Local investors buy The Berkshire Eagle; pledge return of quality journalism
Editor’s Note: On May 2, 2016, the 124-year-old Berkshire Eagle will return to local ownership, after 21 years of control by a series of newspaper chains. A judge, two bankers, and a retired publishing protégé and friend of financier Warren Buffett – three with either full- or part-time ties to the Berkshires – announced their purchase of The Berkshire Eagle to an enthusiastic audience at the Berkshire Museum on Thursday, April 21. The new owners are retired Judge Fredric Rutberg, banker Robert G. Wilmers, and venture capitalist John “Hans” Morris – all of Stockbridge – and retired Buffalo News publisher Stanford Lipsey. The following is a history of the Berkshire Eagle’s ownership, written by journalist Bill Densmore, who had prepared this document for the new ownership. A profile of the four new Eagle owners appears below.
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Pittsfield — Its editorials won it a Pulitzer Prize. It has been cited in a movie that starred Sallie Fields and Paul Newman, and called the best newspaper in the world of its class. Its newsroom has spawned generations of star journalists, including terrorist-slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
But for much of its 164-year-history, the owners of The Berkshire Eagle have sought not notoriety — but to faithfully chronicle, sustain and celebrate the Berkshire hills, and especially their natural environment and human culture.
“There are people who carp about the Eagle,” Alan Cooperman, who progressed from the Eagle to the Washington Post to religion scholar at the Pew Research Center, once said. “And frankly, they never have seen other local papers in communities this size. There are a handful of other papers as good – there are maybe a handful that are better – and there are boatloads full that are nowhere near as good.”
Cooperman, who grew up in Stockbridge, offered his assessment in 1987 as part of a two-part series on Eagle Publishing Co. which appear in the paper’s then-weekly competitor, The Advocate.
Only three newspapers, each in their own way, were great, famed press critic Ben Bagdikian told Time Magazine in an Aug. 28, 1972 story – The New York Times, Le Monde of Paris, and the Berkshire Eagle.
To be sure, the paper has changed tremendously since 1987 and 1972 – the population of Berkshire County has shrunk, there are fewer, and larger, retailers, and the county’s manufacturing legacy, including the starting place of Berkshire-Hathaway Corp., has withered. So the paper’s resources have shrunk, too. But not appreciably more or less than other U.S. dailies.
Yet, the Eagle today remains the dominant civic-information resource for one of the most recognized and revered regions of the country – the Berkshires. Its cultural institutions are known throughout the world – and they continue to innovate. At 12,000 acres and 3,492 feet of elevation, the Mount Greylock State Reservation is the largest and tallest state park in Massachusetts. The Appalachian Trail meanders north-south through the county.
“ . . . [T]he company itself has long been regarded as a guardian of the county, and as such, a permanent and influential part of its social and economic fabric,” then-retired Eagle business editor Lewis C. Cuyler wrote in a 1995 commentary.
The Eagle’s provenance dates to 1789, with the founding of The Western Star in Stockbridge, a weekly published through its 1815 merger with the Berkshire Herald to become the Berkshire Star. The “Berkshire County Eagle” emerged in 1852 through more mergers and renamings and became daily.
By 1894 the paper’s proprietors had become exclusively the Miller family, and they held it for three generations and 101 years – remarkable for a family business. The great-grandfather, Kelton Bedell Miller, was an orphan and a grocery-store owner when he took sole control. When he died in 1941, his sons Lawrence K. “Pete” Miller and Donald Miller took charge. Donald died in 1972 and Pete in 1991, leaving the papers in ownership of sons Michael, Mark, Kelton II and daughter Margo.
Don and Pete ran the paper through the post-World War II boom of General Electric Co.’s Pittsfield transformer, plastics and defense operations. For more than 40 years, the fortunes of GE, The Berkshires and the Eagle were intertwined in a sometimes odd dance. As U.S. utility-industry need for large power transformers gradually waned, GE increasingly developed missiles systems for the Navy.
