Saving the Berkshire Eagle
NEWS STRONG news – The Berkshire Eagle Associated Press report 6.19.2019. Pittsfield, MA:
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 townsso 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 newspaper 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 D. 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, …