Until today, I’d never heard of Paul (nee Pavel) Belogour, a native of Belarus who’s made a fortune in international investing and related software. Now, he’s the incoming owner of three newspapers in southern Vermont: the Brattleboro Reformer, Bennington Banner, and Manchester Journal. The big prizes are the Reformer and Banner, the only two daily newspapers south of Rutland.
This is either a really good thing or a really bad thing. When an oligarch swoops in and buys media outlets, it may be out of a true sense of obligation to support journalism. The owner’s deep pockets can counter the effects of the news business’ decline. Or it might just be a matter of collecting trophies and buying influence with little regard to the health of the publications. On the rich-guy scale, this purchase amounts to spare change.
Oh, and his native country is a corrupt dictatorship which ranks… let’s see… 158th on Reporters Without Borders’ ranking of 180 countries. RWB noted that Belarus is “the most dangerous country in Europe for media personnel.” Let’s hope Mr. Belogour doesn’t practice his homeland’s approach to the press.
The Reformer and Banner have been circling the drain for some time. How they’ve survived the pandemic on top of all that, I have no idea. But it’s not surprising that Massachusetts-based New England Newspapers, which bought the papers a few years back with an eye toward enhancing the bare-bones operations, has now decided to sell out.
There is another dimension to this. Belogour has been buying up properties in southeast Vermont at a rapid clip. He’s well on his way to becoming a real economic force in the region. And now he’s going to control the daily newspaper? That’s troubling.
So let’s look at the available Google trail on Mr. Belogour, shall we?
Belogour originally came to America to attend college, where he was a competitive rower. After finishing school, he decided to stay here. He spent most of his life in the Boston area, where he built his businesses and his fortune. He founded Boston Merchant Financial Services, which has become a major player in the foreign exchange market (trading currencies internationally). He later founded UniSoft Technologies, an IT firm that develops investment software. He also operates a high-end real estate firm and an investment fund in the United Arab Emirates.
After the 2008 crash, Belogour and his wife Christina decided to move away from the big city. They first bought a farm in Bernardstown, Mass., and sometime in the past few years relocated to Guilford, Vermont, south of Brattleboro.
Since his arrival, he’s been snapping up real estate. Here’s a list of his acquisitions taken from a Reformer story published on December 25. Remember that all these transactions happened in just a few years’ time.
- He bought a property in Guilford where he hopes to build “Viking Village,” a re-creation of Viking life modeled after Sturbridge Village.
- He has purchased a total of 3,000 acres in Guilford.
- He bought the former Black Bear Sugarworks and rebranded it as Viking Farms.
- He also bought 1,400 acres in the neighboring town of Halifax.
- He spent $1.5 million for four commercial properties in Brattleboro.
- In one of those buildings, he plans to create the Vermont Innovation Box, a business incubator.
- In another, he hopes to develop a glass production facility tied to the next project…
- He wants to build a glass house that will be, he said, “out of this world in terms of architecture.”
- He spent $640,000 to buy Norm’s Marina on the Connecticut River in Hinsdale, NH because “I love rivers. It goes back to my rowing days.”
- He has also bought eight acres of Connecticut River frontage.
- He purchased a vacant industrial warehouse in Brattleboro, where
- He bought the Trout River Brewing Company in Springfield, which he renamed Vermont Beer Makers.
- He tried to buy the former campus of Southern Vermont College in Bennington, but was outbid by Southwestern Vermont Health Care.
That’s as of last December. Who knows what he’s snapped up since then.
What you don’t see in his life story is any connection whatsoever to journalism.
This all reminds me of one Tom Monaghan, a southeast Michigan man who founded Domino’s Pizza. He is an extremely devout Catholic and a major contributor to Opus Dei, a secretive organization that’s been called “the most controversial group in the Catholic Church today.” Before he sold Domino’s to a hedge fund, his franchises attracted criticism and the occasional boycott over Monaghan’s hard-right politics.
When his business matured, he went on a spending spree. He collected rare automobiles, he built a dramatically-designed Domino’s headquarters on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, he built a farm slash petting zoo on the headquarters’ grounds, amassed a multi-million-dollar collection of Frank Lloyd Wright designs, drawings, correspondence, doors, windows and more, he bought a Gulfstream jet and a helicopter, and he spent a half billion dollars building Ave Maria, a planned community in Florida operating along very strict Catholic principles, and the associated Ave Maria University. And he bought an Ann Arbor radio station and renamed it WPZA, because pizza, get it?
Oh, and he also bought the Detroit Tigers.
He was an inconstant steward of his properties, often more occupied with his faith than anything else. And eventually he soured on almost everything he scooped up. He would sell off holdings seemingly on a whim, often without regard to current value.
Obviously, there are a lot of differences between Monaghan and Belogour. There’s no hint of religious extremism in the Baron of Brattleboro. His purchases are too recent for him to have grown weary of them, and perhaps he never will.
What they do have in common is (1) great wealth and (2) a record of serial enthusiasms. It’s great on the upswing, but the bottom can fall out at any moment. “Viking Village” in particular reminds me very much of a Monaghan project.
Southern Vermont’s two leading newspapers are now under the aegis of, or at the mercy of, a major investor whose attitude toward the principles of journalism is a mystery. This is a precarious position for the newspapers and their communities. I hope for the best, and fear for the worst.