BRATTLEBORO >> In a stunning announcement that took many in the community by surprise, four men from Massachusetts announced Thursday they were buying the Brattleboro Reformer and three of her sister newspapers.
"For many people, the village square is the local newspaper," said Fredric D. Rutberg, of Stockbridge, Mass., at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden in Main Street in Brattleboro. Rutberg, a retired District Court judge, promised to restore top-quality local journalism to the newspapers. The purchase takes effect on May 2. Rutberg will be president of New England Newspapers Inc., which includes the Reformer, the Bennington Banner, the Manchester Journal and the Berkshire Eagle.
The other investors, who make up Birdland Acquistions, Llc, include: Robert G. Wilmers, chairman and CEO of M & T Bank, based in Buffalo, N.Y., and a 47-year second-home owner in Stockbridge, Mass., who runs a small wine-making business on the side; John C. "Hans" Morris, a Stockbridge resident, former president of Visa Inc. and board chairman of Mass MoCA in North Adams, Mass.; and Stanford Lipsey, former publisher and Pulitzer Prize-winner of the Sun Newspaper Group in Nebraska, and publisher emeritus of the Buffalo News.
"We want to focus on having great local newspapers," Wilmers stressed. Voicing optimism on the potential of the local economy, he declared that, contrary to some viewpoints, "we don't believe newspapers are dying."
Ed Woods, regional publisher of NENI for the past two years and of The Banner previously, remains in the same position. The rest of the management team on the news, editorial and business sides of the four-paper operation also are staying in the current jobs. However, outsourced jobs, such as in classifieds and production, will be brought back to Pittsfield, housed in the same facility as the Berkshire Eagle.
The deal has been in the works for several months. The four newspapers were owned by Digital First Media, which has been trying to shed its assets. Just two days ago, DFM announced it hold sold one of its major holdings, The Salt Lake Tribune, to the Huntsman family of Utah.
The purchase price of the four newspapers, which includes the regional company's stock but not its real estate, is not being disclosed by mutual agreement. Wilmers said the purchase came at a "fair price."
A purchase and sale agreement reached between DFM and the town of Brattleboro to by the physical property on Black Mountain Road will be honored and the Reformer will rent space once it is renovated as a new police department.
Rutberg told the crowd at the River Garden their plans include increasing the quality in all respects "to make the papers as unique as the various communities they serve. We care about print journalism and newspapers are still hugely important to the social fabric of the communities."
The changes mentioned during a staff meeting at the Reformer building on Black Mountain Road prior to the community meeting included adding additional staff to the newsroom and branding each paper in a way that is unique to each community.
"This will be the end of the cookie-cutter" look of the papers, Morris promised. He called investigative journalism a priority and suggested that prominent "citizen writers" in the community will be encouraged to contribute material.
Staffers were also assured that they would all be keeping their positions at their current pay rates, and that benefits would be maintained potentially at a lower cost, through new insurance arrangements directed by Holly Taylor, president of MountainOne Bank and a former star reporter at The Eagle. Under its new ownership, NENI will begin profit-sharing with staffers.
The four newspapers were purchased from the Miller family in July 1995 by Media News Group, which changed its name to Digital First Media when it merged with the Journal Register in 2013, becoming the third-largest holder of newspapers in the United States. Digital First Media came under the control of Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund in New York City.
During the meeting at the River Garden, Woods said that content improvement, as well as major redesigns of the newspapers and the websites, would be expedited urgently, "in a matter of months."
Comments by attendees to the meeting at the River Garden were overwhelmingly positive.
"I'm just really excited about this," said Konstantin von Krusenstiern, vice president of strategy and development at the Brattleboro Retreat. "I think the daily newspaper in such a small town is just extraordinary and to have new energy, new resources, I really think bodes well. The new model they're talking about sounds great."
He hopes it works out, he said, because it is good for number of reasons.
"I think it sounds great," said Kate O'Connor, Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and Brattleboro Select Board vice chairwoman. "It sounds like it's going to more locally operated, which I think is wonderful."
She said she thought more local input, coverage and management was "a great thing."
Lynn Barrett, president of local marketing group Primetime Concepts Inc., said this was the best news she heard in years.
"This is great for the community. It's good to have a solid daily newspaper," Barrett said. "I think everyone in this room was thrilled."
When Barrett learned that Martin Langeveld, a former publisher of the Reformer, has been working with the four investors for nearly a year-and-a-half, she said "I think he is the hero." Langeveld will be a member of the board of directors of NENI.
Pete "Fish" Case, WKVT radio host and Reformer contributor, said the news was exciting for the community. "They're bringing everything back local," he said. "I'm looking forward to the changes that are coming forward, increasing the size of the paper and putting a little print back in our community."
Orly Munzing, the founder of Brattleboro's Strolling of the Heifers and a mover and a shaker of all things local, said bringing ownership back to the region means the Reformer will be "back in the community."
"Any time something is local it's really exciting, but also they're going to improve it for readership and create more exciting reporting," she said.
Chris Lenois, a radio show host at WKVT, used to work at the Reformer.
"It really sounds like the right people to come in and take over the paper," he said. "I remember when it used to have a lot more local control, feel and caring about it, and it sounds like these are the right people to come in and restore that."
John Sciacca, co-owner of Brattleboro Ford Subaru, said he was excited as an advertiser to learn of the change.
"I think it's going to be great for the community. I think it's going to get the readership up and with a little more local content, I think there will be more value to my ads," he said. "I'm really happy to hear that it's not going to be in Denver and their advertising isn't going to be done overseas anymore and we're going to bring it back locally."
During the meeting, the team of investors acknowledged they are stepping into a challenging environment as circulation and advertising has declined, but they promised new opportunities for area businesses to advertise, including some new special sections. They stressed that the content and size of the printed newspapers would be enhanced, while the digital online and mobile sites are to be upgraded.
"I'm very concerned that we enhance the quality of all the newspapers," Rutberg emphasized.
Rutberg is also encouraging the community to get involved.
"If you see something you like in the paper, tell all your friends," he said. "If you see something you don't like, tell me."