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Let Freedom Ring

Freedom Communications now owns the East Valley Tribune and eight other Arizona newspapers, including the Scottsdale Tribune.
Paolo Vescia

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.

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.

€ Better marketing. Thomson skimped on marketing. With Freedom in control, you'll probably be humming EV Tribune jingles in your sleep.

€ Some restraint on the publisher's community involvement. Freedom's publishers are allowed to serve on nonprofit boards, but any for-profit board membership must be approved by Freedom execs. "We're very conscious of any appearance of a conflict of interest," Anderson says. For example, Anderson serves on the board of the Seattle Times, but will not serve on a for-profit board within the Register's coverage area.

€ An acceptance of lower profit margins. Thomson demands 30 percent margins, according to industry analysts, a margin similar to that of Gannett. Freedom accepts smaller profits and is vowing to pump resources into the Tribune. Anderson says Freedom does not set specific profit margins.

Ultimately, while media wonks and others interviewed had plenty of nasty things to say about Gannett, most had only positive words for Freedom.

"This trend toward independent newspapers disappearing is disturbing," says James Risser, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who is director of the Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. "But in the Tribune's case, the purchase is likely a good thing for readers. In that case, the paper is likely to improve."


If you thought Eugene Pulliam's Arizona Republic was America's wackiest right-wing rag, you probably never read the Santa Ana Register, the ancestor of the Orange County Register.

In the model of many of the late 19th- and early 20th-century American newspapers, the Register was little more than a stump and bullhorn for its owner, R.C. Hoiles. Since Hoiles was a fiercely conservative libertarian, the paper's front pages regularly railed against intrusion of government into any aspect of personal or corporate life. Regulators were commies, industry giants were freedom fighters.

Out of the Register was born the aptly named Freedom Newspapers, the beacon for rich white guy freedom in Orange County, Colorado Springs and several small towns throughout the U.S.

Under Hoiles' children, the Register and other Freedom papers slowly weeded the political philosophy from the news pages while editorial pages remained unabashedly right-side libertarian. What remained by the 1970s and early 1980s was a more objective but still generally mediocre journalistic product. Like the Pulliams, the Hoiles were not widely considered one of America's top-drawer journalism families.

But in the past 15 years or so, the Hoiles have bucked two major trends in daily journalism. As publicly traded corporations gobble up flagging family papers nationwide, the Hoiles have maintained a private, family-owned newspaper chain that is prospering. And stranger still among modern dailies, the family and its chain, Freedom Communications, is now more respected than at any time in its past.

That respect came primarily from Freedom's success with the Orange County Register. In the past 20 years, the Register has gone from a stodgy community paper of 220,000 circulation to a progressive 368,000-circulation metro that media analysts often label America's best suburban newspaper.

"Historically, it was known as a pretty screwball operation," says Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of Media Monopoly. "But in recent years, the Register has done a great job of blocking the L.A. Times' movement south. Overall, it's a pretty respected operation now."

Much of the Register's success against the Times is attributed to Anderson, a sometimes brilliant, occasionally squirrelly, but always visionary leader who is taking a key role in overseeing the acquisition of the East Valley papers.

Anderson was a controversial figure in the mid- and late 1980s. That's when, as editor of the paper, he was deconstructing the Register in an attempt to build a newspaper in tune with modern America and in contrast to the staid old Los Angeles Times.

Not everyone, though, was enamored of his modern newsroom.

Anderson redefined old news beats, created new ones, gave editors funky new titles, promoted the movement of reporters among metro, sports, business and features sections and spent then-unheard-of amounts of time and money finding out who the residents of Orange County were and what they wanted from their newspaper.

 

To many at the time, Anderson was viewed as a flaky New Age buzz-word bureaucrat who would replace hard watchdog journalism with heavily marketed colorful fluff. He was Gannett Lite.

