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Buerger’s struggle to keep Jewish Times has gone into overtime

Alter Communications Inc. CEO Andrew Alter Buerger’s head whipped around to face William L. Hallam as Hallam accused Buerger of playing the “Jewish persecution” card in federal court.

Hallam, the attorney for Alter’s former printing company, H.G. Roebuck & Son Inc., said Buerger was unfairly making an issue of religion to scuttle the Roebucks’ plan to take an ownership share of Buerger’s bankrupt company, which publishes the Baltimore Jewish Times.

“This is a Jewish publication and our tormentors are not,” Hallam said was Buerger’s position. “It’s a great theme, it’s a sympathetic theme, but the only evidence you’ve heard to support it is that the debtor has incurred a lot of legal fees.”

A few days later, Alter attorney Maria Ellena Chavez-Ruark accused the Roebucks of suing Alter into bankruptcy because they had a personal vendetta against Buerger, who backed out of their printing contract.

“These are not the actions of reasonable businessmen,” Chavez-Ruark said. “These are the actions of men motivated by good old-fashioned red hot anger and revenge.”

At the end of three-day September bankruptcy hearing, Judge James F. Schneider decided he wouldn’t confirm either side’s restructuring plan for Alter. Instead, he gave them what appeared to be, given the level of rhetoric, an impossible task: come back in 30 days with a single, compromise plan.

With deadline approaching this week, the parties requested and received a 30-day extension, making Nov. 25 the new day of reckoning.

The stakes are high for both sides, but higher in terms of legacy for Buerger, whose family has owned the Jewish Times since his great-grandfather founded it in 1919. Buerger’s father transformed it into the nation’s premier Jewish newspaper in the 1970s and ’80s, but it has since fallen on hard times along with the publishing industry as a whole.

Several phone messages left at H.G. Roebuck & Son for its president, Charles M. Roebuck III, and vice president, Richard M. Roebuck, were not returned.

Buerger says he has post-bankruptcy plans for restoring financial stability while maintaining the journalistic standards his father set —- plans that include promoting the paper’s recent magazine-style redesign, expanding Alter’s custom publishing offerings and developing an iPad app.

But first he must shed the bitter litigation that resulted from decisions he says he was forced to make during some of the industry’s darkest days.

“Going into bankruptcy itself generally impacts a business,” said bankruptcy lawyer Lawrence D. Coppel of Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander LLC. “It’s hard to expand, you need to use whatever funding you have to pay [legal] professionals, you have to come up with a plan to pay creditors, and it’s hard to invest in anything.”

The Baltimore Jewish Times was a risky proposition from the day it was first published in 1919.

The Baltimore Jewish Comment had folded a year earlier. In the final issue, the Comment’s editors explained “the cost of publication has grown out of proportion to financial resources,” and wrote that the publishers “for many years undertook the editorial management of the Comment at a financial loss.”

But Buerger’s great-grandfather, David Alter, was publishing the Jewish Criterion in Pittsburgh, and he figured his formula would also work in Baltimore, a city that by that time was home to at least 60,000 Jews.

Alter hired one of the Comment’s former editors, C.A. Rubenstein, and set about establishing a low-overhead operation.

Salaried reporters and photographers were not part of the plan. Instead, the weekly Jewish Times, at 10 cents per copy or $3 per year, would fill its pages with guest commentaries, wire stories from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and local social announcements.

Baltimore’s Jewish community had for decades been split among different ethnicities, income levels and orthodoxy levels. One of the greatest divides was between wealthier, more established German Jews and working-class Russian and Eastern European Jews, many of them recent immigrants.

Rubenstein made it clear in his first editorial that the Jewish Times would be a paper for all Baltimore Jews.

“That it should be understood that I hold no brief for any particular movement or group in American Jewry, my sole aim being to render a service to the Jewish cause, particularly to the Jews in Baltimore,” Rubenstein wrote. “I insisted upon these conditions because only on such conditions can a Jewish paper asking for the support of the entire Jewish community exist.”

It was the right message at the right time. Baltimore’s German Jews and Russian Jews were coming together, a union symbolized by their two separate charities merging into the Associated Jewish Charities.

In the decade that followed, Alter would establish five other Jewish newspapers across the country. When the Great Depression hit, he had to jettison those five, but the Criterion and the Jewish Times survived.

So did a printing company called H.G. Roebuck & Son, also founded in 1919. It began printing the Jewish Times in the 1950s.

As Buerger raised his hand and swore to tell the truth before taking the witness stand at the bankruptcy hearing, he wondered how it had come to this.

