Bob Wilmers thinks he can build a better newspaper.
Wilmers, who has shown he can build a better bank from his day job as chairman of M&T Bank, is branching out into the newspaper business, joining a four-man team that is buying the Berkshire Eagle in western Massachusetts and three small papers in Vermont.
So why would Wilmers, who has helped build M&T into one of the nation’s top 20 banks, want to buy newspapers, at a time when the industry is facing grave challenges?
For starters, the Berkshire Eagle is Wilmers’ hometown paper – or at least one of them – as someone who also has homes in New York City and Buffalo.
He has had a home in Stockbridge for 44 years, so he’s a long-time Eagle reader.
And when one of his partners, former Pittsfield District Court Judge Fredric D. Rutberg, heard that the paper’s corporate owner, Digital First Media, was interested in selling it, Wilmers was interested in helping to bring the paper back under local ownership for the first time in more than two decades.
“We look at it as a community activity that we also hope will be successful,” Wilmers said.
Along the way, Wilmers decided to ask his longtime friend, retired Buffalo News Publisher Stanford Lipsey, what he thought about buying the Eagle and the three other papers.
Lipsey ended up signing on as the only member of the ownership group who didn’t have a home for at least part of the year in the Berkshires.
“Bob’s always had a high regard for newspapers,” said Lipsey, who now lives part of the year in California. “He treats newspapers with a lot of respect.”
The new owners’ plan is to make the papers bigger and better.
They plan to bring back work that Digital First had outsourced to far-flung places to cut costs, like Denver and Michigan and New York City.
They want to bolster local coverage and make the paper a more vital part of the community.
“The newspaper, in my perspective, had gone downhill for quite a while,” Wilmers said. “We just felt we could do a better job.”
Neither Wilmers nor Lipsey have any illusions about the hard times the newspaper industry is facing.
“It’s a dying industry. The advertising goes down every year. The sales of the paper go down every year,” Wilmers said. “On the other hand, small newspapers still do well, especially when they’re small and they represent the community.”
Lipsey agrees. “The statistics on newspapers are scary,” he said.
But Lipsey also thinks small newspapers are in a stronger position in today’s media market, and Stockbridge has an added advantage in its relatively isolated location within the Berkshires, he said.
Even in retirement, the lure of newspapers remains strong for Lipsey. “I love newspapers, and I’ve been involved with newspapers all my life,” said Lipsey, who didn’t retire from The News until the end of 2012, when he was 85.
Now, at 88, Lipsey is back in the newspaper business.