, the agenda was mostly budget cuts.

Shortly afterward, Moran said, he oversaw the layoffs of 19 people at the four newspapers, one of his lowest moments in a two-decade career spent rising through the ranks of the Eagle and its affiliated newspapers. The year before, 18 positions had already been cut.

"You see this foundation, this whole pillar of your community, start to break apart," Moran said.

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Rutberg and his three partners seized a short window of opportunity when Alden Global Capital was putting several of its newspapers up for sale following failed negotiations to sell off the company's media properties, known as Digital First Media, to a private equity firm. The sale returned The Berkshire Eagle to local ownership for the first time since 1995, when the debt-saddled Miller family that had run it for more than a century first sold it to a media chain.

Today, Rutberg and co-owner Hans Morris, a former president of Visa, are forging ahead without two of their original partners. Stanford Lipsey, a longtime newspaper publisher, died in November 2016, with his share passing to his wife, Judi Lipsey. Former M&T Bank CEO Robert Wilmers died in December 2017.

The year before, Wilmers had declared the goal of building "the finest group of community newspapers" in the country. And the new owners swiftly made changes that reflected their frustrations as Eagle readers, down to replacing thin newsprint that curled in humid weather and was unbecoming of a newspaper that won a Pulitzer for editorial writing in 1973.

Moran was suddenly scrambling to add staff.

Rutberg and his partners wanted a "world-class" arts and culture section worthy of a region that boasts the Jacob's Pillow dance center, a theater scene that lures Hollywood stars and Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Under the corporate owners, the features staff had been whittled down to two editors, who relied on syndicated stories on food and gardening to fill out pages that were shared with the Vermont papers.

Now, features editor Lindsey Hollenbaugh oversees a staff of seven. She launched Landscapes, the 12-page lifestyle section that includes only local stories, aside from The New York Times best-seller list. Landscapes has taken readers to a theater rehearsal with actor Jon Hamm, followed around a pizza delivery driver on the coldest night of the year and explained how on-duty firefighters weave grocery shopping into their shifts.

"Suddenly, I had all the freedom in the world with very few constraints," said Hollenbaugh, who first joined The Berkshire Eagle in 2010. "We feel like we won the lottery."

The expanded investigative team gives voice to overlooked communities in the Berkshires, the hilly, westernmost region of Massachusetts, where 130,000 people are scattered across 30-plus towns and villages.

Geographic differences make the Berkshires a challenge to cover. Some towns are New England charmers that draw artists and New York City tourists, including Rutberg's town of Stockbridge, home to the Norman Rockwell Museum. Others, such as the main city of Pittsfield, are still struggling with the ripple effects of losing thousands of jobs when major employer General Electric gradually packed up and left in the 1980s and '90s, hastening a population loss that shows no signs of slowing.

The Eagle strives to be indispensable to all those communities, and its reporters say that effort is being reflected in the story requests they get from readers.

Exasperated residents from rural Sandisfield led reporter Heather Bellow to investigate a pipeline company's failure to live up to a 2-year-old promise to fix a rural road , so damaged that tar stuck to the feet of dogs and people. Text messages from anguished neighbors prodded her to keep pushing for answers about a fire that killed a family of five in the town of Sheffield, long after the tragedy faded from national headlines.

The hard part is persuading the people of the Berkshires to pay for this type of in-depth coverage.

"Our business plan was simply to increase the quality of the content and attract new readers," Rutberg said. "We've made more than a bona fide effort at the first part. We are in the second right now, and the jury's out."

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The Berkshire Eagle's overall paid circulation fell more than 20% during the first year under new ownership, before key initiatives such as Landscapes were launched. Rutberg counts it as an achievement that circulation remained mostly stable the second year, at more than 15,000 on weekdays and nearly 18,000 on Sundays, still half what it was a decade ago.

On the bright side, digital subscriptions are finally ticking up.

"In our industry, flat is the new black," Rutberg says cheerfully, his go-to catchphrase when anyone asks about circulation.

Like many newspapers, The Berkshire Eagle increasingly relies on revenue from paid subscriptions, as major advertisers migrate to online giants such as Facebook and Google. Rutberg said the Eagle has suffered from the decline of the Berkshire Mall, which saw key retailers J.C. Penney, Macy's and Best Buy leave over the past four years, taking their ad dollars with them.

One thing Rutberg said he can't do is pass the cost of his heftier newspaper onto readers because of a price hike by the previous owner. Digital First Media raised the cost of home delivery service by 60% in 2014 to $300 a year, even as the paper grew thinner.

Through a spokeswoman, Molly Curry, Digital First declined to comment for this story. In the past, Digital First has countered criticism of its tactics, saying it runs "newspapers profitably and sustainably so that they can continue to serve their local communities."

In a letter earlier this year to U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the company's chairman noted that advertising and circulation declines were threatening the newspaper industry generally. But he said Digital First, also known as MNG Enterprises, believes in the industry "and we know how to operate successful newspaper businesses over the long term."

It remains to be seen how sustainable the expanded Eagle will be under its new owners.