Among the new assignments for reporters: families and teens, pets and hobbies, friends and lovers, demographics, getting around, learning, cities, Southern California culture and, the one that bagged Anderson all kinds of bad national press, malls. It was reporter Jennifer Lowe's job to roam the shopping malls of Orange County looking for stories because studies showed -- and Anderson believed -- malls were a major part of people's lives.

What was sometimes overlooked, though, was that the Register was also doing a lot of solid journalism. During Anderson's tenure as editor of the Register, the paper won three Pulitzers (one for photography, two for investigative reporting) as well as numerous other national journalism awards.

"People seemed to think it was an either/or thing," Anderson says. "That's not how we look at it. We can focus on how people lead their lives at the same time we're strong in our watchdog role. We've proved that over time."

For the past several years, Anderson and a team of Freedom executives have scoured the United States looking for the right newspapers to buy. But Freedom had only a few hundred million dollars to spend, chump change compared with the billions of massive companies such as Gannett and the Tribune Company, parent of the Chicago Tribune, which earlier this year purchased Times Mirror Company and its Los Angeles Times for $6.3 billion.

Freedom now owns more than 30 daily newspapers as well as 37 weeklies and eight television stations. Its combined daily readership, more than one million, makes it the 15th largest media company in the country.

"We didn't have $2.1 billion like Gannett," Anderson says. "We had to look at how much we had to spend and match that with the market with the most opportunity for us."

Freedom looked at newspapers in Louisiana and Florida. But several companies were interested in those growing, single-paper markets, Anderson says, so the prices were driven higher than Freedom wanted to pay.

In February, Thomson announced it was putting 54 of the company's daily papers on the block. Many of the Thomson properties quickly attracted numerous suitors.

Surprisingly, considering the skyrocketing growth in the East Valley, the Tribune and Thomson's other Arizona properties didn't attract much interest. Many companies, particularly smaller ones, were leery of trying to compete as a suburban newspaper against a major metropolitan daily.

The forces that drove other companies away, though, were the forces pulling Anderson and Freedom to the Tribune.

"It made sense when you think, 'How many other papers have the kind of experience we have in a market like this?'" Anderson says. "We know there are similarities with Orange County and we're definitely not afraid to compete with the Arizona Republic. We have the experience, we have the commitment to look at things on a longer-term basis. We will do what it takes to be competitive."


Thirty years ago, though, newspaper publishers in the Valley didn't need surveys and charts to understand how people lived their lives. The publishers, editors and reporters already knew because they, too, lived their lives in those communities.

Tempe had a family-owned newspaper; so did Mesa and Chandler. Scottsdale had the widely respected Scottsdale Progress owned by Jonathan and Maxine Marshall, who, it was joked, were the rarest of all creatures in Arizona -- liberal newspaper publishers.

The Marshalls purchased the struggling Scottsdale Daily Progress in 1963. Over the next 24 years, they built the circulation from 4,600 a day to 23,000.

The Marshalls crusaded for improved open-meeting and public-records laws. They were relentless in their pursuit of truth in the car bombing of Republic reporter Don Bolles in 1976. On the inside pages, they published school lunch menus. Scottsdale school board and city council meetings were top priorities.

"If you have an independent local paper, it focuses on local government and local issues and cares deeply about local issues," Jonathan Marshall says. "And in our case, we could afford to get by without huge salaries and pump the money back into the operation. You don't see any of that with a corporation."

Marshall says he'd hoped to pass the paper on to one of his four children. But the children had other interests. So, in 1987, the Marshalls sold to Cowles Media. Over the next six years, circulation dropped by 6,000.

Cox bought the Progress in 1993, completing the company's consumption of small dailies east of Phoenix. Cox had purchased the Mesa Tribune in 1977, the Tempe paper in 1980 and the Chandler paper in 1983.

 

In 1996, Thomson bought the Chandler, Mesa, Tempe and Gilbert Tribunes, then added the Scottsdale Progress Tribune in 1997. That year, the Mesa, Chandler, Tempe and Gilbert papers were merged into what would become the East Valley Tribune.

