The Berkshire Eagle: Revitalizing a community’s ‘town square’

The Berkshire Eagle can trace its lineage as far back as 1789, and today has been revitalized with the goal of returning to its roots as a “town square” for the community it serves.

By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media

PITTSFIELD — The Berkshire Eagle can trace its lineage as far back as 1789, and today has been revitalized with the goal of returning to its roots as a “town square” for the community it serves.
The Western Star, a weekly newspaper founded in 1789 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, changed its name and ownership several times, and eventually transformed into the weekly Berkshire Eagle in 1852, according to the company’s website. The paper was purchased by Kelton B. Miller, along with several partners, in 1891, and in 1892 became a daily newspaper, The Berkshire Evening Eagle.

Miller bought the paper from his partners and over the years acquired several other publications, including the Bennington Banner in 1961, the Brattleboro Reformer in 1969, and the Manchester Journal in the early 1980s, according to the company’s website.

The company remained in the Miller family until 1995.

During that time, The Berkshire Eagle evolved into a highly respected community newspaper, and many of its reporters moved on to distinguished careers with publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and others.

Among those distinguished reporters was Daniel Pearl, who went on to report for The Wall Street Journal and was kidnapped and killed in 2002 while conducting an investigation in Pakistan during the war in Afghanistan.

The Berkshire Eagle and other newspapers acquired by the Miller family over the years were purchased by a Denver-based media company in 1995 and lost some of its luster, current co-owner Fredric D. Rutberg said.

“It got a lot smaller. They cut a number of reporters, some vendors were cut, the size of the paper was reduced and they relied on wire service reporting as opposed to local reporting,” Rutberg said. “The paper was a shell of what it once was.”

Rutberg is a lawyer who was appointed to the district court in Massachusetts in 1994 and served for 21 years. Judges are mandated in the state to retire at age 70, so as Rutberg approached that milestone, he began considering his future options. The Berkshire Eagle caught his eye after Rutberg attended a lecture in Nantucket where the speaker spoke of the importance of journalism.

“He said, kind of off-handedly, ‘Democracy requires citizenship and citizenship requires a town square,’” Rutberg said.

That off-hand statement put the wheels in motion.

Rutberg said The Berkshire Eagle had once been regarded as “one of the great newspapers of the world,” and he wanted to restore that former luster.

“In their class, along with a world newspaper — at the time The New York Times was a national paper — The Berkshire Eagle was a local newspaper, and it set the standard for local newspapers,” Rutberg said, pointing to the world-class journalists The Berkshire Eagle had turned out over the years.

But things changed after the Miller family sold the company, he said.

“The Berkshire Eagle was extraordinary. That sort of dried up when the Miller family sold the paper in 1995 and in the 20 years between when they sold the paper and we bought it, it shrunk from its previous greatness, and so I got the idea that we could restore some of the former glory of the paper because it is important for the community to have someone telling the stories of what is happening here,” Rutberg said.

Rutberg purchased The Berkshire Eagle and its accompanying newspapers along with three partners in 2016 — Stanford Lipsey, Hans Morris and Robert G. Wilmers.

“Our goal was to create the finest group of newspapers in America,” Rutberg said. “That was our initial goal and that remains our goal.”

Lipsey died in November 2016 and Wilmers died the following year, in December 2017, according to the company’s website. The board of directors of New England Newspapers Inc. currently consists of Rutberg, Morris and John Mulliken, who represents the Wilmers family, along with Martin C. Langeveld, who was associated with both of the newspaper’s former owners.

Having a viable and contributing newspaper is vital to a growing community, Rutberg said.
“It’s really important for economic development for the stories to be told about the interesting and creative things going on in our world, not just ‘cops and court,’” he said.

Covering crime stories had become a mainstay of the newspaper, dominating its front page, during the years between the sale of the company by the Miller family and when Rutberg and his partners purchased the publications.

After the four partners took over, they made significant investments in the operation of The Berkshire Eagle.

“We invested in reporters,” Rutberg said. “We now have 30 or 32 reporters, including editors.”
With a much bigger staff, The Berkshire Eagle was able to expand its coverage on several fronts, perhaps most notably its reporting on the arts and cultural scene that is so endemic to the Berkshires.

“The thing we did that was most significant was we set out to be the finest community newspaper in America,” Rutberg said. “We had to have a world-class arts and culture section because A, it’s necessary, but B, because the arts are so important to the Berkshire community and the economy. The board challenged the editorial staff to do that, and they came up with the Berkshire Landscapes section that we added back in May of 2017. It’s quite extraordinary — it has shrunk because of COVID and things closed down, but it was originally a 12-page section, all color, and it is quite spectacular for a newspaper of our size.”

In serving as the Berkshires’ “town square,” Rutberg makes a point to take into consideration the needs and wants of the community the newspaper serves.

“I always tell people — if you see something in the paper that you like, please tell all your friends,” he said. “And if you see something that you don’t like, please tell me.”