By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
New England Newspapers Inc. is selling three newspapers in southern Vermont to Guilford resident Paul Belogour.
Company president Fredric Rutberg announced Tuesday, May 4, that the Bennington Banner, Manchester Journal, Brattleboro Reformer and UpCountry Magazine will split off from the Berkshire Eagle, which is located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where Rutberg is based. The Banner and Reformer are dailies. The Journal is a weekly.
“Frankly, it’s very difficult for us to get involved in Vermont,” Rutberg said. “The distance between the Berkshires and southern Vermont is a lot larger than it looks on the map. And Covid made that even more clear.”
Rutberg said Belogour approached him several months ago, and he was open to the idea, believing that local ownership and control will be better for the publications and communities. He said the move makes sense in terms of the daily operation of the publications and that the decision was not financially based.
“NENI will come out of this transaction in an even stronger financial position than it had been before we were approached by Vermont News and Media,” he wrote in an internal memo to staff, obtained by VTDigger.
Belogour, a local investor, is buying the publications under the name Vermont News and Media LLC, a company he formed to make the purchase. The sale is expected to close May 14.
In his letter to staff, Rutberg said all employees at the three newspapers will stay in place. The Berkshire Eagle will continue printing the papers for the next five years. For the next year, it will continue to provide advertising, customer service and coordinate circulation.
“Both NENI and Vermont News and Media will do better and be stronger if their counterpart enjoys similar success, so for this reason, among myriad others, I join my colleagues in ownership, the board and management in pledging to do all we can to make this transition as smooth as possible and to assist Vermont News and Media succeed in every way,” Rutberg wrote to staff Tuesday afternoon.
Belogour founded a software company, Boston Unisoft Technologies, along with Brattleboro-based Vermont Innovation Box, which offers cooperative workspace to businesses. He also placed a $3.95 million bid on Southern Vermont College during an auction in federal bankruptcy court in December, but Southern Vermont Health Care ultimately purchased the campus for $4.65 million.
Belogour could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
Stephen Terry, a former managing editor at the Rutland Herald, closely watches trends in media and said he didn’t know of Belogour. But he said the acquisition may be part of a larger trend in which citizens and groups are buying up publications to preserve local journalism.
Patrick Soon-Shiong purchased the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2018, for example, and businessman Stewart Bainum Jr. is working to acquire The Baltimore Sun. On Monday, The Colorado Sun announced it had partnered with a national nonprofit, The National Trust for Local News, to buy 24 local newspapers under the new name The Colorado News Conservancy.
In Charlotte, Vermont, a group of nationally known journalists is starting a new accountability-focused weekly paper, The Bridge, with a reporter who resigned from the Charlotte News after she raised ethical concerns about the organization.
Terry pointed to previous ownership of New England Newspapers, Inc., which was owned by the Miller family from 1891 until 1995 when it was purchased by MediaNews Group, based in Denver. Then, in 2016, a group of Berkshire-based investors, including Rutberg, bought the papers.
It’s important for investors without journalism experience to follow the leads of experienced staff members, Terry said.
“There seems to be a movement around the country, and it has some resonance in Vermont, that local journalism is an important factor and helping us to preserve democracy,” Terry said.
Rutberg said he’s confident in Belogour’s skillset, interest and local roots.
“Paul has a home in Guilford, Vermont, and he has made several substantial investments in southern Vermont,” he wrote to staff. “He will bring the type of local ownership, control and investment to the Vermont publications as Bob Wilmers, Hans Morris and I have done to The Berkshire Eagle.”
Hans Morris, New England Newspapers Inc.’s chairman, echoed Rutberg’s comments and confidence in Belogour in a statement.
“He clearly has the love of quality local journalism, and the skills and resources to ensure the essential role of the Reformer, the Banner and the Journal will thrive in these communities,” he said.