hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News August 2015



Chain slashes staff at area newspapers


The corporate parent of several daily newspapers in the region has axed at least 16 reporters, editors and other newsgathering employees in recent weeks as it seeks a buyer for the papers.
Digital First Media, which is controlled by the New York City hedge fund Alden Capital Group, laid off 10 employees in late June at its New England Newspapers group, which includes The Berkshire Eagle, Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and the weekly Manchester Journal. Those layoffs were first reported June 30 by the online news site VTDigger.org.

Meanwhile, at its newspapers in New York’s Capital Region – The Saratogian and The Record of Troy – Digital First gave “voluntary buyouts” to six staffers with more than 150 years of journalism experience between them, according to a report in the Times Union of Albany. Among those leaving their jobs in late June and July were Executive Editor Barbara Lombardo, who had been at The Saratogian since 1977, and Editor Lisa Robert Lewis, who had worked at The Record since 1976.

The Saratoga and Troy dailies consolidated their editorial and managerial staffs last year, and The Record moved out of its longtime headquarters in downtown Troy earlier this year as Digital First neared a deal to sell the building. Besides the two top editors, those accepting buyouts this summer were the papers’ chief photographer and executive sports editor as well as a copy editor and a sports writer, according to the Times Union report.

In Vermont, VTDigger reported that those laid off included three newsroom employees in Brattleboro as well as a newly hired reporter in Bennington and the only staff reporter at the Manchester Journal. Earlier in June, the managing editor of the Bennington and Brattleboro dailies left for another newspaper job in Colorado.

And in Massachusetts, The Berkshire Eagle laid off five employees, including the editor of its Berkshire Week section, in late June, according to a report in the independent online news site The Berkshire Edge. The site also reported that the Eagle’s headquarters building in Pittsfield is on the market, as is the Brattleboro Reformer’s building.

Last year, New England Newspapers closed the North Adams Transcript, a daily that had served northern Berkshire County for more than a century, and The Advocate, a weekly that got its start in Williamstown and for many years circulated throughout the Berkshires and beyond.

Digital First owns 76 daily newspapers and 160 weeklies around the country, including The Denver Post, the San Jose Mercury News, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the New Haven Register. The hedge fund Apollo Global Management was reported to have been near a deal to buy most or all of Digital First’s holdings this spring, but the deal fell apart. Soon after that, Digital First’s chief executive, John Paton, stepped down.

Digital First officials did not respond to several area news organizations’ inquiries about the layoffs.

But Randy Holhut of the Brattleboro nonprofit weekly The Commons told Vermont Public Radio that he obtained a memo from inside the company indicating the layoffs were intended to make Digital First’s papers more profitable – and therefore more attractive to potential buyers. The staff cuts were timed to coincide with the end of the company’s fiscal year, he said.

“When news becomes a commodity rather than a public service, this is what happens,” Holhut said. “You’re there to satisfy hedge funds and stockholders instead of people who are readers, listeners, viewers.”

The latest cuts leave only skeleton crews at some of the region’s smaller newspapers. VTDigger reported that New England Newspapers will now have only two reporters based in Brattleboro and three in Bennington, while the editor at the Manchester weekly will have to carry on without a staff reporter.

-- Compiled by Fred Daley