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New England Newspaper Owner Fights to Save Local Journalism

In this Thursday, April 11, 2019 photo, copies of The Berkshire Eagle newspaper are placed in a machine before being bundled for distribution, in Pittsfield, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
In this Thursday, April 11, 2019 photo, copies of The Berkshire Eagle newspaper are placed in a machine before being bundled for distribution, in Pittsfield, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
New England Newspaper Owner Fights to Save Local Journalism
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Hundreds of small-town newspapers across the United States have been forced to close down. But, The Berkshire Eagle has been revived.

The western Massachusetts daily newspaper has added employees to its investigative team. It has new 12-pages of lifestyle information. It reports on the area’s new eating places. And its advisory board includes famous musician Yo-Yo Ma and prize-winning writer Elizabeth Kolbert.

Three years ago, four investors with a lot of money and ties to the area saw an opportunity. They bought The Berkshire Eagle and three newspapers in nearby Vermont from Digital Media First, a large media company. It had become known for destroying small newspapers by cutting costs and dismissing reporters.

The investors hired 50 new reporters for the four newspapers. And readers are returning.

The long-term success of the newspapers is not guaranteed. But the new owners and employees are working hard to bring high-quality local journalism to their community.

“I want our newspaper to love its readers. And I want its readers to love the newspapers back,” said Kevin Moran, executive editor of The Berkshire Eagle.

Fredric Rutberg is one of The Eagle’s investors. He was a judge nearing retirement when he pulled together the team of investors in the spring of 2016. Now he is The Eagle’s owner, publisher and president.

In the three years under his ownership, the newspaper has won awards for its investigative reporting of a local museum’s art sale, the struggle to bring Internet connection to the area and the poor condition of the area’s bridges.

Rutberg often travels to Vermont to visit the other newspapers, too. He also looks for different ways to make money, such as putting on paid events that bring experts to discuss national and international issues.

The local Miller family owned The Berkshire Eagle for more than 100 years. But they took on too much debt and decided to sell the paper to Digital Media First in 1995.

Rutberg and his three partners returned the newspaper to community ownership for the first time since the sale. They quickly made changes, such as buying better quality paper and adding employee positions.

Rutberg and his partners wanted “world-class” arts and culture information for local readers.

Today, features editor Lindsey Hollenbaugh has seven employees. Her reporters have written recent stories about a theater rehearsal with Hollywood actor Jon Hamm. They have followed around a pizza delivery worker on the coldest night of the year. And they have explained how on-duty firemen get and cook their food.

“We feel like we won the lottery,” said Hollenbaugh, who joined The Berkshire Eagle in 2010.

The investigative team gives some power to small communities in the Berkshires area, in the western part of Massachusetts. More than 130,000 people live in the mountainous area’s many small towns.

The Eagle wants to work for those communities.

People from the small town of Sandisfield led reporter Heather Bellow to investigate a pipeline company’s failure to fix a road. The company had promised for more than two years to complete the repairs, but never did. Bellow also investigated a fire that killed a family in the town of Sheffield.

Independently owned newspapers are becoming a thing of the past. Of the 1,200 newspapers that have been sold in the last five years, most were owned by families or small private groups. That information comes from a study by Penelope Muse Abernathy. She is an expert on American newspapers at the University of North Carolina.

For many small newspapers, the future is unclear. But Rutberg says he hopes to see The Eagle continue to grow in the coming years.

“We are going to stick with this,” he said. “This is our commitment as long as humanly possible.”

I’m Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

revive – v. to make someone or something strong, healthy, or active again

journalism – n. the activity or job of collecting, writing, and editing news stories for newspapers, magazines, television, or radio

rehearsal – n. an event at which a person or group practices an activity such as singing, dancing, or acting in order to prepare for a public performance

hire - v. to give work or a job to (someone) in exchange for wages or a salary

lifestyle - n. a particular way of living

opportunity - n. an amount of time or a situation in which something can be done

lottery – n. a way of raising money for a government, charity, etc., in which many tickets are sold and a few of the tickets are chosen by chance to win prizes

convince – v. to cause someone to agree to do something

subscription – n. an agreement that you make with a company to get a publication or service regularly and that you usually pay for in advance