Confused? Welcome to modern newspapering, where giant chains regularly sell and trade once-proud newspapers like so many Pokémon cards.

"It's very sad to see," Marshall says. "Ultimately, you get bad local coverage. I don't read the Scottsdale edition anymore. It's not local, it doesn't have the guts to take on controversial issues. It's pointless."

But while Marshall has much to say about Gannett's potential impact on the Valley, he says he knows little of Freedom and how it might affect the remnants of his old paper.

It's not unthinkable that Freedom could be purchased by Gannett.

"That's certainly the trend," Ben Bagdikian says.

Indeed, back in 1995, it appeared Freedom was dolling itself up with stronger management and wider portfolio for the sole purpose of being an attractive purchase for a company such as Gannett.

"It may be in everyone's best interest for us to merge or be sold," Freedom president and CEO James Rosse said in 1995. "If that's the case, we need to make sure we're a strong operating company in order to establish our value as we go into such a combination."

Relax, Anderson says. That's not going to happen anytime soon. He says the fourth generation of the Hoiles family is deeply committed to newspapering and in keeping the company in the family.

"It will be a family-owned company in the foreseeable future," Anderson says.


Karen Wittmer, the Tribune's publisher, downplays Thomson's sweat-shop reputation. Particularly in the East Valley, she says, the chain knew it had to bring in adequate resources to produce a product that could stand up against the Republic.

In Thomson's three and a half years, the newsroom staff has grown from 127 to 140. The newsroom has a new computer system. More graphic artists and copy editors have been hired.

"They never ran Arizona the way they ran other papers," Wittmer says.

Still, there was much discontent. Flamboyant Thomson consultant Alan Geere showed up at the paper and later became executive editor. Much of the staff felt he was a loose cannon, Lawn Griffiths says. Geere left the paper last year.

And in 1997, Thomson made the cost-cutting move that still peeves readers east of Phoenix.

"On May 7, 1997, there was the elimination of five newspaper names in the Valley," says Griffiths, who says "May 7" as grimly as old soldiers say "December 7, 1941." "All of a sudden, you had this thing called the Tribune."

By eliminating separate Chandler, Gilbert, Tempe and Mesa papers, Thomson could make two press runs (for the Scottsdale Tribune and the Tribune) instead of five, Griffiths says. It was a major cost-saver.

But that meant community news from Gilbert was mixed in with community news from Tempe. And that remains a key point of debate at the Tribune: Does somebody out in Gilbert give a hoot about somebody in Tempe?

The pay was less than competitive. Tribune staffers are paid, on average, more than 10 percent less than Republic reporters, Griffiths and other reporters say.

The Tribune newsroom lost 22 employees during the last year of ownership under Cox. The next year, under Thomson, 36 staffers left the newsroom. In 1997, 44 quit. Last year, 41 people left, according to Griffiths, who serves as a sort of de facto historian for the paper.

In many cases, seasoned reporters were replaced with young, inexperienced reporters from small community papers, Griffiths says.

Then came the February announcement that Thomson was selling all of its daily papers in the U.S. For months, employees had no idea who would buy the paper.

Twenty more newsroom employees left the paper in the first half of 2000.

But then rumor began circulating that Freedom was interested in the Tribune newspapers. Morale welled from the depths. Then, in late June, the announcement was made -- to a standing ovation.

Freedom execs began showing up at the Tribune offices. Register-esque language began oozing into the newsroom. According to Jim Ripley, the newsroom culture is already beginning to become less hierarchical.

"This may sound way too quaint, but there's this notion of family from their people," Ripley says. "They are extremely supportive and they give people a lot of opportunity to do their jobs."

"We're very excited about the purchase," Wittmer says. "They are a very good company in all aspects of putting out a newspaper."

 

"We're already working with Chris [Anderson] on content issues because he's been so successful," Wittmer says. "There won't be radical changes, but you will see substantive additions soon. I would say that certainly before Christmas, readers will start seeing a change."


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