BRATTLEBORO—On May 1, 2016, the Brattleboro Reformer found itself under new ownership, as a four-person group from the Berkshires had bought the daily newspaper.
The Reformer, along with its sister papers — the Bennington Banner, the Manchester Journal, and The Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, Mass. — was purchased from Digital First Media after more than two decades of absentee ownership.
At a news conference at the River Garden shortly before the sale was finalized, retired Massachusetts District Court judge Fredric D. Rutberg, the leader of the group, said they had a simple business plan — improve the quality of the paper, which would attract more readers, and would in turn attract more advertisers.
Most of the people in attendance at the River Garden two years ago were skeptical about that claim. The Reformer had followed the same well-trodden path as many other newspapers in the U.S. — cut costs, cut quality, and squeeze out as much profit as possible.
Even though the new owners said the right things and professed their love of community journalism, the general feeling in the room was “we’ll believe it when we see it.”
A little more than two years after that news conference, the Reformer held another gathering at the River Garden. Although it wasn’t billed as such, it was a celebration of the fulfillment of the promise made by Rutberg, who now serves as the publisher of the four papers — to improve their quality and make them again essential to their communities.
The River Garden reception was a chance for the public to meet the revamped and expanded Reformer staff.
• Susan Smallheer, a reporter and former Southern Vermont Bureau Chief for the Rutland Herald for nearly four decades, was added to the reporting staff.
• Bill LeConey, a reporter and editor with three decades of experience, most recently with The Press of Atlantic City, N.J., joins the Reformer as its night editor.
• Melanie Winters, who had been the Reformer’s night editor for seven years, was promoted to news editor.
• Bob Audette, who had been news editor, has returned to the reporting staff. He has been a reporter and editor at the Reformer for more than a decade.
• Harmony Birch, who has been a reporter about a year, now becomes a page designer, and will work with Winters and LeConey to put together the paper each day.
The additions and reassignments bring the Reformer’s newsroom to nearly the same level of staffing as it had a decade ago.
With the addition of Smallheer and the return of Audette to the reporting ranks, they join reporter Chris Mays to give the paper three full-time reporters. Birch will also continue to do some occasional reporting for the paper.
“The past two years, we’ve had to do a lot of rebuilding, in the best sense of the word,” said Reformer Executive Editor Kevin Moran at the reception.
Martin Langeveld, a former publisher of the Reformer and current advisor to its new owners, admitted at the reception that he had had his doubts at first about whether Rutberg and the ownership team could succeed.
Two years later, Langeveld said the business plan is falling into place.
He said circulation and advertising at the paper, while well below the levels of a decade ago, “is now stable,” and the paper has won several awards from the Vermont Press Association and the New England Newspaper & Press Association for editorial excellence.
“This has been a great opportunity for us,” said Moran. “These changes were something that was overdue and, now, we can be an even better newspaper.”