Berkshire daily news sees a new future

The Berkshire Eagle is locally owned again. You may already have heard — the news is rushing around the county like a spring river since yesterday’s announcement. Berkshire daily news is back in local hands. Four local investors have bought New England News Inc., all four newspapers, including the Bennington Banner, the Manchester Journal and the Brattleboro Reformer.

I’m still taking it in. For me, this is the kind of news that sends you dancing around the living room or walking up to put an arm around the nearest person, especially when the nearest person is a friend who has pulled late-night shifts with you on the night desk — or gotten your back on a deadline when you’ve seen the sun come up.

In the last 15 years I’ve spent a lot of time as a community journalist in this county. For half that time I edited Berkshires Week, and then Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont, a weekly arts and community magazine in three NENI papers. In my freelance life now I write for the Eagle arts and features sections. More than that, I have friends there. We’ve fought for each other and weathered fundamental changes and family losses. We’ve walked up Ragged Mountain and sat on the rock ledge watching ravens turn loop-de-loops.

Right now I feel like turning loop-de-loops myself, for them and all of us who live here. Four people who know the Berkshires from the ground up are putting time and resources into local news because they think it’s worth saving. In a time when newspapers and digital media are shifting fast, this is life-giving.

Yesterday morning the new owners came together to talk about the change, at a press conference at the Berkshire Museum. Three live in Stockbridge: Fredric D. Rutberg, former Pittsfield district court judge; John C. “Hans” Morris, former president of Visa, Inc., and Robert G. Wilmers, chairman and CEO of M&T Bank. The fourth, Stanford Lipsey, is the publisher emeritus of the Buffalo News and former owner, publisher and Pulitzer prize winner for the Sun Newspaper Group in Nebraska.

Their commitment gives me hope. This news touches me closely, as a writer and as a local, as a community journalist who cares about both. The reasons go back to my roots in this job and this part of the world. I have a tie here older than the Eagle, and it came up yesterday first thing.

Judge Rutberg opened the conversation with a catalyst that led him to think about local news: He and his wife, Judith Monachina, went to a talk about the structure of community. A town needs a town square, he said, and a newspaper can be that gathering place.

Judith taught me that.

She is an old friend and my first boss — 16 years ago, she was my editor in the Southern Berkshire office of the old Berkshire Advocate. She took me in as a cub reporter when I was right out of college. For three years she and I covered half the county together, and I can’t imagine a better way to learn the world than that.

I would talk with a basketmaker who harvests her own black ash trees, or a bookseller who has kept a shop for 25 years, or a young actor in “Romeo and Juliet” who had rehearsed Mercutio and Tybalt brawling in the street and remembered high school playground fights. And then I would come back to our office above Firefly in Lenox, and we would sit on the deck and talk.

Judith grew up here. She knows the county from the inside, from paper mills to screen-printing studios. She knows international artists living quietly in the hills, and she knows the kind of unexpectedly beautiful details you have to live here to find, like the old marble yard in Lee on a hot August afternoon in a difficult week, where we looked though scraps of old stone, amber-red and coral and slate blue.

She taught me to give an interview, and she taught me to see the structures that hold a town together. When I came back to the Berkshires eight years ago to take over Berkshires Week, I came knowing that a community magazine doesn’t only record a community. It can build one.

I used to tell my interns we were writing for a tired person at the end of a long day, someone at home with their shoes off and their feet up, sipping sangria and flipping through pages. And we were trying to get this person to put down the paper, put the shoes back on and head out to swing dance at Shire City or catch Kris Delmhorst playing the Dream Away Lodge.

When you get the story right, it can bring people out into the streets. They get together. They meet each other. They support plays and art shows and concerts. They get to know the museums and land trusts and artists who work to make these things happen. The momentum builds and spirals upward.

And it works. I have heard it so many times while I was at Berkshires Week, from so many directions. Readers would tell me they had driven an hour and a half to hear Walt Whitman read aloud. Writers would tell me the story we ran about a live jazz event brought in 200 people and launched a concert series. An artist or a director or a musician we interviewed would tell me a story had given support — even that our stories over the years had helped establish a career.

My interns proved it to me too. Every summer at the Eagle I worked with college students, and they threw themselves into the job. Some of them had never thought of getting into the field until the internship cropped up for them. But of the 18-odd young writers who worked with me, at least half of them have gone on in writing and journalism, and they’ve built ties to this place. Some have stayed or come back.

So have I. I’ve loved the Berkshires since late nights in my Williams College dorm, talking with my brilliant room-mate from Kingston, Jamaica, while a cappella groups ran through the quad singing to the new students who had just made auditions. This place can have that kind of energy. Open, active people make things happen out of sheer excitement.

Finding that energy is rare, and finding it in the mountains is rarer still. We’re in real country here, and yet we have an intelligence and a sparking creativity most people would look for in bit cities. I say this about all of us: Take a WordxWord workshop with high school slam poets, hear the music in Lift Ev’ry Voice or watch Noises Off at MCLA until the slapstick has you laughing out of your chair and you’ll know it.

And the new owners of the Eagle know it. They made this connection between journalism, creativity and community the thrust of their first conference. They said we live here because we want to live here. They said the arts matter.

I agree. Arts and community can grow together, and a community newspaper can show us what we all look like here, what we are doing or failing to do, and what we can be. I have worried, as many people have, over the shaky state of the media all across this country. And this chance gives me hope, because I know what the Eagle can do when it has the resources to do it.

Kevin Moran has held the New England newspapers together in difficult times, and I’ve had many reasons to value his hard news sense, his integrity and his skill. And my old friends in the features department, Lindsey Hollenbaugh, Jeff Borak, Maggy Button, Jenn Smith — they bring this place to life.

Open Jeff’s Arts & Entertainment section today and you’ll find Andy Pincus writing about William Jay Smith, former National Poet Laureate and poet in residence at Williams College, who lived for years in Cummington. On Tuesday the Berkshire Athenaeum will screen a film he and Lanesborough composer Alice Katz made together, as he reads and talks about his work to music. I’m taken back to a night more than 10 years ago in Williamstown when I heard him read “Morels,” about mushroom foraging in May:

“A wet gray day — rain falling slowly, mist over the

valley, mountains dark circumflex smudges in the distance —

Apple blossoms just gone by, the branches feathery still

as if fluttering with half-visible antennae …”

A few days ago I went foraging for trilliums for a story for Lindsey Hollenbaugh. (You’ll see it in her Sunday pages.) It brought me south to Bartholomew’s Cobble, and I got to reconnect with Brian Cruey, now the general manager for the Southern Berkshires properties at the Trustees of Reservations, and banter with a geologist and a volunteer wildflower guide. They found out I’d never walked up Hurlburt’s Hill, and so after the interview I climbed up through a belt of trees. The hilltop opens out into a wide slope of grass, and from the top you can look clear across the valley to blue ridges.

I sat in the sun, watching the turkey vultures holding still against the wind, and I thought to be up here on a spring afternoon after a conversation that kept spilling into laughter — I must be doing something right. I would go home and try to hold this feeling and hand it on, and maybe this weekend someone else will sit here and feel this glee because they heard me. And that’s worth fighting for.


Photo at the top: On a sunny spring day the view from Hurlburt’s Hill in Sheffield stretches out to the far hills. Photo by Kate Abbott

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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