Three years ago a former greeting card executive and his partner bought the Orange County Register and a handful of smaller newspapers. Operating as Freedom Communications, they stunned a gasping industry by declaring their intention to invest heavily in news.
A year later, the experiment showed signs of bearing fruit. As we wrote in July, 2013, “Newsroom staff is up to 360 from a low of 180 when Freedom took over. The Register routinely publishes daily issues that are nearly twice the size of its nearby rival, the Los Angeles Times. Page counts have been increased by half, color expanded and even the quality of paper improved.”
That was then. Two years later, the Freedom experiment can be judged a failure as Freedom filed for bankruptcy protection as part of a management-led plan to acquire the paper. The plan will end the active role of Aaron Kushner, the greeting card magnate who said two years ago that he was in the game for the long haul and who even eyed a buyout of the Los Angeles Times, whose parent Tribune Co. was itself bankrupt at the time.
A group led by Rich Mirman, who is the current CEO and publisher of Freedom, is bidding to acquire the company and reorganize its finances. Mirman said there will be no job cuts and that all bills will continue to be paid during the reorganization. He also said the company should turn a profit this year after losing more than $40 million over the past two years.
Nowhere to be seen in the deal is Kusher, the newcomer with a vision who spoke so forcefully about the value of newspapers two years ago. His plan always was a long shot, but he was at least a positive voice in an industry that’s so shrouded in hopelessness these days. He was one of a dwindling list of rich executives that includes Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos and John Henry, who seem to believe that journalism is still worth the investment. Why is it that the only people who have faith in the newspaper industry are people who have no background in newspapers?