Inside the breakup of Freedom Communications

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It's been hard to watch our colleagues and arch-rivals at the Gazette suffer from the sins of its parent, Freedom Communications. The company emerged from bankruptcy in 2010, and was never really the same after members of the founding Hoiles family asked to be bought out in 2004. At this point, the newsroom has been reduced to a pale shadow of its former Pulitzer Prize-winning self.

Besides hearing the tales, I got a personal taste, a few months back, when I served on a media panel at the Gazette's building at 30 S. Prospect St. It was held in a back conference room just off the space for the printing presses. One side of the area was painted with the big, blue-flame logo of the parent; the other held a 30-foot-long stretch of empty cubicles, some broken down, all looking like something you might pack giant-sized Christmas ornaments in.

There's countless horror tales, but for one, here's former award-winning staff photographer Bryan Oller — who was a victim of one of the most recent rounds of layoffs and now does freelance work, including for the Independent — in a February post on his blog The F Stops Here.

"Well, I landed at the Gazette in Colorado Springs. One of the best little papers in America. A photo staff that would not quit," Oller wrote. "Bob Jackson — Pulitzer Prize winner. Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. Yes, that photographer. ...

"The Gazette photo department is now a staff of three. Editors and photographers, just a few years ago, numbered 11. Wow. Shameful if you ask me. What the hell happened? In the age of visual communication, one of the most incredible photography staffs in the country went from 11 to three."

With that kind of atmosphere, recent corporate moves haven't taken anybody by surprise. There was the sale of Freedom's TV division in April; the alleged sale of the company's flagship paper, the Orange County Register, at the beginning of the month; and the news, last week, that 10 or so small dailies were sold, including four long-successful operations from the state of Texas.

But it's the employees of those papers who are really being affected, and it's the journalists at each who have opened up, in recent stories, shining a light on the crumbling beacon.

Most complete is Scott Shackford's piece for reason.com. While tinged with the same libertarian mania we've all come to expect and love from our daily, Shackford's account is fascinating.

After the bankruptcy, no dictates came down from the new owners demanding any sort of changes in the newspapers’ editorial positions. The only change was that the newspapers were now free to endorse candidates on their editorial pages, something that had been previously forbidden. Editorial boards could take stands on initiatives and referendums, but not actual people. There were a lot of reasons for the rule, the simplest being “politicians lie.”

Shackford, the former editor of Freedom-paper the Desert Dispatch, writes how editorial-page writers "were expected to advance libertarian philosophy," and how publishers and editors at the company would attend annual management conferences nicknamed "Freedom School."

Then there's the stories from some of the recently sold papers — some optimistic, some a little more funereal.

David Johnson at the Odessa American said the sale wasn't a surprise, internally, but that now, instead of making joyfully corny puns about the parent company's name, "all we have left is 'We’ve been sold by Freedom,' and 'Freedom isn’t free.'"

Randy Foster, at the Sun Journal in North Carolina, offered this: "So what’s left? If my math serves me correctly, there are six daily and three weekly newspapers in North Carolina, as well as newspapers, websites and magazines in Arizona, California, Colorado and Florida. That company’s most valuable assets, its daily newspapers, now total 15, down from 27 just a few months ago."

Notification came early for Jim Krumel: "Associates of the Lima News realized the guessing game was about to end when the email popped into their computers' inboxes at 9:21 a.m. Thursday." Later in the article, he adds that, in 2003, Freedom "nearly accepted a joint bid by USA Today publisher Gannett Co. Inc. and Denver-based MediaNews Group, owner of the Denver Post and the Los Angeles Daily News. Instead, it turned to investment bankers."

Most reflective of the company's careless approach towards its properties, though, comes from the Walton Sun, in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.

In years past, the paper was often more than 100 pages.

“Our papers were so thick, you could only put 15 to 20 in a rack,” said [original publisher Mike] Mullins. “We’d fill up at Donut Hole five, six, seven times on a Sunday.”

But even for all of its success, the paper went widely unrecognized at California-centered Freedom Communications.

“It was pretty stunning to find out we were kind of like a black ops operation doing clandestine work in the open,” added [editor Rick] Thomason.

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