After cutting print days, the locally owned Berkshire Eagle buys a new printing press

Pontoosuc Lake, Pittsfield. Photo (cc) 2006 by the Massachusetts Office of Tourism.

Ten months after reducing the number of days it appears in print, The Berkshire Eagle is upgrading its printing capabilities. According to a message from Eagle president Fred Rutberg, the paper, based in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is in the process of acquiring a 9-year-old Goss Magnum press that will make it possible to print in color on every page. The move is aimed at making the paper more appealing to both readers and advertisers, Rutberg says.

Last October the Eagle moved from a seven- to a five-day print schedule, dropping its Sunday and Monday editions and transforming the Saturday paper into an all-weekend edition. The Eagle’s satellite papers in Brattleboro and Bennington, Vermont, ended a day of print as well.

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At the time, Rutberg described the move as an acceleration of plans that were already in the works, explaining that the COVID pandemic had hit advertising hard. The Eagle ran a long story describing print cutbacks at other papers around the country, presumably to show readers that the lesser emphasis on print shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the paper was on the skids. Indeed, executive editor Kevin Moran told New England Public Media that the move would not result in any layoffs.

“COVID-19 really put a chilling effect on some of our advertising revenue,” Moran was quoted as saying. “But on the second hand, ever since the middle of March, we’ve seen a really big increase in our digital-only subscriptions.”

The Berkshire Eagle has been one of the good-news stories amid the local-news crisis of recent years. Once regarded as one of the best small dailies in the country, the paper was laid low under the ownership of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. In 2016, Rutberg led a group of investors who bought the Eagle back from Alden and began the slow process of rebuilding what the bean-counters had torn down. The Associated Press put it this way in a 2019 feature:

It’s easy to get carried away — The Eagle is still struggling, and its survival is far from assured. Readers are trickling, not flocking, back.

But if it does fail, it won’t be for lack of effort. The Eagle’s owners, editors and staff are waging an all-out campaign to revitalize local journalism in the Berkshires and southern Vermont.

Rutberg’s announcement that he’s buying a new press is surely good news, but it shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the Eagle favors print over digital. Click on the subscribe button and it’s all about digital, with the paper offering various deals for digital-only and digital-plus-print subscriptions. The reality is that even as papers (can’t we come up with a better name?) and readers continue to shift to online, print remains more lucrative. The value of print advertising has simply held up better than digital, which was driven into the floor by Craigslist, Google and Facebook.

In his message to readers, Rutberg said:

When I announced last year that we were reducing The Eagle’s print editions from seven to five days a week, I also told you that we had adopted a long-term strategy of Being Digital.

Judging from the mail I received, many of you surmised that we had decided to abandon print, and that the announced reduction in print frequency was the beginning of the end of The Berkshire Eagle print edition. That was not the case last year, and it is not the case now. I hope that the substantial investment we are making in print, as evidenced by our purchase of the Magnum printing press, will put those thoughts to bed.

The Eagle isn’t out of the woods. But in the five years that the Rutberg group has owned it, it’s provided far more quality journalism to its communities than would have been the case under Alden. And it has a fighting chance of becoming a profitable, sustainable business.

There is no substitute for committed local ownership.

Still more on The Berkshire Eagle and the racist column

The fallout from The Berkshire Eagle’s decision to publish a racist column by “conservative activist” Steven Nikitas continues. Today The Boston Globe weighs in with a story that is currently ranked second among the paper’s top trending articles. (My earlier posts, with links to Nikitas’ column and editor Kevin Moran’s response, are here and here.)

The story, by Callum Borchers (a former student of mine), includes a misguided interpretation of the First Amendment by a journalist and blogger named Dan Valenti:

Dan Valenti, an adjunct professor of journalism at Berkshire Community College, said the Eagle made “absolutely the right call” when it chose to print the Nikitas column. If anything should have been withheld, it was Moran’s defense, which Valenti contended was unnecessary.

“The Eagle had a duty to publish it to start this very debate that has followed,” said Valenti, who runs a news and commentary blog called Planet Valenti. “We have to decide in this case whether we believe in the First Amendment or we don’t.”

The first of these two paragraphs represents Valenti’s opinion, and though I strongly disagree with him, he’s welcome to it. But the second paragraph is just plain wrong. All of us enjoy the protections of the First Amendment — including The Berkshire Eagle, which had an absolute right under the First Amendment to publish Nikitas’ column, reject it or (my preferred option) use it as the basis for reporting on racism in the community.

Following Valenti’s logic, I shouldn’t be wasting my time on this blog post — I should be emailing Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial-page editor of The New York Times, demanding my First Amendment right to a regular column. Once a week would be fine; I like my day job and wouldn’t want to have to give it up.

