PITTSFIELD, MASS. >> In a bold move restoring local control to The Bennington Banner and its three sister newspapers, a group of area investors is purchasing New England Newspapers Inc. (NENI), from its corporate owners, Digital First Media.
The purchase price, which includes the regional company's stock but not its real estate, is not being disclosed by mutual agreement with Digital First Media. The group publisher — then known as MediaNews Group — purchased The Banner, as well as the Brattleboro Reformer, Manchester Journal, and The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass., from its longtime owners, the Miller family, in July 1995.
The new owners, led by retired District Court Judge Fredric D. Rutberg, of Stockbridge, Mass., promise to restore top-quality local journalism to the newspapers. The purchase takes effect on May 2. Rutberg will be president of NENI.
The purchase was announced at a news conference Thursday morning in the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield attended by more than 100 community and business leaders, who greeted the news with frequent cheers and sustained applause.
The Eagle staff was informed earlier in the day at a meeting in the newspaper's Pittsfield headquarters.
The new owners also were visiting The Banner and the Manchester Journal as well as the Brattleboro Reformer to inform the company's Southern Vermont employees.
"The Eagle is the village square of Berkshire County," Rutberg said, "and it could use some help. The plan is to grow the newspaper, not shrink it."
Referring to the four newspapers in the NENI group, he outlined plans to increase 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 goal is to "help increase the quality of life in the area socially, politically and economically," Rutberg added.
Plans include the return of an estimated 20 to 25 outsourced jobs in the advertising and production areas, and an expected expansion of the local news staff.
The investment group includes:
• Robert G. Wilmers, chairman and CEO of M & T Bank, based in Buffalo, N.Y.,a 47-year second-home owner in Stockbridge 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, the former publisher and Pulitzer Prize-winner of the Sun Newspaper Group in Nebraska, and publisher emeritus of the Buffalo News.
The investors purchased 100 percent of NENI stock under their newly formed Birdland Acquisitions LLC. Wilmers said the purchase came at a "fair price."
"We want to focus on having a great local newspaper," 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."
Joining the team as a member of the board of directors is Martin Langeveld, former Berkshire Eagle publisher and a Windham County, Vermont, resident in recent years.
The group vowed that content improvement, as well as major redesigns of the newspapers and the websites, would be expedited urgently, "in a matter of months."
"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.
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.
Staffers were 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 leadership, acknowledging a challenging environment as circulation and advertising has declined, promised new opportunities for area businesses to advertise, including some new special sections.
The group 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 the entire newspaper," Rutberg emphasized.
"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."
The Eagle traces its roots back to 1789 as The Stockbridge Star. It came under Miller family ownership in 1891, when the daily newspaper was purchased by Kelton B. Miller. In 1995, the company was sold to MediaNews Group for a reported price of $39 million.
Meetings will be held later at the Bennington Museum and the River Garden in Brattleboro to share the news of the sale with those communities.
This story will be updated.
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.