Publisher of 6 Jewish weeklies, Charles Buerger, dies at 58

BALTIMORE — Some 800 mourners gathered Sunday to celebrate the life of Charles A. "Chuck" Buerger, an American original who transformed a mom-and-pop community newspaper in Baltimore into a North American Jewish publishing portfolio.

Buerger died Friday of last week of complications following heart surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He was 58.

At the time of his death, Buerger oversaw operations for six Jewish weeklies and three glossy lifestyle magazines across North America, a group of publications that reflect the independent spirit of the Pittsburgh-born iconoclast. He and Susan A. Patchen co-published the Baltimore Jewish Times and the fashion magazine Baltimore Style.

Buerger almost completely rebuilt the seven-paper newspaper empire his grandfather, David Alter, amassed earlier in the century. Only two of the Alter papers survived the Depression, including the Baltimore Jewish Times, founded in 1919.

In family hands continuously since the post-World War I days, the paper came into full flower after Buerger arrived on the scene in 1972 and immediately began to shake established norms for the American Jewish press.

Buerger's methods were, by normal business standards, unconventional. He eschewed ties and socks whenever possible. If the weather was sunny on a Friday, he'd dismiss the staff at mid-afternoon and almost demand that people enjoy the remains of the day. His impromptu happy hours and annual employee appreciation parties were legendary.

The Jewish Times ultimately became one of the premier independent Jewish newspapers in the country.

If Buerger was the Butch Cassidy of maverick Jewish journalism, former editor Gary Rosenblatt was the Sundance Kid.

Starting with Rosenblatt's arrival at the Baltimore paper in 1974, the duo began to experiment with the idea that a Jewish weekly could be an engaging magazine, filled with news from home and abroad, without shirking its essential role of providing community news.

Over a 19-year span, the duo established what became a weekly institution in this tight-knit Jewish community of 90,000. Joined by others, they would go on to acquire and overhaul existing Jewish community papers in Detroit and Atlanta in the 1980s, before Rosenblatt left to become publisher and editor of New York Jewish Week in 1993.

In the 1990s, Buerger became president of Waterspout Communications, a holding company; created two weeklies in South Florida; and took over management of the Vancouver (British Columbia) Western Jewish Bulletin. He also launched Style, a magazine published six times a year in Baltimore, Detroit and Atlanta.

Along the way, Buerger employed a simple business strategy: Spend money to make money. Reinvestment in staff and resources resulted in steady circulation and advertising growth. During the economic boom of the 1980s, the Baltimore and Detroit papers routinely published 200 pages-plus each week.

Reflecting an industry trend, the Baltimore paper's circulation in recent years has dropped from a peak of 22,000 weekly.

"Chuck certainly put people and product above profit," said Gary Press, publisher of the two South Florida weeklies. "Recently, Chuck told me he was the least bottom-line oriented guy I would ever work with. Maybe that's why everything he touched became so successful."

In a eulogy of his congregant and friend, Rabbi Mark G. Loeb, spiritual leader of Baltimore's Conservative Beth El Congregation, said: "Chuck was a complicated, enigmatic person with simple, elemental instincts. He was a controlled workaholic…but he always placed the members of his family at the center of his life and made abundant time for them.

"He surely knew how to make money, but he was utterly unimpressed by people who thought too much of it."

Buerger, a resident of Owings Mills, Md., is survived by his wife, the former Ronnie L. Uslan; three daughters, Jodi A. Buerger of Medfield, Mass., Danielle A. Bunting of Phoenix, Md., and Lauren A. Buerger of Owings Mills; and two sons, Andrew A. Buerger, publisher of the Western Jewish Bulletin in Vancouver, and Kevin A. Buerger, of Los Angeles.