The Baltimore Jewish Times, family owned for almost a century and a legend in American Jewish journalism, was sold at auction to the owners of the local Washington Jewish newspaper Monday, the victim of a long, nasty, and brutish legal battle.
The sale price, $1.26 million, was more than double what had been expected for Alter Communications, which publishes the Baltimore newspaper and Style magazine. A group of local investors bid $1.25 million, and a printing company, whose lawsuit began the Dickensian legal battle, bid $905,000.
The sale is subject to the approval of the bankruptcy court.
The continuing role of the Alter-Buerger family, which owned the paper since its founding in 1919, was unclear, but it is possible the publisher, Andrew Buerger, great-grandson of the founder, may stay on.
“The Baltimore Jewish Times is, literally, a significant communal institution, and a meaningful player in the world of Anglo-Jewish newspapers,” said Louis Mayberg, a partner of Route 95 Publications, a division of WJW, which publishes the Washington Jewish Week. “We respect that tradition, and we are committed to continue it, and to build upon it.”
Mayberg said most of the 40 employees were likely to keep their jobs.
The legal battle erupted two years ago, centered on a printing contract more than a half century old.
Alter had a long-term contract going back to the late 1950s with a Baltimore printer, H.G. Roebuck & Son. The relationship soured in 2008, according to publisher Buerger, and he tried to renegotiate the contract. He felt Roebuck’s technology had fallen behind the times and the quality of the printing was poor enough to cause advertisers and readers to complain. Mostly, he said, they were charging too much. The contract did not expire until April 1 of last year, and Roebuck would not let Alter change it.
According to court papers, Alter broke the contract in February 2009, and Roebuck sued. Roebuck won the original suit but Alter did not have the funds to pay the judgment so in April 2010, Alter filed for bankruptcy.
Things quickly fell apart, and the battle became personal, mean, and expensive for both sides. They agreed on nothing, sometimes to the exasperation of judges hearing the case, and Roebuck’s lawyers filed motion after motion, appeal after appeal to keep it going.
“I don’t know what they hoped to accomplish. To get our family out of the business? Whoopee!” Andrew Buerger said in an interview.
His mother Ronnie, with 44 percent of the stock, was the biggest shareholder.
A newspaper empire grows
The JT was founded by David Alter as a weekly tabloid. Alter ran it for half a century and when he died in 1972, his grandson Charles (Chuck) Buerger took over. Two years later, Buerger hired a young journalist, Gary Rosenblatt, as editor of the paper.
“It was a sleepy paper, mainly ads and organization events,” said Rosenblatt, now editor of the Jewish Week in New York. But Buerger thought it could be better than that, Rosenblatt said, and poured the substantial profits back into the paper.
“He wanted a real newspaper,” Rosenblatt said.
‘It was a Jewish paper that often forgot it was a Jewish paper and did not cater to the narrow and parochial interests of the Jewish community’
Buerger and Rosenblatt made an “unexpected and improbable team,” said author Arthur Magida, who worked for the JT from 1982 to 1995. “It was a Jewish paper that often forgot it was a Jewish paper and did not cater to the narrow and parochial interests of the Jewish community.”
In 1984, Rosenblatt wrote an article questioning the tax status of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in California. The piece was one of two finalists for a Pulitzer Prize, the only story in a Jewish newspaper to be so honored.
The JT often ran as many as 200 pages with a circulation of around 20,000. It became the largest weekly newspaper in Maryland. It also was arguably the best Jewish community newspaper in America.
Buerger bought Atlanta’s and Detroit’s community papers, with Rosenblatt acting as editor from Baltimore. He later added newspapers in Palm Beach, Florida, with an edition in Boca Raton, and Vancouver, British Columbia, into his growing empire.
Rosenblatt left the JT for New York in 1993. Chuck Buerger died in 1996, and the publication was taken over by his son, Andrew.
Andrew Buerger sold off the newspapers outside Baltimore. He created a glossy, and by all appearances, profitable local magazine, Baltimore Style, and then the more regional Chesapeake Life, which eventually folded as the legal wars erupted. Alter also does custom publications, including the concert programs for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
The average paper is now 70-80 pages, and circulation is down to 8,500. It remains, though to a much lesser extent, the voice of the non-Orthodox Jewish community.
Baltimore’s Jews are unique in several ways. The community is among the oldest in America: the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, now a huge Reform synagogue, was founded in 1830. The Lloyd Street Synagogue, built in 1845, is the third oldest in America.
According to the latest community study by The Associated, the Jewish Community Federation, there are 93,000 Jews living in the Baltimore area. Of those, 32 percent regard themselves as Orthodox, an unusually high percentage for an American community, and a substantial portion of those are ultra-Orthodox, men drawn from around the world by Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, a pillar of haredi life and the second-largest yeshiva in the United States. Many Ner Yisroel men marry local women and stay, making them the fastest growing segment of the population.
Unlike cities such as Atlanta or San Francisco, where Jews live in dispersed neighborhoods, the Baltimore Jewish community is concentrated in the far northwest part of the city and into the surrounding Baltimore county, particularly the Pikesville area. It was the community immortalized by Barry Levinson’s films, including “Diner.”
Neil Rubin, the JT’s news editor, said the geographic concentration added coherence to the community, making the paper more important than those in other cities.
But the burgeoning Orthodox population has affected circulation because the Orthodox community often rejects the newspaper. The JT contains ads for nonkosher restaurants, stories about women rabbis, and other material considered unacceptable.
In 2007, Phil Jacobs, who replaced Rosenblatt, published a series on sexual misconduct and pederasty among the Orthodox rabbinate which did nothing to close the gap. Rubin said the relationship “needs work.”