The roiled waters of Southern California journalism had a tidal surge over the weekend when Freedom Communications, the parent company of the Orange County Register, filed for bankruptcy Sunday at midnight.
It was the second Chapter 11 filing in six years for the company, which immediately became the subject of speculation that a bidding war was brewing between Tribune Publishing, which owns the Los Angeles Times, and a group headed by Freedom Newspapers’ current chief operating officer, former casino executive Rich Mirman.
The Times, itself, is bobbing up and down on roiled waters as it undergoes what promises to be the largest percentage workforce reduction in two decades of rolling layoffs and buyouts. An estimated 15% of its 500 editorial employees are said to have applied for a buyout that is scheduled to be finalized on November 12. The Times used to have well over 1,000 editorial employees before suffering the same fate as producers of print products around the world.
Chicago-based Tribune Publishing, in conflict with many of the various Times regimes since purchasing Times Mirror Company in 2000, fired Times Publisher Austin Beutner for intransigence in September. He was part of a pitch, with L.A. billionaire Eli Broad, to purchase the Times from Tribune. Tribune holdings include the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and the Orlando Sentinel. The effort is said to be ongoing.
Beutner’s dismissal came just four months after Tribune bought the San Diego Union-Tribune and combined it with the Times to form the California News Group within the parent company.
The Register is the flagship of the once proud libertarian newspaper conglomerate that controlled more than 28 daily newspapers, 37 weeklies and eight television stations. It emerged from bankruptcy in 2010 after shedding most of its properties, and immediately began creating and buying new ones. That didn't work out too well.
After Aaron Kushner, Eric Spitz and other investors bought Freedom in 2012, they acquired the Riverside Press-Enterprise and started the Los Angeles Register and the Long Beach Register. Neither new newspaper lasted very long. Spitz, but not Kushner, is part of the Mirman group hoping to pick up the pieces in bankruptcy.
The company reportedly lost more than $40 million in the two previous years, but anticipates a profit in 2015. Freedom is trying to shed a reported $100 million in debt. “The goal is to strengthen our position as the leader in providing local news and information for Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties,” Mirman said in a letter to employees explaining the bankruptcy.
The Times and the Register, once fierce competitors in the Southland for the then-lucrative print advertising market, have had dealings of a different sort in recent years. The Times delivered the Orange County Register, and then briefly the new Register papers, on a contract that fell into dispute. The Times sued the Register in October 2014 for not paying its bills and the Register countersued the “bully up North.”
The Register said the Times lawsuit was an “all-out assault” by a vindictive foe who is executing a “scheme to kill the OC Register.”
All of the consolidation and jockeying for position is occurring as Tribune directs more of its diminishing resources toward shaping an organization mostly suited to quickly pushing out online content, which doesn’t generate much revenue, using a smaller, lower-paid workforce.
One scenario has Tribune buying the Register (and maybe the Riverside Press-Enterprise), adding on to the California News Group, and then selling the company, or just the group as a separate entity. Perhaps the Times would be renamed the Broad Sheet.