Jewish Times' new owners poised to take the helm

The prospective new owners of the Baltimore Jewish Times took over Washington Jewish Week nearly two years ago and made an array of changes to the publication, which had just turned 80 years old. They redesigned the tabloid, revamped the website and launched an email newsletter.

It's not yet clear if they contemplate similar changes to the Jewish Times, a weekly that has come out every Friday for 93 years. Craig Burke, the publisher of Washington Jewish Week, said he cannot discuss specific plans until he learns more about the Baltimore company, Alter Communications Inc., which also publishes Style magazine.

Burke said he plans to visit Alter's Park Avenue offices on Monday if a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge approves the $1.26 million bid by Route 95 Publications LLC, an affiliate of Washington Jewish Week's publisher WJW Group LLC. A hearing is scheduled Thursday afternoon, and Judge Nancy V. Alquist is expected to make an immediate ruling, which will be subject to appeal.

"I really need to roll my sleeves up and get to know the company," said Burke, also chief operating officer of WJW Group. "It's going to be a lot of fun."

Until the sale is approved and until they've learned more about Alter's operations, Burke will only say that the new owners intend to keep an office in Baltimore — although it may move — and maintain its focus on local Jewish community news.

Burke said no decisions have been made about staff and Route 95 first wants to know more about Alter before it does. He said "efficiencies" could be found in combining the two operations, but that does not necessarily reflect on the number of employees needed.

Washington Jewish Week, based in Rockville, had 20 employees when WJW Group bought it in August 2010 and has the same number of employees now, Burke said. Alter has about 40 employees who put out the Baltimore Jewish Times, Style Magazine and an array of custom publications produced for businesses to distribute to employees and clients.

The Baltimore Jewish Times was established in 1919 by the great-grandfather of the current publisher and editor, Andrew Alter Buerger. The weekly magazine, with a paid circulation of about 8,500, recently has produced about half of Alter's revenues. Buerger said the balance is split about evenly between custom publications and Style, a glossy lifestyle magazine with a circulation of 45,000 published seven times a year.

Alter's approach reflects a broader trend in American publishing in which magazines are ultra-specialized to connect with a loyal group of subscribers, said Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi.

"The economy doesn't affect that membership [in a niche publication] as much as a general-interest magazine," said Husni, noting that there are 10,000 magazine titles available to consumers now, compared with 2,000 in 1980. "Contrary to rumors, print is not dead."

That seemed to be suggested by the bidding, which went much higher than the participants expected. Dr. Scott Rifkin, head of a Baltimore-based investor group that stopped bidding at $1.25 million, said the final price was nearly 50 percent higher than he expected. Buerger said last month that he figured Alter would sell for between $400,000 to $600,000.

Alter caught Burke's attention as it struggled to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy amid a general slump in news publishing and a dispute with one of its key creditors, H.G. Roebuck & Son Inc., Alter's former printer. Alter filed for reorganization on April 14, 2010, after the company lost a breach-of-contract suit to Roebuck and faced a $362,000 judgment.

Roebuck also sued Buerger and his aunt, a former owner, claiming they were personally liable for "profits that Roebuck would have earned" if the White Marsh company had continued as the exclusive printer of the Jewish Times. The Baltimore County Circuit Court rejected Roebuck's claims, and, last week, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed that ruling. Claims against Buerger's aunt had already been settled.

Amid the legal trouble, Burke saw an opportunity for the owners of Washington Jewish Week, where he worked from 1993 to 2004. He said he played a key role in rallying the investors to buy the Washington paper and urged them to bid on Alter.

"As operator of WJW Group LLC, one of my main charges is to look for opportunity to grow the company," Burke said in an email. "Naturally, it has to make sense, and Alter Communications Inc. has the elements that make good business for the growth of our company."

When the bankruptcy trustee appointed by the judge to sell the company, Zvi Guttman, set up shop at Alter's offices on March 19, WJW Group was first to contact him with an opening bid.

Guttman said it was too soon to tell what the $1.26 million sale would mean for creditors, as all the debts that have accumulated since Alter filed for bankruptcy have not been added up.

He acknowledged that Wells Fargo, the secured creditor first in line, will be repaid the $340,000 to $400,000 it is owed. The $100,000 emergency loan made last month by Ronnie L. Buerger, a co-publisher of the Jewish Times, also will be paid in full, he said.

Sun reporter Gus Sentementes contributed to this article.

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