In Jewish Times bankruptcy, longtime collaborators become foes

Two old Baltimore family businesses face court deadline

October 08, 2011|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Their great-grandfathers each founded Baltimore companies, a publisher and a printer, and their families have built close ties working together since the 1950s to produce the venerable Baltimore Jewish Times.

But Andrew Alter Buerger and Charles M. Roebuck III have been doing most of their talking in the last few years through lawyers — through bankruptcy filings, lawsuits both corporate and personal, through legal motions and appeals to the state's second-highest court. What had appeared to be a successful business relationship has become a "nasty, 50-year-old marriage," as Buerger put it.

Things had gotten so bad between Buerger, publisher of the Jewish Times and Style magazine, and Roebuck, president of H.G. Roebuck & Son Inc., his former printer and now a key creditor, that a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge said from the bench last month that the case looks less like a bankruptcy than a divorce. And both sides seem to want to continue antagonizing each other, he said.

For now, they're talking. They recently met in a lawyer's conference room downtown in an attempt to make peace. Not because they've rekindled some old friendship, but because Judge James F. Schneider gave the order: Draft a plan to take the publisher, Alter Communications Inc., out of Chapter 11 and bring the proposal in by Oct. 21 — or he would name a trustee to run the business.

No one would want a trustee, the judge said. No one seems to want the Baltimore Jewish Times to go under, either, but the fate and the ownership of the publication that has been covering the Jewish community for nearly a century has been clouded as the feud between the two families has escalated since 2009. Last year, Alter filed for bankruptcy protection in the face of a $362,000 breach-of-contract judgment in a lawsuit brought by Roebuck.

The Jewish Times claims about 8,500 paying subscribers to the print edition, and hand-to-hand circulation five times as high. Even if the demise of the weekly, which recently switched from tabloid newspaper to magazine format, seems a remote possibility, some in the Jewish community worry.

"There is a great deal of concern about that," said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.

"There is some level of anxiety that it could potentially go away," added Marc B. Terrill, president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. He said his organization, like the community, "values the balance and comprehensive coverage of the news that the Baltimore Jewish Times has provided for the last 90 years."

But Schneider, in rejecting both bankruptcy plans submitted by the two sides last month, made clear he won't approve a plan unless it assures the Jewish Times' survival. The question is under what terms.

That is partly in the hands of two men who run their respective family businesses.

Buerger, 46, who had been running a family-owned Jewish paper in Vancouver, British Columbia, returned to Baltimore in 1996 to take over after his father, Charles, died shortly after heart surgery at 58. Roebuck, 45, said that after working in the business as a kid and young man, he left for a few years, then rejoined the company in 1992, working at first alongside his father, Charles Jr., who is 71.

Buerger is Jewish, and Roebuck is not, a point raised several times during the three-day hearing before Schneider last month. Although several witnesses for Alter said they thought a Jewish publication should have Jewish owners, the judge took umbrage at the suggestion that ethnicity should play a role in the outcome of the case.

The two men have acquaintances in common, and their brothers went to school together at Gilman. Their fathers knew each other in college in Pittsburgh, at the school that became Carnegie Mellon University. For years the great-grandsons of the 1919 founders, Harry Goodman Roebuck and David Alter, had what Roebuck described as a friendly "business relationship."

There's been no malice, Roebuck said.

"There's never been a personal aspect of things," said Roebuck. "I've never felt personally attacked. I hope Andrew doesn't either, because that's never been a thought in our head."

Buerger sees it differently.

"They're suing me personally," he said in an interview with The Sun in September. "Oh, it's personal, it's very personal."

Asked last week what made it personal, Buerger demurred, in light of the discussions now going on to fashion a bankruptcy plan.

"I'll save that one for after the negotiations are over," he said. "I want to keep it civil."

Signs of the relationship's deterioration emerged in the summer of 2008, in emails that flew back and forth for months between Buerger and his production manager, Erin Clare, and Charles Roebuck. Clare mostly pointed out technical problems in printing, while Buerger complained about both printing quality and price, and his tone grew increasingly sharp.

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