When his father, Chuck Buerger, died unexpectedly in 1996, he returned from his job as publisher of the Buerger-owned Vancouver Jewish Bulletin to take over the Baltimore operation. He inherited a legacy of quality journalism for the Jewish community, but he would face challenges that his father never faced.

A survey by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore in 1999 revealed that the number of Jewish households in the area was about the same (36,000) as in 1985, but the Jewish population was skewing younger.

With the rise of Internet news, Buerger’s weekly publication found itself competing in a marketplace suddenly flooded with easily-accessible, up-to-the-minute bulletins on Israel.

By 1999, Baltimore also had the nation’s highest percentage of Orthodox Jews, at 17 percent of the area’s Jewish population. By the time The Associated’s 2010 survey was commissioned, that number was 32 percent — more Baltimore Jews identified themselves as Orthodox than as Reform, Conservative or nondenominational.

The changing demographics presented unique problems for Alter. Stories about homosexuality and intermarriage didn’t sit well with ultra-Orthodox families. Ads for lingerie were considered grounds for banishing the Jewish Times from their houses.

“By nature, a newspaper that intends to reach the broadest population is going to be more liberal and open-minded in its perspective,” said Beth Tfiloh’s Mitchell Wohlberg, who calls himself a rabbi at the liberal edge of Orthodoxy. “Which is exactly what the Orthodox community is not.”

Buerger experimented with an Orthodox publication called the Baltimore Jewish News in 2008, but it folded after six months.

Meanwhile, the publishing industry as a whole was facing problems. Circulation figures fell as online readership swallowed print. Ad revenues declined with circulation and then crashed when the recession hit. Tribune Co., owner of The Baltimore Sun, filed for bankruptcy in 2008.

Buerger had sold many of Alter’s other publications shortly after he returned to Baltimore, leaving his company in a better position than the media giants that were buying before the recession hit. But in 2000 he moved Alter from three rowhouses on Charles Street that his family owned to Owings Mills before settling into an office on Park Avenue across from the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric with the help of a $150,000 loan from the city of Baltimore. According to a bankruptcy disclosure filed in August, the city is still owed $110,000 on the loan, and Alter’s projected rent for 2011 at the Park Avenue location is $205,000.

In the decade following the move, the Jewish Times’ fortunes changed along with the publishing industry. Paid circulation fell from a high of nearly 20,000 in the mid-1990s to about half that by 2010. According to testimony at the hearing, revenues dropped from almost $10 million in 2005 to just under $5 million in 2010. Chesapeake Life, a lifestyle publication Alter bought in 2001, did well until the economy went bad. It folded in 2011.

Still, Buerger believed the company could have weathered the industry’s doldrums if not for the Roebucks’ printing contract.

He had attempted to switch to a new publisher shortly after he took over. But that effort ended with the Roebucks suing for breach of contract. Under the terms of the suit, Alter was locked into the deal until 2011.

As the recession took hold, the contract became harder to take.

Other printers were slashing prices, to the point where Buerger said he believed he could get more-modern services than the Roebucks offered for about half the $800,000 a year they charged to print the Jewish Times. He was already using other printers for Style magazine and Alter’s custom publishing.

Buerger tried to buy out the contract again, but said the Roebucks weren’t biting.

So Buerger had stopped paying the Roebucks and started using another printer, inviting a lawsuit.

Now he was taking the witness stand to try to convince Judge Schneider that he was still the best person to run the family business he’d been part of for as long as he could remember.

It was 1975 and 10-year-old Andrew Buerger was operating a Photostat copying machine in the middle of a newsroom that was reinventing itself.

Buerger’s grandmother and great-grandmother had run the Jewish Times for 25 years after his great-grandfather’s death. But now Buerger’s father, Chuck, had taken over and was determined to put his own stamp on it.

He’d hired reporters, photographers and art directors, adding original journalism to the collection of wire stories and social notes. The sleepy newsroom was now filled with a haze of cigarette smoke and the clicking of typewriters.

It was a financial risk, but Chuck, with his bushy mustache, ever-present loafers and passion for current events, was as much journalist as businessman. He had a vision: for the Baltimore Jewish Times to become the Newsweek of the Jewish publishing world.

When the Jewish Times arrived, it regularly had 140 pages and often topped 200 on Rosh Hashana. Baltimore had about 30,000 Jewish households, and about two-thirds of them subscribed. Chuck acquired Jewish publications in Detroit and Atlanta and similarly beefed up their editorial staffs.

Journalistically, the peak came in 1985, when Baltimore Jewish Times editor Gary Rosenblatt was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his expose on the fundraising methods of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in California.

