Let Freedom Ring

East Valley newspapers can only improve under new ownership known for innovation

A great measure of competence is how much your nearest competitor fears and loathes you.

Freedom Communications, which took control of the East Valley Tribune last week from Thomson Newspapers, is best known for its flagship paper, the 368,000-circulation Orange County Register. The Register does battle against a zoned edition of the much larger Los Angeles Times for the hearts of readers in the sprawling suburbia of Orange County, California.

The Times' other major competitor is the Los Angeles Daily News.

Freedom Communications now owns the East Valley Tribune and eight other Arizona newspapers, including the Scottsdale Tribune.
Paolo Vescia
Freedom Communications now owns the East Valley Tribune and eight other Arizona newspapers, including the Scottsdale Tribune.
Media visionary or New Age flake? Whichever, you will see the mark of N. Christian Anderson on your new Tribune.
Media visionary or New Age flake? Whichever, you will see the mark of N. Christian Anderson on your new Tribune.

In 1998, the Daily News was sold to the generally disrespected MediaNews Group. Oddly, the purchase was made possible by a secret $50 million loan MediaNews received from the Times' parent company, Times Mirror.

Why such generosity? Times Mirror wanted to block Freedom from buying the Daily News. The Times has consistently lost to Freedom in Orange County. It didn't want to lose to Freedom on its home turf of Los Angeles.

If Freedom can rattle the nerves of a great paper like the Los Angeles Times, just imagine the havoc it could wreak on the Arizona Republic.

Indeed, Freedom's plan for the East Valley Tribune is to repeat in the East Valley its successes in Orange County, where the newspaper has won three Pulitzer Prizes and continues to gain circulation as the Times' circulation flags. And by all accounts, Freedom seems far more willing and capable of building strong newspapers than Thomson, which is widely considered by journalism experts to be one of the worst newspaper chains in North America.

"The Tribune will operate very autonomously -- there are no manuals on how to do things," says N. Christian Anderson, the publisher of the Orange County Register who is widely credited with the Register's success. "On the other hand, it would be really stupid not to take the lessons we've learned in Orange County and apply them in the East Valley. We would not have made an offer on the Tribunes if we didn't think we could have success there in the way we've had success with the Register."

Freedom purchased the East Valley and Scottsdale Tribunes along with seven other small Arizona newspapers for an estimated $200 million (Anderson would not confirm the figure).

The East Valley Tribune, at a circulation of 100,000, is by far the largest of Freedom's purchases. And with its generally flat circulation numbers in a growing, competitive market, it provides the most challenges to its new parent company.

Beyond getting a better owner, the Tribune now has some security. Since Thomson announced it was selling its Arizona papers in February, rumors had swirled that the Tribune could fold.

The staff exodus that began when Thomson purchased the paper in 1996 escalated. According to the Tribune's editor, Jim Ripley, newspaper sales telemarketers for the Republic were even telling readers, "Oh, you don't want to take the Tribune, they're going out of business."

"It's great to have an owner, it's great to have a good owner and it's great to get away from Thomson," says Lawn Griffiths, a longtime reporter and columnist for the various incarnations of the Tribune. "Morale was bad. But now, people seem to be genuinely excited about the future."

Ripley and his boss, publisher Karen Wittmer, have both been asked to remain in their positions under Freedom. A Freedom executive probably will be brought in as managing editor, a position vacated earlier this year when Paul Maryniak jumped to the Republic.

So what's this all mean for the average EV man or woman? In the spirit of Gannett and Freedom, we'll use bullets:

€ Better local coverage. Freedom is an industry leader in understanding what readers want from their newspapers and then providing the reporting manpower to cover those issues. Freedom has already begun a widespread readership survey in the East Valley. And if anything, Anderson says, Freedom will add reporters to the Tribune's editorial staff of 140. (In a Tribune staff meeting, Freedom execs promised to add staff if circulation increased. The Tribune's circulation has been stagnant at around 100,000 since the early 1990s.) Thomson infuriated many staffers and readers when, in a 1997 cost-saving move, it consolidated the Chandler, Gilbert, Tempe and Mesa zoned editions into one paper.

€ Better in-depth reporting. The Register's investigative team, and the news staff in general, are among the more respected in the country.

€ Less newsroom turnover and, perhaps, better pay. Freedom executives say they realize some areas of the community aren't covered adequately and that too many staffers have fled the paper under present pay scales. Less turnover and better pay could mean a smarter, more experienced staff and the return of that nebulous but badly needed newsroom entity known as "institutional knowledge." Under Thomson, the Tribune gained a reputation for hiring only inexperienced reporters. Also, employees within Freedom have greater advancement opportunities than within Thomson. Now, a top Tribune editor says, the Tribune could lead to the Southern California market and what is often rated as one of America's 20 best newspapers.

€ Subscription prices and advertising rates should remain the same. Freedom isn't a discounter. In Orange County, the Register's subscriptions cost more than the Times' and ad rates are higher. Freedom figures people will pay a little bit more for a better product, so it considers losing money by increasing pay or staffing a better choice than slashing ad rates. "We're worth more," Anderson says.

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