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Berkshire Eagle parent company, Digital First, cuts New England staff

“What’s happening at The Eagle is partly an indicator of what’s happening to local journalism nationally and partly the result of the ownership structure it’s caught in right now. Digital First is in the financial engineering business, not the journalism and civic engagement business." -- Bill Densmore, lecturer at the Reynolds Institute of Journalism at the University of Missouri and co-founder of the Williamstown Advocate

Pittsfield — The subsidiary of a media giant that generates around $1.4 billion in revenues from its 800-plus digital and online platforms swooped through The Berkshire Eagle, the only daily newspaper left in the Berkshires, and its other regional newspapers last Friday (June 26) and wiped out numerous positions, including those of two long-time, second-generation employees at The Eagle.

imagesAccording to anonymous sources at The Eagle, New England Newspapers, Inc. (NENI), subsidiary of Denver-based Digital First Media (DFM), also “released” employees on Monday (June 29) at The Eagle, The Brattleboro Reformer, The Bennington Banner and The Manchester Journal.

Digital First controls 160 weekly and 76 daily newspapers, including the San Jose Mercury News and The Denver Post. As recently as April, most of Digital First’s inventory was for sale, as reported by The Eagle, and the company thought they had a buyer in Apollo Global Management for a sale price of $400 million, but the sale never happened. Apollo manages $160 billion in assets.

The Eagle’s headquarters in The Clock Tower Business Park at 75 South Church Street is on the market for $2.5 million.

Of the five employees laid off from The Eagle, one was the editor of Berkshires Week, Kate Abbott, leading to speculation that the weekly magazine will no longer be published. Others laid off were a security guard, a marketing employee and an IT systems worker.

Edward Woods, publisher of the Berkshire Eagle
Edward Woods, publisher of the Berkshire Eagle

NENI regional publisher Edward Woods declined comment. Kevin Moran, NENI regional vice-president of news, did not return calls.

A long-term employee who got a pink slip on Friday said the trouble began after Digital First acquired the paper and began to “farm out” work. The classified advertising department was outsourced to a call center in Pennsylvania, for instance, leaving skeleton crews to manage large volumes of work. The Eagle manages obituaries for all four of the NENI papers, for example, a 7-day-a-week operation that had to be done by two people.

“I was left to do what nobody else wanted to do,” the employee said.

“I’m still reeling in shock,” the employee said of the layoff. “But it’s a blessing in disguise.”

“It’s good because it hasn’t been good there for a long time.”

Staff in the advertising department, the employee said, had been “cut in half over the last 14 months.”

Bill Densmore
Bill Densmore

According to VTDigger.org, Digital First CEO John Paton stepped down after Apollo backed out of the deal to acquire most of Digital First’s inventory, though he is still named CEO on Digital First’s website. Paton could not be reached for comment.

Bill Densmore is a former newspaper publisher who has watched the fortunes of local papers rise and fall. For one year he worked for NENI as an ad director at the now defunct North Adams Transcript, and said he has paid particular attention to The Eagle over the years.

“What’s happening at The Eagle is partly an indicator of what’s happening to local journalism nationally and partly the result of the ownership structure it’s caught in right now,” Densmore said.

“Digital First is in the financial engineering business, not the journalism and civic engagement business. That’s not a slap at that business or The Eagle.” Densmore said this is simply the turn newspapers have taken over the last 10 years, as locally owned papers were sold to media giants that see only bottom lines.

Kevin Moran, vice president for news at New England Newspapers.
Kevin Moran, vice president for news at New England Newspapers.

“The only way to change it is to flush that corporate ownership structure out of the system.” He added that he has seen a trend elsewhere of “local people with money buying papers out of that structure.”

Densmore also said that it was “interesting to speculate” about papers that are “getting deeply into the printing business or out of it altogether.” He noted that the Hearst Corporation, publisher of The Albany Times Union, invested in a multi-million dollar printing press upgrade two years ago despite a large online audience. The Times-Union press also prints several other local New York state papers.

The Eagle itself has a robust printing operation, and prints several local Berkshire County papers, including The Berkshire Record and The Courier. “Could The Eagle be printed at the Times Union?” Densmore wondered, and “does the owner of The Eagle want to stay in printing?”

One-time Eagle employee Seth Rogovoy, publisher and editor of The Rogovoy Report, said that the latest Eagle cuts, “as well as at all newspapers owned by Alden Global Capital throughout New England and the Capitol Region, are a sad consequence of newspapers being treated like widgets by faceless national corporations that care nothing about journalism. Once newspapers ceased to be owned locally, by businesspeople who were part of the community and thus cared about it — and who were, in many cases, wealthy enough to treat them as vanity publications — the writing was on the wall, or rather, no longer on the wall.”

Seth Rogovoy
Seth Rogovoy

Rogovoy added that the “several online outlets that are slowly filling the gap left by these shrinking, once glorious journalistic enterprises…are no substitute for the heyday of papers like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Eagle, with news bureaus in every town in the county and editors and writers who were among the best in the nation.” He said that the alternative online outlets are now “the future” and require support from readers, advertisers and the business community,” who are “tossing away…advertising dollars to out-of-town financial entities disguised as local newspapers, siphoning away business and profits that are better spent right here in our region.”

“From business standpoint, I certainly understand that they are cutting corners,” said the laid-off Eagle employee, who was given a severance package. “Newspapers as a whole have suffered tremendously over the last 10 years.”

“But I’m glad to be out of there; it was a lot of pressure.”

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