A series of Eagle editorials in 1972 critical of the Vietnam War written by then-editorial-page editor Roger B. Linscott won the paper a Pulitzer Prize — in the same year as the Washington Post’s Pulitzer for Watergate coverage and the Omaha Sunpapers for their exposure of Boys Town fund-raising.
In 1991, stories by reporter Holly Taylor won the then-Miller-owned paper a George Polk Award for exposing questionable financial practices within Berkshire Health Systems, the region’s largest hospital and health-care nonprofit.
In the 1987, many observers might have said that a U.S. daily newspaper operating without daily competition in a market the size of Pittsfield had somewhat of a monopoly. In an interview that year, Pete Miller imperiously acknowledged their monopoly but asserted the family used it to make a better newspaper.
“The thing about newspapers is that you can influence the public and take unpopular positions,” Pete Miller told The Advocate in the 1987 interview. “In a sense, you buy public office. Sure, people get fed up with you and they don’t advertise but they have to come back or they’ll go out of business . . . if the rewards of monopoly get spent on the product, that can be a good thing.”
At that time, the paper had 45 editorial employees – way above the national average for a paper its size, and planned to add another 15 when it began Sunday publication that year. It reached a peak of 65 full-time equivalents a few years later.
Today, the landscape is different, and a majority of U.S. dailies can afford far fewer reporters and editors.
Starting about a decade ago, newspapers – especially those with national and regional readerships – have hemorrhaged advertising dollars to online competitors, with the effect reaching smaller-market papers like the Eagle, too. On the Internet, where most people now get their breaking news, newspaper websites generally have small audiences compared to the likes of Facebook, Yahoo and major national sites like CNN.
As a result, organizations such as New England Newspapers Inc. — today’s owner of the Eagle, two Vermont dailies and a weekly — are now retooling their staffs and their ambition to meet the information needs of their regions in multiple platforms and ways – print, multimedia, online, mobile and face-to-face. And they are looking for ways to do so more efficiently and with more help and collaboration with the public.
A unique bond with readers was a special emphasis of Pete, the Eagle’s editor from 1941 until his death in 1991. He was forever cajoling the literati of the Berkshires – artists, writers, poets, actors – to add their voices to the paper. That reputation was well known, and it percolated into the script of a movie written by Kurt Luedtke, a Detroit Free Press editor whose friend and subeditor, Edward K. Shananan had worked at the Eagle early in his career.
“I was raised in the Northeast,” said actress Sally Field, playing in 1981 a Miami investigative reporter in the movie drama “Absence of Malice.” She continued: “I had my first job there summer when I was 16, on the Berkshire Eagle. I wonder if they’d have me back.” When co-star Paul Newman listened to her utter that line, he might well have thought of Williamstown, where he visited and where his wife, Joanne Woodward, was a regular on the Williamstown Theatre Festival stage.
Ex-Eagle cub reporter and author Rinker Buck captured the reputation of the paper’s newsroom in his 2002 memoir, “First Job: A Memoir of Growing Up at Work.” Buck, who has written for the Hartford Courant, plus New York, Life and Vanity Fair magazines. “Because of its fame and the scenic beauty of the Berkshire mountains, the Eagle was known as an important ‘feeder’ for the big, prestigious dailies,” Buck wrote in “First Job.”
The Millers cultivated a symbiotic relationship between the Eagle and the arts.
Pete Miller had a habit of asking new Eagle reporters to read Richard D. Birdsall’s 1959 book, “Berkshire County: A Cultural History” which traces the county’s 19th-century influence on American literature through such one-time residents as Herman Melville. Miller was a founding trustee of The Clark Art Institute and the Williamstown theater, and helped develop what became the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood festival. He served on the BSO’s board of overseers. His wife, Amy Bess, helped found and lead the Hancock Shaker Village museum. Pete’s son, Michael, chaired the board of the Berkshire Historical Society, which has restored Mellville’s farm.
“[Pete] felt almost religiously that it was the paper’s duty to cover the cultural area of the community with completeness and passion,” retired Eagle entertainment editor Milton Bass recalled in an obituary upon Pete Miller’s March 31, 1991 death.
