Publisher of Baltimore Jewish Times files for bankruptcy

Blames $362,000 lawsuit judgment for financial woes

April 14, 2010|By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

The publisher of the Baltimore Jewish Times, a weekly newspaper in the city since 1919, filed for bankruptcy protection Wednesday and blamed its financial woes on losing a legal fight over breaking a contract with its printer.

Alter Communications, which also publishes Style and Chesapeake Life magazines, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The filing will not affect the company's day-to-day operations for employees, readers and advertisers, the company said, and the Jewish Times and the magazines will continue to be published.

"It's been a rough couple years for all businesses and especially the media," said Andrew Alter Buerger, chief executive of Alter Communications, which has reduced its workforce and instituted employee furloughs. "We've been extreme in our cost-cutting."

For less than a dollar per week, the Jewish Times has been a longtime fixture of media coverage in Baltimore, writing about local news and Jewish culture while also weighing in on international events. Maryland residents receive the weekly paper, which averages 120 pages, for an annual subscription of $46.59.

The paper — Alter Communication's flagship publication — is distributed to a readership of more than 50,000, according to its Web site.

Alter Communication's bankruptcy filing is the latest salvo in a two-year dispute with its former printing vendor, H.G. Roebuck & Son Inc. of White Marsh. The two companies, which have been in business together for 50 years, have clashed over printing costs.

Roebuck, a company also founded in Baltimore in 1919, sued Alter Communications in February 2009 over allegedly breaching their contract.

Buerger said in an interview that as the recession started hitting his business three years ago, he discovered his company was overpaying for printing because of a long-term contract it had signed in 1990. Buerger said he tried to pay Roebuck to exit the contract, but negotiations broke down in January 2009.

Alter Communications then hired another company to print its publications. Breaking the printing contract was a necessary financial move, Buerger said. His company saved $360,000 in printing costs when it hired a new firm.

But Roebuck was awarded a $362,000 judgment against Alter Communications in December in Baltimore County Circuit Court. Alter Communications had a total of $650,000 in debts at the time of its bankruptcy filing, Buerger said.

"We tried to work with [Roebuck] and it's very frustrating," Buerger said. "We tried to pay them. They said, `No.' We had no choice but to protect our employees and to protect our community and our assets. … We'd be out of business right now if we stayed with them. There's just no two ways about it."

Roebuck company representatives did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The judgment added to the financial difficulties at Alter, which has laid off 20 employees in recent years. Employees also were furloughed for three weeks last year and one week this year, Buerger said. The company now employs about 45 people.

"We're down to the bone," Buerger said. "We're done cutting."

Last year, the company was having trouble making principal payments on a city relocation loan of $150,000. In October, a deal approved unanimously by the city's Board of Estimates allowed the weekly newspaper to suspend the payments for the next two years.

Alter and many other media companies have struggled financially in a tough economy and weak advertising market. Some media companies, such as Tribune Co., publisher of The Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, are operating under bankruptcy protection.

Affiliated Media Inc., publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, the Denver Post and dozens of other publications, spent a brief period in bankruptcy protection this year before emerging with a reorganization plan last month.

Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, said that most media companies have struggled with the recession, debt, and the impact of the Internet.

"The overarching question is how much of the carnage is due to the recession as opposed to the transformation of the field," Rieder said. "I suppose that'll become apparent as the economy improves."

Over the past decade, the parent of the Baltimore Jewish Times has reinvented itself. Buerger, who took over the company when his father, Charles A. Buerger, died in 1996, sold off Jewish newspapers in Vancouver, British Columbia; Palm Beach and Boca Raton, Fla.; Detroit and Atlanta.

He changed the company name from Jewish Times Inc. to Alter Communications and tried to diversify into other publications in the Baltimore area, with Style and Chesapeake Life and custom magazine publishing.

In total, Buerger said, the firm's various publications attract an audience of about 100,000 readers.

Jonathan Oleisky, a former director of custom publishing at Alter Communications who willingly left in 2006, said he still has friends at the company who were anxiously watching the bankruptcy.

But the Baltimore Jewish Times and the other Alter publications were on "solid" footing, he said.

"I get asked almost daily if the Jewish Times will go out of the business, and I say, ‘No, I think they'll be here for generations to come,'" said Oleisky, who heads a brand development firm called Media 924. "They're a key player in the Jewish community."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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