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Brattleboro Reformer to be sold in May

New owners, from sister paper’s home turf in Massachusetts, promise commitment, sustainability, and a return to community engagement in content and process

Additional reporting by Jeff Potter.

BRATTLEBORO—The Brattleboro Reformer will have a new owner on May 2.

The four new owners and members of the Stockbridge, Mass.-based Birdland Acquisition LLC would not disclose the purchase price of the daily paper and its three sister papers — the Bennington Banner, the Manchester Journal, and The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass. — from Digital First Media (DFM).

They did confirm, however, that the sale of the four papers from DFM’s regional corporate subsidiary New England Newspapers Inc. (NENI), was a stock sale and that owners own 100 percent of the stock.

During a press conference at the River Garden on Thursday afternoon, three of the four soon-to-be-owners expressed their love for Brattleboro, its people, and its culture.

NENI Regional Publisher Edward L. Woods — who will remain in that role after the acquisition, as will the other members of the management team — told the gathering that local content will be the new company’s first priority.

The community would see changes in the paper soon, Woods continued, with the company planning to hire more reporters and engage citizen journalists.

The Reformer will also bring many of its outsourced business operations — graphic design, call centers, advertising sales — back to town, he said, noting that the papers would undergo respective redesigns that would restore their individual visual identities.

The sale to Birdland did not include any real estate, said Woods.

The town of Brattleboro entered into a contract with the Reformer’s soon-to-be-former parent company, Digital First Media, this spring to buy its building on Black Mountain Road for $720,000. The contract includes a three-year lease for the Reformer’s newsroom.

Town Manager Peter Elwell said, “Today’s announcement will have no impact on our plans for relocating the police department.”

Elwell said Town Attorney Robert Fisher confirmed that the town’s contract with the seller of 62 Black Mountain Rd. obligates the honoring of the three-year lease. At the press conference, the principals said several times that they are already considering moving the newsroom into downtown.

Before the event, Selectboard Vice-Chair Kate O’Connor said her first reaction to the news was to wonder if the re-resourced Reformer would want more space.

A return to local journalism

The new owners, echoing Woods’ remarks, touted the Reformer’s purchase as a return of local journalism.

Three of the new owners have strong ties to Western Massachusetts. The fourth owner, Pulitzer Prize winner Stanford Lipsey, is the publisher emeritus of The Buffalo News. Prior to moving to Buffalo, Lipsey owned The Sun Newspaper Group in Nebraska.

According to a biography supplied at the press conference, John C. “Hans” Morris is the former president of Visa Inc. He also chairs the board of trustees of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams, Mass., and he serves as a trustee of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass.

Morris is now the managing partner of Nyca Partners LLC, a venture capital firm based in New York.

Fredric D. Rutberg, a retired Massachusetts District Court judge who will take over as president of the four papers, started his law career in New York City with the New York Human Rights Commission. He started practicing law in the Berkshires in 1974.

Robert G. Wilmers is the chairman and CEO of M&T Bank Corporation, headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y.

The four friends’ respective biographies show common ties to Stockbridge, arts organizations, and Warren E. Buffett, owner of The Buffalo News.

Woods said conversations about Birdland purchasing the four NENI newspapers started a few months ago. By January, the parties agreed to the purchase, he said.

Martin Langeveld, a public relations strategist and media consultant who worked for a number of years in management positions at Eagle Publishing and at NENI, most recently as the Reformer’s publisher, will help the group with media strategies.

Langeveld, of Vernon, will serve on the board of directors of the fledgling company.

A happy Rutberg told the crowd, “The Brattleboro Reformer is the town square here.”

Strengthening the Reformer will in turn increase the quality of life and civil discourse of the community it serves, he said.

The company’s business plan is simple, Rutberg continued. First, he promised to improve the quality of the publication, a measure that will attract more readers and, in turn, will entice more advertisers.

Rutberg stressed that the owners’ long-term goal is to have a sustainable, high-quality, profitable, local newspaper.

“We did not buy this paper with the intent of selling,” he said.

Pittsfield connection remains strong

A study of the press packet supplied at the press conference highlighted part of the new owners’ plans. The packet materials placed a lot of emphasis on The Berkshire Eagle, long the flagship paper of the regional news group.

Langeveld confirmed after the news conference that the owners originally wanted to buy only the Eagle but were told that they needed to purchase the other three NENI papers as well. They ultimately came around to the idea, Langeveld said.

The Reformer has had ties to the Eagle since its purchase in 1966; the Banner, since 1960.

The Eagle itself was published by three generations of the Miller family, which founded the paper as a daily in 1892. The papers were later sold en masse to Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group in 1995.

MediaNews Group merged with the Journal Register Company in 2013 to form Digital First Media.

In recent years, the Reformer has undergone multiple rounds of layoffs, consolidations, and reorganizations, with entire operations moved offsite and consolidated nationally.

The new owners say they plan to reverse that trend.

Morris added that after studying multiple newspaper models, hyperlocal newspapers were the ones that proved the most sustainable.

The new Reformer will work with the community to discover what the community wants and needs, Morris said. The new owners have promised to involve the community in multiple aspects of the endeavor, from reader panels to sharing talent and content.

Wilmers said, “We want to have the best community newspaper in the business.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #354 (Wednesday, April 27, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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