The Millers also cultivated a role as stewards of the land. Kelton B. Miller the grandfather, donated land for Pittsfield’s Springside Park. Don Miller, his son, purchased, assembled and gifted to Massachusetts thousands of acres added to the Mount Greylock State Reservation. The Berkshire Natural Resources Council (BNRC) – started by the Millers — could always get a sympathetic ear from the Eagle’s editorial board when it came to efforts to preserve land or protect the Housatonic River. The family helped start both Bousquet and Jiminy Peak ski areas as investors and Pete was on the standing committee of the Trustees of Reservations.
“Pete Miller was obsessed with the notion that the Berkshires are a place with a sense of identity,” George S. Wislocki, hired by the Millers as president of the BNCR, said in 1995. “He believed that the Berkshires were distinct from any other place and that was all there was to it.”
The paper’s family-inspired commitment to the arts and environment ebbed in 1995.
On Sept. 1 of that year, hobbled by $17.9 million in bank debt from an ill-timed 1987 acquisition of the 350,000-square-foot Sheaffer Eaton mill in Pittsfield, a century-plus of Miller family ownership came to an end with the sale of the Eagle and its sister papers to big chain-newspaper operator Media News Group Inc., of Denver, for an undisclosed sum.
The Millers knew newspapers but not commercial real estate, and neither did MediaNews Group, which put the renovated mill up for sale a couple of years ago. Today, what was once called the Eagle Office & Technology Park does have multiple tenants besides the Eagle, (the largest is Berkshire Health Systems) but still some open space.
With the 1995 acquisition, MediaNews Group, by then already one of the nation’s 10-largest newspaper chains, was making its first foray into New England. Newspaper editors often think of themselves has having a dual role – giving readers what they want to read, and also what the need to read. For the Millers the later was a priority.
Not so W. Dean Singleton, the swashbuckling CEO of MediaNews.
“It is not our duty as newspapers to give readers what we think they ought to have, but to give the readers what they want,” Singleton declared Aug. 7, 1995 to the paper’s newsroom as MediaNews Group took control. “But we do put an enormous emphasis on local news content,” he added.
With the sale, the Miller’s retired from the paper, but Langeveld and then-managing editor David Scribner were retained. MediaNews moved swiftly to trim staff and wages to restore the paper’s profit margin. “ . . .[Y]ou can’t be an artistic success unless you’re a financial success,” MediaNews’ Singleton said. “But it’s not the profit motive that drives us,” he added. “It’s the motive that we love newspapers – love to have them, love to own them, love to make them better and better. That’s what we want to do here.”
In 1996 – a year later — MediaNews acquired the competing then-152-year-old daily North Adams Transcript, and The Advocate newsweekly in 2005. It closed both of them in January 2014. After Langeveld, who served from 1995 to 2000, Eagle publishers were transferred in from distant MediaNews properties – Andrew H. Mick, Kevin Corrado and now Ed Woods.
Under MediaNews, the paper’s leadership appears to have become less directly involved with cultural and land-use organizations. After his March, 2013 retirement, Mick received an award from Downtown Pittsfield Inc. for his support of its efforts to revitalize Pittsfield’s downtown.
A book by former major-league player Jim Bouton and a detailed story in the American Journalism Review took Singleton’s organization to task for allegedly misleading the public in its 2001 advocacy of a proposed $18.5-million baseball stadium complex. It was to be vacant property MediaNews owned – to replace the 84-year-old Wahconah Park – a favorite of minor-league fans. Pittsfield voters rejected the Eagle-backed plan in a referendum.
Despite diminished staff and resources, the Eagle has continued to win awards in the annual New England Newspaper & Press Association’s “Better Newspaper” contest and develop occasional examples of enterprise reporting going beyond daily coverage of spot-news events.
But by 2010, MediaNews Group, like the Millers had 15 years earlier, ran into financial headwinds.
