Miller family members express optimism for new owners

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Although he's more aware than most of the challenges to be faced, Mark Miller expressed optimism Monday over the return of the Brattleboro Reformer and its sister newspapers to local ownership.

"Obviously, this will be happily welcomed by all local readers," said Miller.

On Monday, the sale of the Reformer and the Bennington Banner, Manchester Journal and The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass., to a group of investors from the Berkshires became final — following 21 years of corporate ownership by a Denver-based newspaper group.

Retired Judge Fredric D. Rutberg, of Stockbridge, Mass., who officially took over as president of New England Newspapers Inc., and Publisher Edward Woods of Bennington confirmed the sale and offered their thoughts on the occasion in separate statements on Page A1 of today's Reformer.

Miller, a former Eagle editor from Pittsfield whose family owned the group of newspapers for decades until 1995, when they were forced into what he termed a "fire sale" to MediaNews Group Inc., said he was encouraged by the fact the new owners have strong ties to the region and appear to have the financial resources it takes to support quality journalism.

At its peak, Miller said the group of newspapers placed a strong emphasis on hiring reporters and editors knowledgable and focused on such news beats as the arts, the environment and state politics, as well as the more familiar local government, police and fire and social news coverage.

"But that all takes money, and that is the challenge," he said.

The new ownership team has promised to add to a staff that was significantly reduced over the years and bring back some of the production duties that have been outsourced.

"I'm very glad," said Margo Miller, Mark's sister, who is retired after a long career with the Boston Globe. "It is so important to have local newspapers doing journalism that can be counted on."

In light of "a lot of opinion out there that passes for fact," especially on social media, she said, there is a vital role for news organizations that focus on "responsible reporting."

Her father, the late Lawrence K. "Pete" Miller, thought it important "to put everything that happened in the county in the paper," she said, although Margo acknowledged that the news space in the papers of decades ago was, like the news staff, much larger than the average today.

She said of reading about the new owners, "They all seemed like very interesting people. I hope it is going to work out."

And they may have "the kind of treasury we needed to withstand those kinds of blows," Mark Miller said, referring to the financial setbacks beginning in the late 1980s that led to the sale of the newspapers in 1995.

The Millers found themselves cramped for space in the old Eagle Building on Eagle Street in Pittsfield, Mass., and unable to purchase a building they sought close by, Mark Miller said, which eventually led to purchase of the Clock Tower building on the other side of downtown and an expensive renovation to meet National Register of Historic Places standards.

The company also purchased the Middletown Press in Connecticut and too-quickly converted it from an afternoon to a morning daily, Miller said, only to face resistance from some longtime readers and stiff competition from the Hartford Courant.

The Clock Tower building, with its business space for lease, also was intended to provide non-newspaper income for the company, he said, but the recession and real estate market collapse of the late 1980s and early 1990s smothered that plan.

GE, meanwhile, was in the process of leaving Pittsfield, Mass., "and we didn't have an economy," Miller said, and new competition for ad revenue had developed from free and paid weekly newspapers and shoppers, cable television and the fledgling internet.

The Millers tried to overhaul the business side of the company to make it more profitable, but it was too late by then for them to retain ownership, he said, adding that he was pleased to see the new owners "bring an awful lot of business expertise."

In addition to Rutberg, the ownership team includes John C. "Hans" Morris, of Stockbridge, Mass., a former president of Visa Inc. and the current board chairman of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass.; Robert G. Wilmers, chairman and CEO of M&T Bank Corp. in Buffalo, N.Y., for the past 33 years, a longtime second-home owner in Stockbridge; and Stanford Lipsey, publisher emeritus of the Buffalo News and former owner and publisher of the Sun Newspaper Group in Nebraska.

Former Eagle and Reformer Publisher Martin Langeveld of Vernon is a member of the board of directors and was an adviser to the group during negotiations leading to the purchase of the New England Newspapers group.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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