With all the upheaval going on in the newspaper business, the sale of Freedom Communications piece by piece is getting relatively little notice. Warren Buffett wasn’t the buyer and staff cuts were not as dramatic as those going on at Advance Communications.
But I noticed.
In my three years at the American Press Institute, Freedom was by far my leading client. I led regional seminars for newsroom staff members in Destin, Fla.; McAllen, Texas, and New Bern, N.C. I spoke at editors’ conferences in Dallas, Tempe, Ariz., (publishers joined that conference) and San Antonio. I spoke at a National Writers’ Workshop in Fullerton, Calif., hosted by the Orange County Register.
For more than two years, I wrote a quarterly review of Freedom work (called the “eTuner” for reasons that I don’t recall if I ever knew them), requiring me to review content from dozens of newspapers and websites, a chore that always took a week or two. (The eTuner might have been the first place I wrote about the importance of Twitter for journalists.) I coordinated the work of judges who performed annual evaluations of every Freedom paper.
Jonathan Segal, then president of Freedom Newspapers, was an API board member and his company believed in the value of training staff and improving journalism more than any company I knew of in the newspaper business.
I knew the work, the leaders and the staffs of Freedom’s newsrooms better than those of any company other than those I worked for. They did a lot of good journalism for a lot of communities and I was proud to work with them (and had some great times with them over dinner and drinks at those conferences and seminars).
The Libertarian bent of their editorial pages on national issues never won me over. But I saw a lot of strong leadership on local issues that reflected thoughtful local examination of issues, rather than an ideological approach dictated from headquarters.
Like too many former giants of our industry, Freedom ended up in bankruptcy. And it’s been sold in more pieces than any other newspaper company I’ve noticed. In at least six transactions this year, the Texas papers went to AIM Media, the Florida and North Carolina papers went to Halifax Media Group, the New Mexico newspapers sold to Clovis Media, the Seymour (Ind.) Tribune sold to Home News Enterprises, four other Midwestern papers sold to Versa Capital Management and the California papers, Colorado Springs Gazette and Yuma (Ariz.) Sun were sold Monday to an investor group. The 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning East Valley Tribune was sold (after nearly closing) in 2009. And the TV stations, which I had no interactions with, went to Sinclair Broadcast Group. I might have missed another deal or two, but Freedom has scattered more thoroughly than any media company that I’ve noticed.
I don’t have time (or a good enough memory) to salute all the good journalists I worked with and recount all the good journalism I reviewed for Freedom. But I’ll say a special thanks to Lee Lerner, who was my primary contact with Freedom, and to Skip Foster, who was editor of the Shelby Star when we first started working together and later became publisher. Skip leads an amazingly innovative small staff in Shelby and led discussions for some of the API seminars I led, blowing away the we’re-too-small excuse too many newsrooms use.
Oh, hell, I’m going to name more names anyway (recognizing up front that I’m going to overlook some good ones). I’ll send out thanks and best wishes to other Freedom colleagues, some of whom have moved on, some of whom lost jobs in this upheaval and some of whom will continue serving the same communities under new owners: Dan Brannan, Hunter Bretzius, Cyndi Brown, Ken Brusic, Marci Caltabiano Ponce, Dan Davis, Laura Dennis, Steve Fagan, Glen Faison, Jim Krumel, Len La Barth, Julie Moreno, Pat Rice, Jim Ripley, Ernie Rodriguez, Kevin Sablan, David Stevens, Madison Taylor, Jeff Thomas (who might have been the first person to joke about my tendency to tweet about travel delays), Rick Thomason (who became a Digital First colleague), Larry Welborn.
My dealings with Freedom were a pleasure and a fond memory. I hope the people and newsrooms of Freedom thrive with their new owners.