Martin Langeveld is a 30-year newspaper publishing veteran who was for 13 years the publisher of several newspapers in Northwestern Massachusetts and southern Vermont. He also was executive vice president and director of interactive media for New England Newspapers, Inc., a four-daily cluster which is part of Denver-based MediaNews Group, Inc. He tipped us off last week to the impending closure of the 170-year-old North Adams Transcript, which he piloted for six years. We asked him for his thoughts, which he shared by e-mail.
I started my newspaper career at The Berkshire Eagle in 1978, served as publisher from 1995 to 2000, then did a stint as publisher at the Transcript 2000-2006 and at the Brattleboro Reformer 2006-2008.
For about 85 years, from 1896 to 1979, the Transcript was owned by the Hardman family, which then sold the paper to the owners of the Boston Globe. The Berkshire Eagle at the time was owned by the Miller family, who had bought the paper in 1892. The two families had a friendly rivalry, but when the Hardmans decided to sell, they let it be known that they would not sell to the Millers — because they were afraid the Millers would simply merge the two papers.
The Millers unsuccessfully attempted an end run using a straw man, and then they tried again, without success, when the Globe put the paper up for sale 10 years later and sold it to American Publishing. The Millers sold to MediaNews Group in 1995, and MediaNews bought the Transcript from American Publishing a year later. A couple of years after that, Michael Miller, a third-generation member of the former publishing family, asked me why we hadn’t merged the papers yet — thus confirming the suspicions of the Hardmans. (In the early 1980s, the Millers had merged two other papers, The Torrington Register and the Winsted Citizen in Connecticut, into the Register-Citizen.)
It’s a fact that we ran the numbers in 1996 and concluded that the bottom line was marginally better keeping the papers separate versus merging them, but the deciding factor was really Dean Singleton’s passion for newspapering and his conviction that North Adams was a separate place from Pittsfield and should continue to have its own paper. He brought in a designer, we improved the looks and content, and restored the original, handsome Gothic name plate. Over the years, of course, a long series of small consolidation steps merged the business and production functions of the two papers, and the Transcript’s building was sold, to the point where a final consolidation became the simple step it now appears to be.
Since there was not a huge bottom-line advantage to separate operations back in 1996, I doubt if there’s much financial advantage to merger today. The North Adams office is being retained, as is the journalism staff. The sales staffs were merged long ago and the business office functions were consolidated in Pittsfield. There might be a few circulation positions eliminated. But on the other hand, more copies of the larger Eagle will have to be printed; deliveries will have to be made to all the same places; and circulation revenue will be lost to the extent there was duplication. Back in the day, you could raise advertising rates based on the circulation increase, but that pricing power is gone. There was some duplicated preprint advertising which will be lost.
So my guess is that the justifications for the merger consist of (a) less management distraction managing two different brands in the same market, and (b) the perceived opportunities in focusing on a single region-wide brand. Readers really will gain something since the two papers duplicated coverage on a lot of events, so the expanded Eagle staff can now cover more. (Hopefully there will be enough newshole available to print what they write.)
The region — the Berkshires — is a brand in itself, which has always been a strength exploited by the Eagle. So the move announced at the same time (making the Berkshires Week supplement, published since 1952, a year-round standalone publication) is a smart one, especially if it’s accompanied by a good online strategy.
It’s understandable the names of the papers will not be merged into Eagle-Transcript. But I’ve suggested that the Transcript logo be retained in a small way as part of the Eagle’s editorial page masthead. The Transcript’s 170 years of publishing history should not vanish without a trace.