Valenti expounds on his views of the First Amendment at some length in this recent post on the Confederate flag. As you might guess, he believes its display is protected by the First Amendment. And it is! Anyone can fly it on his or her private property. And everyone has a First Amendment right to urge the state government of South Carolina to remove it (or not) from public display. (For some reason Valenti is also very excited about the difference between various types of Confederate flags.)

By the way, Eagle editor Kevin Moran, whose column defending his decision to publish Nikitas’ column has been controversial in its own right, has been a busy guy lately. Anne Galloway of the nonprofit news site VT Digger reports that New England Newspapers Inc. — part of the incredible shrinking Digital First chain — laid off 10 editorial employees last Friday. Among the papers affected were the Eagle and Vermont’s Brattleboro Reformer, Bennington Banner and Manchester Journal. Moran is regional vice president of the papers.

No snark. Though I disagree with Moran’s decision to publish Nikitas’ column, his explanation shows that he did so with the best of intentions. And I’m sure he’s devastated by the cuts at these once-thriving newspapers.

Berkshire Eagle publishes, defends a racist column

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See this follow-up post.

The venerable Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, founded in the 1890s and winner of the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, recently published a racist column by a “conservative activist” named Steven Nikitas. After outraged readers complained, editor Kevin Moran responded in a column of his own that though he vehemently disagreed with Nikitas’ screed, he considered it well worth publishing. Moran wrote:

Views and opinions — whether they be considered by some, most or all people to be ignorant or brilliant or somewhere in between — tell us a lot about the community in which we live, work, go to school, vote, debate, worship, pay taxes, make choices and decisions, etc.

That’s true. And a community paper like the Eagle should provide a public forum — to act as “a town square,” as Moran puts it. But it should also have standards for what it chooses to publish, and that’s where I think the Eagle blew it. Presumably Moran would not publish a column calling on white residents to burn crosses in order to drive their African-American neighbors out of the area. And no, Nikitas’ column isn’t as bad as that. But if you read it, you will see that it’s bad enough. Here is how Nikitas begins:

After the burning and looting in Baltimore and Ferguson we are seeing endless media hand-wringing that somehow “we” must all do something more to help black America. And “we” means white people, taxpayers, businesses, the criminal justice system, the universities and the government. But blacks must now pull themselves up. “We” have done far too much already with tens of trillions in handouts in the last 50 years, and it has backfired badly.

Conservatives and Republicans have offered sure-fire solutions for black America and they have been rejected repeatedly. Our advice has been for African-Americans to discard the leadership of the Democrat party and charlatans like Al Sharpton. After all, far-left liberalism has obviously failed. The proof is everywhere.

Conservatives have recommended over and over that blacks reform their culture from top to bottom by respecting marriage and the family and the law, returning to their churches, embracing education and hard work, avoiding violence and debased rap music, speaking clearly, shunning drugs and profanity, and pulling up their pants. And to stop blaming all of their problems on everyone else. That is immature, cowardly and counterproductive.

What respectable business owner would hire a young black male from the “hood” who won’t even show up for work? What successful enterprise is going to establish itself in crime-ridden inner cities? Isn’t looting and burning self-defeating?

And so it goes, for 750 words in total.

A few observations.

First, if your instinct is to argue that Nikitas has a First Amendment right to his opinion, my answer is yes, he certainly does. He should get a blog. The Eagle is not the government. It is a newspaper, and it has a First Amendment right to choose what to publish and what to reject. The Eagle has risked its brand and reputation for the sake of providing a platform for a racist screed.

The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit community news site that is the subject of my book “The Wired City,” offers a useful counterview: it screens comments before they are posted, and won’t publish those it considers racist. The policy begins: “Yes we do censor reader comments. We’ll continue to.” And these are comments, mind you, not full-blown columns.

Second, since we began talking about this on Twitter and Facebook Sunday (here’s the public Facebook link, where you’ll find a lively discussion), I’ve seen several people argue that the Eagle was providing a service by calling attention to a racist in the its midst. I find that argument ridiculous. You call attention to racism with reporting, not by providing a platform to a racist. Besides, racists are not particularly exotic; you can find them everywhere.

Third, this is a challenge for the Massachusetts Republican Party because, as Moran explains, Nikitas’ column is part of a regular series called “Right from the Berkshires” produced by members of the Berkshire County Republican Association. Will that group disavow Nikitas’ views? If not, will the state party disavow the regional group? I’ve already heard from one Republican activist who believes the state party should order the Berkshire group to stop using the party’s name.

I have a feeling that there’s going to be more to come. It’s already starting to circulate nationally — after I found out about it, I discovered that Talking Points Memo was already on it. It will be interesting to see where this goes from here.