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Jan. 29, 2018, 11:13 a.m.
Business Models

Local owners bought this newspaper back from a cost-cutting national chain. Next step: Bringing back the readers

In western Massachusetts, the Berkshire Eagle is trying to recover from cost-cutting and rebuild its standing in the community. “We’re trying to do something that’s not been done, which is to bend the circulation curve backwards.”

This is a story all of us hope has a happy ending. But even its authors only have so much control.

Two summers ago, a group of four investors bought the largest paper serving the westernmost part of Massachusetts, the Berkshire Eagle, as well as a collection of Vermont papers, the Bennington Banner, the Brattleboro Reformer, and the Manchester Journal.

Newly rid of Digital First Media and its cost-cutting ways, and now owned by people with real ties to the county, the Eagle newsroom was reinvigorated. The new owners laid out a guiding strategy — if you build it up, they will come back — and promised to stay in the business of local news for the long haul. Producing better, local-focused news, and more of it, they surmised, would be the straightest path to bringing back subscribers, raising more revenue — more to invest in digital products and, finally, sustainability.

“It’s been so much fun,” Eagle executive editor Kevin Moran said to me when I first visited the newsroom at the end of December, as we did our Sorkinesque walk-and-talk through its Pittsfield headquarters and lingered in front of the bright basement room that houses the presses. Moran, a Berkshire County native, is also the chief content officer of New England Newspapers Inc., the group that includes the Eagle and the Vermont papers. “With layoffs, it was just really difficult to tell people. It was so difficult, because you knew everyone cared about the work as much as you did. It’s a joy now to be able to expand our capacity and cover the area in a way we’ve never been able to before.”

The excitement was infectious. But I’m not a disinterested party: I grew up in the Berkshires, near the Vermont border. My parents still live there, as do some of my high school friends. As a teen, I wrote letters to the editor that got printed. My parents clipped the sports pages where I appeared somewhere in the back of a team lineup. I felt worldly listening to our nearest NPR affiliate, WAMC in Albany, mention new Berkshires concerts or art exhibitions. When I went away to college, the Berkshires began slipping away from me, a blip on my Facebook whenever a friend would share a local crime story.

From afar, the work of bringing back thousands of lapsed subscribers and adding on new readers in a county with a steadily declining, aging population of fewer than 130,000 people goes beyond my own imagination. At a distance, I hear about all those now-closed department stores at the only mall nearby that would advertise in the Eagle when they were still open, and wonder how it’s possible to sustain a print product.

But I’m not the one doing the work. The importance of what’s happening at the Eagle and across the Vermont papers goes beyond personal nostalgia. It’s an attempt to answer a question that will be asked a lot in the coming years: Can a local newspaper be revived by shuffling off a chain owner and becoming truly local again?

BerkshireEagle.com lets you read three stories before hitting the paywall, and a digital-only subscription costs $13 per month — the same price as digital all-access plus the Sunday print edition. (The site blocks anyone going the incognito browser route.) In the past month, social referrals accounted for 22 percent of online traffic (almost all of that, Facebook, where the Eagle page has about 40,000 followers). 30 percent is direct traffic to the site.

Sunday print circulation for the Eagle is just above 17,000, according to the latest 2017 Q3 figures available through the Alliance for Audited Media (it’s indeed inched upwards in the past year). Ten years ago, it was over 30,000. (Full disclosure: Wracked by guilt, I became a digital subscriber during the course of writing this story, sending the Sunday edition to my parents’ house.)

All four NENI newspapers officially left DFM in May 2016, and by the end of October of the same year, they’d shifted entirely off DFM’s technical infrastructure to its own, including adopting a new CMS. (The necessarily hasty technical transition alone was a huge pain, by all accounts.) Under new owners, the Eagle has been quickly adding to its newsroom, whose staff count is now 40. Including editorial staff from the Vermont papers, that’s 60 people. It also shares reporters with the Vermont nonprofit VTDigger, which pays half the cost of a reporter at the Brattleboro Reformer and the Bennington Banner, and shares content with the newspaper group. Whereas under DFM many sections were replicated, there’s now almost no shared content between the Eagle and its Vermont sister outlets, Moran told me. (I checked this myself; comics were the only overlap.)

As anyone working in local news is painfully aware, DFM still owns prominent but struggling local news organizations like The Denver Post and papers in the Bay Area News Group and Southern California News Group, which are currently laying off staff. The media group itself is owned by a secretive New York hedge fund, whose hedge fund-y enthusiasm for cost-cutting is at odds with the community-focused mandate held closely by journalists working at papers it owns.

“For a long time, our readers were accepting and expecting less and less of the paper,” said Eagle publisher Fredric Rutberg, a retired county judge and one of the four original investors who purchased the Eagle, when we spoke in his office last month. (Two of the four, Stanford Lipsey and Robert Wilmers, have passed away since the sale.) “The key to more subscribers is increasing quality, and I think in that respect, our goal of increasing quality is a credible one.”

There’s no specific subscriber goal, though “sure, we may have ideas in the backs of our minds,” Rutberg said. “But we’re trying to do something that’s not been done, which is to bend the circulation curve backwards. So it’s difficult for me to say exactly how fast you can turn it, and even whether you really can.”

The Eagle is among the 97 percent of daily or weekly papers operating in the U.S. that have circulations under 50,000, according to Editor & Publisher data. But among newspapers that have moved from national chains to local ownership, it’s one of a handful. In Utah, the Huntsman family bought the the Salt Lake Tribune from DFM, a sale announced the day before the Eagle’s. In Alaska, the experiment went awry, and the Alaska Dispatch News went bankrupt: “I simply ran out of my ability to subsidize this great news product,” majority owner Alice Rogoff said last summer.