By now the second-largest newspaper chain in the United States, by titles, MediaNews had accumulated $930 million in debt from its acquisition binge. In a deal that year with creditors, MediaNews started down a path that resulted in the easing out of Singleton and control passing to a private, New York-based hedge fund, Alden Global Capital LLC.
The Eagle’s editorial on Aug. 9, 1995 – the day after the MediaNews acquisition was announced and three weeks before the Miller’s lost control of its voice, observed:
The future is unknown, except for the likelihood that change will come faster and faster. But the following words, also spoken by Pete Miller in Bennington in 1960, should put the Eagle in good stead if heeded: ‘We believe that if a newspaper is alert and lively in its news columns, if it covers the happenings of the community fairly and completely, if it is open and forthright in its editorial opinion, it will have the respect of its readers and will be an effective advertising medium for those who use to use its columns.”
The Eagle’s soon-to-be new owners will once again have personal ties and residences in the Berkshires.
Like the Millers, they may become stewards of an important civic trust – and business – for the Berkshires. But it can no longer be merely a print newspaper in a modern information ecosystem dominated by bits and bytes rather than picas or type. In that lies challenge, and opportunity.
Profiles of the new Berkshire Eagle owners
As of May 2, The Berkshire Eagle and its affiliated newspapers in Vermont will become owned by four individuals, three with strong Berkshire County ties. The all-stock transaction, for an undisclosed price, will include some financing from Berkshire Bank.
The four are:
- Retired Massachusetts District Court Judge Fredric D. Rutberg, who lives in Stockbridge
- Banker Robert G. Wilmers, who maintains a Stockbridge residence
- Venture capitalist John C. “Hans” Morris, former Visa Inc. president and current MassMoCA board chairman; who also has a home in Stockbridge
- Retired Buffalo News Publisher Stanford Lipsey, of Buffalo, N.Y., and near Palm Springs, Calif.
The transaction has been in the works for more than a year, initiated by Rutberg, who says that upon retirement in early 2015 from his Pittsfield courtroom, he was looking for a new way to stay engaged with the full spectrum of people in the Berkshires – his home for 42 years.
Wilmers and Morris are united by longtime friendships with Rutberg. Lipsey joined the investor group through his Buffalo contact with Wilmers. Rutberg will assume an operating role as president of New England Newspapers Inc. (NENI), The Eagle’ s parent company. In Vermont, NENI will also continue to own, under the control of the new investor group, the Bennington Banner, the Brattleboro Reformer, both dailies, and the Manchester [Vt.] Journal, a weekly.
Wilmers and Morris joined with Rutberg more than a year ago to begin considering a purchase of NENI from its current owner, Denver-based Media News Group. Lipsey became involved as they sought advice from Wilmer’s friend, a veteran publisher. Lipsey and Rutberg share at least one thing in common – both are graduates of the University of Michigan.
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Here, in alphabetical order, are brief biographies of the four people who will acquire 100-percent ownership of New England Newspapers Inc. — publisher of the Berkshire Eagle and three Vermont newspaper — from Denver-based Media News Group.
Stanford C. Lipsey
Stanford C. Lipsey, 88, served 32 years as president and publisher of The Buffalo News, retiring in 2012. He’s known as a preservationist, philanthropist, a jazz enthusiast and arts supporter – and journalist turned respected publisher. He is also an accomplished photographer. Lipsey lives in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and Buffalo.
Lipsey is chairman of the Buffalo civic development corporation that is restoring the once-derelict downtown Richardson Olmsted Complex, a 140-year-old former insane asylum designed by one of America’s premier architects, Henry Hobson Richardson, and the famed landscape team of Frederic Law Olmsted. It will house a resort hotel and conference center, a museum and other future uses.
A native of Omaha, Neb., Lipsey studied political science at the University of Michigan – and many years later, in 2005, gifted $3 million to the school to renovate its student-publications building. Starting his career back in Omaha, Lipsey joined a chain of weeklies – the Omaha Sunpapers. In the 1970s he met another Omaha native – then-budding billionareWarren E. Buffett.