Not all readers liked the Jewish publication’s scrutiny of a Jewish organization. But in those days, it was easy to stand on journalistic principle. According to one former Jewish Times employee, advertisers were practically “attacking” the publication with money to spend.

Things were not always so bad between the Buergers and the Roebucks, Richard Roebuck was testifying.

In fact, Roebuck told the bankruptcy court, he and Andrew Buerger’s younger brother, Kevin, had been friends when they went to Gilman School together. Roebuck called Kevin “Bubba.”

The lawsuits were nothing personal, the Roebuck brothers testified. It was business.

Buerger’s plan offered them an 85 percent share of Alter’s net profits for the next five years with the option to buy a 15 percent ownership stake for the next five years. But Alter had made a profit in only two of the previous five years. And the Roebucks had an appeal pending in a suit against Buerger for switching to another printer even though they had exclusive rights.

“Basically, we had a claim for $365,000 in unpaid bills plus another $1.1 million in breached contracts,” Charles Roebuck testified. “My feeling was that I would be getting 15 percent of nothing. We didn’t find that too appealing.”

So the alternative bankruptcy plan he and his brother had floated would have them taking over 55 percent of the company, while offering Buerger the opportunity to buy a 50-50 split.

But it was unclear how they would get their money back as majority owners. An accountant who testified put the market value of Alter’s stock at $77,000. Its liquidation value was estimated at about $250,000.

Buerger said he had offered the Roebucks $400,000 to settle the lawsuit back in January 2009 — $175,000 for unpaid invoices and $225,000 to buy out the rest of the contract. He said the Roebucks declined, and two months later filed suit.

At the bankruptcy hearing, Charles Roebuck estimated his company had spent at least $500,000 in litigation. So far, they had only a $362,000 judgment to show for it (with a proof of claim pending for lost profits and legal fees for about $1.77 million).

Buerger said they wanted to scuttle his company with litigation. On the stand, Charles Roebuck said that didn’t make sense because he needed the Jewish Times to “succeed spectacularly” for him to get what he was owed.

Success seemed unlikely without Buerger, who said he would not stay on as publisher under the Roebucks’ management. Several key advertisers and Alter employees testified that they would follow him out the door if the Roebucks took over.

“What I hear from Roebuck is about money,” Chavez-Ruark said in her closing arguments. “This company is not about money. It is about mission and community service.”

But whoever emerged from the bankruptcy with control of Alter would have to make it about both.

“I’m canceling my subscription,” the reader had told Buerger. “Enough of the sex abuse stuff.”

It was late 2007 and Buerger sat in his office, stewing about the encounter.

Phil Jacobs, then the editor of the Jewish Times, was in the midst of a series of stories about sexual abuse by local rabbis.

Buerger knew the stories were solid. Jacobs was careful by nature, and Buerger knew he had spent months talking to victims.

Arrests had been made, and most readers seemed to think the paper was doing a service.

But there had also been a backlash that surprised Buerger, even after his father’s experience with the Wiesenthal Center story.

Buerger later said he heard from advertisers who didn’t want their ads running next to stories about sex abuse by rabbis.

But the victims kept coming forward and the Jewish Times kept telling their stories.

Buerger was struggling to keep his company afloat financially. He had lent the company $300,000 of his own money, cut 20 of his 60-some employees and asked the ones that remained to take three weeks of unpaid furloughs.

But he had a paper that was still doing the kind of journalism his father had staked its reputation on back in the 1970s. Buerger would stand behind Jacobs’ reporting.

“All rise,” the court clerk said, and the courtroom went silent as Schneider, the bankruptcy judge, re-entered.

“I don’t like keeping people in suspense,” Schneider said, “so let me just tell you upfront: I’m not going to confirm either plan.”

Schneider scolded the two parties for their inability to settle their differences. He chided the lawyers for trying to play on his emotions and said that he intended to end the companies’ “death struggle” rather than pick one bankruptcy plan over the other and wait for the inevitable appeal.

“My goal throughout this case has been to preserve the Baltimore Jewish Times as an institution vital to this community,” Schneider said, laying down his 30-day compromise mandate.

The city’s Jewish community continues to wait and see what Buerger and the Roebucks can come up with. Schneider has threatened to appoint a third-party trustee if the two can’t come together. Coppel, the bankruptcy lawyer, said that would only add another layer of expense and uncertainty.

“It all gets very costly and all of that money comes out of the pockets of creditors because there will be less money for them under a [bankruptcy] plan,” Coppel said. “There are many reasons why both sides should want to settle this.”