“I live in Santa Cruz, where we have a DFM-owned paper. And the interesting thing is, if you talk to people, even the most civically involved people, they don’t really know who DFM is. All they know is, their paper got worse,” newspaper analyst and Lab columnist Ken Doctor told me, when I asked for some national context about the Eagle’s new path. “The idea that an individual or small group of smart, caring people have decided, ‘What’s been happening is wrong, these papers are important, and we’re going to try doing it right’ — it’s so contrarian at this point that we have maybe fewer than half a dozen papers that have moved in this direction.”

“I think it’s important to be able to understand if this can work, and if it does, how much money does it take to make it work, and whether it can serve as a model,” he said.

Moran and Rutberg fanned out recent editions of the Eagle during my newsroom visit, cracking light jokes about the organization’s new drone capabilities (“The Eagle flies now,” “we’ve elevated our coverage”). A few months ago, national press became interested in the county, in large part because of a controversial proposed sale of beloved pieces of art in order to finance a museum’s overhaul. One of the Eagle’s mandates under new ownership has been to bulk up its arts and culture writing, and the museum saga coverage has certainly been unrelenting, with dozens of pieces so far on all facets of the issue. This past summer, the Eagle introduced a colorful, bulked-up new 12-page weekend features section called Landscapes, expanding its former lifestyles section.

“Everything in it is local except the New York Times bestseller list,” Moran reminded me, with an almost practiced enthusiasm that comes from having done a lot of outreach on the paper’s revival. “The paper was skinnier before, but now it lands with a thud on your doorstep. It’s funny what a little investment can do.”

Every section is getting a similar full re-evaluation, Moran said, most recently sports, which now has added features like high school athlete spotlights, a type of story conducive to Facebook-sharing. The section-by-section reworking process is now internally known as “landscaping,” and will take place at the three Vermont organizations as well. This revamping moves the other way, too. Last year, the Bennington Banner and Manchester Journal held a sports gala celebrating local high school athletes with Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas as the special guest, selling tickets to and sponsorships for the event. The Berkshire Eagle sports department will test the events model this coming June, according to Moran. The outlets together also launched a sponsored, tourism-focused GoShires VT app, which they’re hoping to expand as well.

“Yes, we’ve been able to add staff. But it’s not just about numbers. It’s about added strength and quality. How many papers of our size, for instance, have an investigations team like ours?” Rutberg said. He proudly rattled off staff names like investigations editor Larry Parnass, investigative reporter Patricia LeBoeuf, new arts and entertainment reporter Ben Cassidy, managing editor for news Samantha Wood, education reporter and community engagement editor Jenn Smith, and editorial cartoonist Chan Lowe, who had been laid off from the Sun Sentinel in Florida, a Tronc-owned paper, in 2015. “We got someone from Florida. We got someone from the Des Moines Register. Maybe we’ll even get someone to come here from California.”

He also mentioned notable members of a new advisory board chaired by a former Boston Globe editor, Don MacGillis, many of whom have already come to the Eagle newsroom for brown bag lunches with staff. (New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert! Writer Simon Winchester! Cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s on the board, too!)

Promise aside, the Berkshire Eagle needs to serve an often overlooked county. The Boston Globe doesn’t reach that far west, and New York outlets don’t reach that far east. Online, the free iBerkshires.com covers council meetings and school closings and events.

It also serves a patchwork county, one that’s dotted with collapsed mills, well-trafficked museums, summer homes, and theater goers, and dealing with its own heroin and opioid crisis. Individual towns are proud, territorial. For a news organization promising breadth of coverage, breadth will be tricky, despite the relatively small population. Advertising is still “a significant portion of our revenue” and seven-days-a-week print is staying, Rutberg told me, but “the needle keeps moving in favor of circulation, the same way nationally it moves in favor of digital over print.”

Rutberg hosts frequent “coffee with the president” open houses throughout the county to meet Berkshire residents personally, talking to them about the Eagle’s improvements and the organization’s desire to really hear out each town.

“Word-of-mouth has so far been our most powerful form of marketing,” Rutberg said. “It’s been encouraging to hear that subscribers encourage others to subscribe, or re-subscribe. Because A, you subscribe because you get a good value. And B, because the paper’s important for the community.” (Unsolicited donations have recently arrived in the newsroom, which Moran and Rutberg have said will go to paying for a subscriber who calls to cancel for financial reasons.)

And reaching those who don’t already read the paper? “That’s the conundrum,” he admitted. The Eagle has tried to branch out with podcasts like its Accents series, which profiles immigrants who now live in the Berkshires, hosted by a local freelancer (the series is sponsored by a local credit union). The possibilities for new readers extend beyond permanent county residents, Rutberg suggested.

Could the Eagle come up with a paid-for arts and culture offering that can be targeted at the seasonal audiences who come for summer theater or for music in the area? Maybe a separate offering for “the Berkshire diaspora” — people who once worked there, lived there, went to college there, or, like me, grew up there?

“The connections people have to this place run deep,” Rutberg said. “And if we can come up with the right products — that sounds so silly, ‘product’ — well, that’s an exercise we should pursue.”

Welcome to the Berkshires sign in Massachusetts, by Timothy Valentine. Used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 29, 2018, 11:13 a.m.
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