The two became friends, running track together. In 1969, Buffett purchased the Sun weeklies. In 1972, acting on a tip from Buffett – the Sun began an investigation of the fund-raising practices of Boys Town Inc., stories which won the Sun Newspapers a 1973 Pulitzer Prize. In 1980, Buffett tapped Lipsey to help run the Buffalo News, which Buffett’s company had purchased and which was then in a death-struggle with the competing Buffalo Courier-Express. The Buffett-Lipsey duo prevailed.
“The key to winning a newspaper battle is, ‘Can you be the marketplace for advertising, including autos and real estate?’” Lipsey told his newspaper in a story about his 2012 retirement. “That’s how you win.”
Besides the Buffalo News, Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. was a large stockholder in the Washington Post Company, and once owned a chunk of The Boston Globe’s parent. Starting in 2012, Buffett dove deeper into newspapers with his purchase first of his hometown Omaha World-Herald and then a total of some 60 papers since.
Former Washington Post owner Donald Graham in 2012 credits Lipsey with helping drive Buffett’s faith in newspapers. “It was Stan’s brilliant management of The Buffalo News that persuaded Warren that newspapers that focus on community and on the news that is most important to their readers could still be a good business,” Graham told the Buffalo paper in a 2012 interview.
Lipsey has said that at the Sunpapers he worked hard to come up with enterprise stories for the weekly that would scoop the daily. He spelled out his journalistic philosophy in a 2012 audio interview he gave to Buffalo’s NPR affiliate, WBFO. He told reporter Eileen Buckley:
“ . . . [W]hat I like to do was not just cover a story well but initiate a story. And you can do that if you’re thinking that way. Too many people in the newspaper business report. It’s not far from a kid in the class, they report. There might be some sidebars and some things they’ll do. But to me the question of a good newspaper is what do you go out and dig up yourself, what do you decide is wrong that needs to be changed in the community? . . . That’s the main thing I love.”
John C. “Hans” Morris
John C. “Hans” Morris, 56, is chairman of the board of trustees of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and also was for six years a trustee of Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival, Inc. through 2015. He has homes in New York City and San Francisco in addition to Stockbridge.
In 2013, Morris collaborated with Williamstown filmmaker David Simonds on the feature-length documentary, “The Cherry Cottage,” a history of the Berkshires told through the evolution of a small, 1782 house in Stockbridge — from Native American inhabitants to the 1960s counterculture — and featuring Arlo Guthrie.
Following graduation cum laude from Dartmouth College, Morris has spent a career in investment banking, most of it at Citigroup, where, after 27 years he finished as CFO and head of finance, technology and operations for the bank’s global institutional and capital-markets business.
From 2007-2009 he was president of California-based Visa Inc., the credit-card giant, leading up to and during its $19.7-billion initial public offering of 51 percent of its stock – at the time the largest IPO in U.S. history. After Visa, Morris was managing director and advisory director for General Atlantic, a global growth equity firm.
He is now managing partner of Nyca Partners LLC, a New York City-based venture capital and advisory firm focusing on financial technology. Nyca Partners is investing up to $25 million in companies focusing on alternative consumer credit, merchant payment solutions and financial infrastructure software. Morris is a director of portfolio companies Lending Club and Cardworks. Nyca has also invested in GoodWorks Inc. a startup focused on enabling online charitable giving. Other investment partners in Nyca Partners are Max Levchin, a co-founder of PayPal, and Osama Bedier, former head of Google Payments.
Morris headed the Dartmouth College Fund, the college’s principal development outreach, from 1999 to 2002. His wife, Kate, also a former investment banker, serves as president of the John C. & Katherine M. Morris Foundation Inc., as a trustee of the Fresh Air Fund and formerly of the Berkshire Theatre Group. In 2005, the Morris’ gave $2.5 million to Dartmouth to boost a center for the study of ethics and human values.
Fredric D. Rutberg
Fredric D. Rutberg, 70, retired last year after 21 years as a Berkshire District Court judge sitting in both Pittsfield and Great Barrington. Interviewed at the time, Rutberg said he was pleased to step off the bench because it “gives you the opportunity to have another career when you think you still have your fastball.”