The newspaper charges $13 a month for a digital-only subscription, letting people read three articles online before hitting the pay wall. Social media drives a third of the newspaper's digital traffic, a double-edged sword because many readers bristle at being asked to pay for content they see on Facebook.

"I just don't have time to sit down and read an entire newspaper. I'm on Facebook 10 minutes a day; I'm not going to get $13 worth of news," said Jenna Lanphear, a 40-year-old Pittsfield beauty salon owner, applying lemon nail polish for Amy Sinico, a day care center director who also does not subscribe.

"It's very frustrating," Sinico chimed in. "When they put a link on Facebook and then you click on it to read more about it, but you can't because you have to buy the subscription. Don't put the link on Facebook then."

A recent Pew Research Center study found this to be typical. Only 14% of American adults said they had paid for local news within the past year, via subscription, donation or membership.

Half the respondents noted that free content is available to them. In the Berkshires, Lanphear and Sinico pointed out, people can get news for free from television, radio and two digital news sites, the Berkshire Edge and iBerkshires.com.

Lanphear did sign up her 13-year-old daughter for a summit of high school journalists organized by The Berkshire Eagle's education reporter, Jenn Smith — one of many efforts the Eagle is making to re-establish itself as the center of civic life and deepen its interaction with readers.

Smith, for example, takes nominations from parents and teachers for a "Classroom of the Week" column. She visits each class for the story then drives back to deliver a frameable poster of her column and a gift certificate for teaching materials.

And earlier this year, the Eagle invited high schoolers to organize and moderate one of its "Conversation Series."

The idea came from Marie Butler and Jordan Bradford, two Pittsfield High School juniors who attended a "Conversation" on faith and politics last fall only to be disappointed by the lack of diversity among the panelists (three white men) and the audience (mostly white and older).

Bradford and Butler say most of their classmates are preoccupied with the news, which they follow on the smartphones they never part with. On Twitter, they follow NPR, President Donald Trump, social activists and a few of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Last year, hundreds of Pittsfield High School students walked out of class after the shooting that killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida.

"Since our generation has a lot of access to the internet, the politics that happens in our government is kind of right in our faces," Bradford said.

That kind of enthusiasm doesn't automatically translate into new readers for a local paper like the Eagle.

Bradford's parents don't subscribe, although they pick up the paper when their star swimmer daughter makes the sports pages. Butler regularly reads the newspaper because her parents get it delivered, but she doesn't know anyone else who does.

"I'm definitely alone in that arena," she said.

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The newspaper is experimenting with ways to promote itself as a source of unique stories about the Berkshires.

Its online editor, Noah Hoffenberg, found that traffic from Facebook to the Eagle's digital site increased when he posted fewer stories and opinion pieces about national politics, which had been triggering negative comments and accusations of bias.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, said it's good practice for a local newspaper to market itself as a refuge from the divisiveness of national politics. But he said people invariably turn to television and radio for basic information, eroding the perception that newspapers are indispensable.

"Weather and traffic — some people find that is the only news they care about it. If they are getting that, they may not be revved up to pay for a local newspaper," Edmonds said.

Some people might also take their local newspaper for granted: The Pew poll found that 71% of Americans believe their local news outlets are doing very or somewhat well financially, when in fact many newspapers are struggling to survive.

Moran said it is not lost on anyone at The Berkshire Eagle that "we are trying to swim upstream."

Independently owned newspapers are becoming a thing of the past. Of the 1,200 newspapers that have been sold in the last five years, most were owned by families or small private chains, according to a study by Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina professor whose research on the subject gave rise to the term "news desert."

In May, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet bleakly predicted the demise of "most local newspapers in America" within five years, except for ones bought by billionaires. The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, both national publications, are thriving after being bought by billionaires. The Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Las Vegas Review-Journal are among other major American newspapers that appear to have steadied themselves after being sold to local wealthy individuals.

For many other newspapers, especially smaller ones, the future prospects are uncertain.

In January, Rutberg wrote a column in the Eagle appealing for several hundred new subscribers.

He made the same appeal at a trendy cafe in Pittsfield during a recent "Coffee with the President," his second in a week. His audience was mostly middle age and older, not surprising in a place like the Berkshires, which has struggled to hold on to its working-age population.

A few younger customers poked their heads in while Rutberg spoke, then backed away, coffees in hand.

The older audience promptly brought up newspaper delivery. One man approvingly noted his paper has been arriving on time and launched into a discussion about tipping drivers. Another worried about how the city's new ban on single-use plastic bags would affect the bundling of the papers.

Rutberg patiently assured them that the newspaper would visit their homes to install green plastic tubes where the paper can be inserted, something he said the old owners had stopped doing.

Days earlier, he was still glowing after a trip to Boston to accept the JFK Commonwealth Award from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which The Berkshire Eagle won for its commitment to community journalism, a vindication of his late partner Bob Wilmer's dream.

"We are going to stick with this," Rutberg said. "This is our commitment as long as humanly possible."

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Follow Alexandra Olson at https://twitter.com/Alexolson99

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