Jewish Times publisher sold at auction

The likely new owner reassured staffers of the Baltimore Jewish Times on Monday that nothing will change in the 93-year-old weekly's commitment to reporting on the local community.

Louis Mayberg met with employees around lunchtime at the Park Avenue office of Alter Communications Inc., which publishes the Jewish Times and Style Magazine, answering questions about possible changes and explaining his business background. Mayberg's Rockville-based company, an affiliate of Washington Jewish Week, won the three-way bidding at a bankruptcy auction Monday morning with an offer of $1.26 million.

"He said he didn't pay this much money to not have a paper succeed," said Neil Rubin, the Jewish Times' senior editor of news, who attended the meeting. "The dedication is to the Baltimore community. … It was very positive, very reassuring."

A sale still must be approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge overseeing the case. There will be a hearing Thursday afternoon. Any decision is subject to appeal, but Zvi Guttman, the trustee appointed to oversee the sale, said he expected the result to be confirmed.

Alter filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from its creditors nearly two years ago and has been unable to work out a deal with its creditors, which led the judge to order Monday's auction.

After the auction, Mayberg said the Jewish Times, a weekly magazine with a paid circulation of about 8,500, will continue to have "Baltimore-based reporters covering Baltimore-based issues. … I hope we'll get the support from the Baltimore Jewish community. We will have to earn their trust and respect."

The Baltimore Jewish Times has been an "institution in Baltimore and in the world of Anglo-Jewish newspapers," Mayberg said. "We respect that tradition. … We're committed to maintaining a high level of journalistic integrity."

He did leave open the possibility of staff reductions, particularly in management, saying that "the plan is to keep as many employees of the paper who can help make it better and stronger."

About 40 people now work for Alter, which has gone through several rounds of layoffs in the last several years.

Rubin, the senior editor, said he was pleased that Mayberg's group includes people who are active in Jewish organizations. And Phil Jacobs, editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times until last June and still a resident of the city, is now editor of Washington Jewish Week, a tabloid with paid circulation of about 7,500, Rubin said.

"It's nice that Phil's there," said Rubin.

Marc B. Terrill, president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, greeted news of the sale with mixed feelings. He said he was "saddened" at the end of Associated's long-standing relationship with the Alter and Buerger families, who have run the Jewish Times since 1919. But he said he is "delighted the paper will continue its work."

Terrill said he knows and likes members of Mayberg's group, particularly Michael C. Gelman. A University of Maryland graduate and accountant by training, Gelman chairs the executive committee of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Mayberg did the bidding Monday morning for Route 95 Publications LLC, an affiliate of WJW Group LLC, which nearly two years bought Washington Jewish Week, which was established in the 1930s. Mayberg's last offer topped by $10,000 the highest bid by Baltimore Community Publishing LLC, a Baltimore-based investor group that dropped out at $1.25 million.

H.G. Roebuck & Son Inc., Alter's former printer and a key creditor in the bankruptcy, stopped bidding at $905,000. In January, Roebuck filed a plan with the court to work with WJW Group on a proposal to reorganize Alter and remove it from bankruptcy. Months later, Roebuck shelved that proposal and tried to work on a joint proposal with Alter.

That last effort came after more than a year of on-again, off-again negotiations between the two family companies that started working together in the 1950s. They were unable to agree on terms, and a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge appointed a trustee last month to sell the company.

The Alter-Roebuck business relationship unraveled in a contract dispute in 2009. Roebuck sued Alter, winning a $362,000 judgment for breach of contract. Soon after the judgment was confirmed, Alter filed for bankruptcy on April 14, 2010.

The bidding in a conference room at the downtown Baltimore offices of Alter's law firm, Tydings & Rosenberg, lasted for an hour, starting with offers of $450,000 from both Roebuck and Route 95 Publications and $440,000 from Baltimore Community Publishing. At times it seemed less like an auction than a high-stakes poker game, with silent pauses of one, two and three minutes between bids as bidders' eyes shifted from face to face around the big, dark-wood table.

The final bid far surpassed the expectations of Andrew Alter Buerger, Alter's chief operating officer and great-grandson of Baltimore Jewish Times founder, David Alter. Two weeks ago, he said he expected the company to sell for between $400,000 and $600,000.

The auction outcome "shows the value of this great institution. It provides a great service to our community," Buerger said.

Rick Roebuck, vice president of Roebuck, said the printer had not discussed whether it would appeal. "We wish it had gone for more," he said, "but we wish Mayberg and his group the best of luck."

The final bid went 40 percent to 50 percent higher than Scott Rifkin, who was bidding for Baltimore Community Publishing, had anticipated. When Mayberg went to $1.26 million, there was silence, as the trustee counted down the two-minute limit for calling for final bids.

"We're done," Rifkin said to Guttman. "These gentlemen just bought a paper. I hope they do a good job not just for Washington, but for Baltimore."

In an interview later, Rifkin wished the new owners luck, and said, "Let's hope for the best for the Baltimore Jewish Times."

Ronnie Buerger, Andrew Buerger's mother and co-publisher of the Jewish Times, said she was pleased with the outcome.

"This turned out to be, as far as I'm concerned, a very successful bidding and ending for the drama we've been through," she said.

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