Rutberg was born Nov. 29, 1945 in in Philadelphia, earned a B.A. at the University of Michigan and a law degree from New York University. He entered law practice in 1971, working for the New York Human Rights Commission then Legal Services of Spanish Harlem. When he transferred to Legal Services for Rensselaer County, N.Y., he moved to Stockbridge, entering private practice in 1974 and joining the practice in 1976 with college and law-school classmate Kenneth Shearn, in 1976.
Rutberg’s position as publisher of The Eagle will thrust him back into a role as observer and sometimes arbiter of all levels of Berkshire living. As a trial judge, Rutberg presided over a dizzying array of cases involving human foibles, tragedies and disputes. While alcohol abuse seemed to play a role in many cases in the 1990s, in recently years drugs have been a factor in most cases.
“It has me very baffled,” Rutberg told an Eagle reporter in a March 6, 2014 account of a judicial conference he was attending. “How do you get someone to that point where they can make that step [of overcoming addiction], while they’re falling and tripped along the way and they are hurting a lot of people besides themselves?” At the same conference, Superior Court Judge John Agostini attributed 95 percent of those who come to Superior Court to some drug-related offense, often after jail terms.
As intractable the challenge of drug addiction and rehabilitation, Rutberg also recalls a particular highlight as an officer of the court and the nation. In September, 2012, he was selected to administer the oath of citizenship to 22 naturalized Americans in a ceremony underneath “The Four Freedoms” paintings at the Norman Rockwell Museum in his hometown. It was the first time in a decade that immigrants became U.S. citizens in Berkshire County, because the government had moved swearing-in ceremonies to Springfield.
And it was special moment for Rutberg. In 1994, he was sworn in as a judge in front of the same paintings at the museum — after his nomination by then-Gov. William F. Weld.
Rutberg is a former trustee of the Berkshire Theatre Group. He was married in 2013 to Lee-native Judith Monachina, a former reporter and editor for The Advocate newsweekly, published in The Berkshires until early 2014.
Robert C. Wilmers
Robert G. Wilmers, 80, is chairman and CEO of M&T Bank Corp., a Buffalo, N.Y.-based bank holding company with assets of $122 billion. A philanthropist with a particular interest in education and arts, he maintains residences in Buffalo, New York City and in Stockbridge – and offices in both Buffalo and New York City. “I like being part of the banking business, being part of the community,” Wilmer said in a lengthy 2011 American Banker profile. “As a banker, you get involved in everything.”
Some 20 percent of M&T Bank is owned by its employees and management – and another 4.3 percent by Berkshire Hathaway Corp. – the holding company headed by billionaireWarren E. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Corp.
Wilmers has been described as an advocate of charter schools and for the curbing of excessive executive compensation in the corporate world. Although his own bank has grown way beyond its Buffalo roots, he sees himself philosophically as a practitioner of local rather than money-center banking. In a 2011 New York Times account, business columnist Joe Nocera termed Wilmers: “ . . . the rarest of birds: a banker willing to tell harsh truths about banking.” Wilmers told Nocera big banks had become “a virtual casino.”
Wilmers is a career-long banker. After graduating from Harvard College and attending the Harvard Business School, he ran the Belgian operations of J.P. Morgan & Co.’s predecessor bank during the 1970s. He also served in New York City government.
He became CEO of M&T in 1983 as part of a management change and has headed the bank ever since. He has been an active presence in Buffalo educational and civic affairs, founding and leading the city’s financial control board until about five years ago. Although often in the Berkshires, his has preferred a dramatically lower profile here.
In addition to his role as chairman and chief cxecutive officer of M&T Bank, Wilmers also was chairman of the Empire State Development Corp. from 2008 to 2009, chairman of the New York State Bankers Association in 2002 and a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 1993 to 1998. He speaks French, and owns a winery in France, Chateau Haut-Bailly.
Wilmers’ wife, Elisabeth, serves on the board of trustees of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.