Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The JRC bankruptcy

If your idea of a fun vacation is completing a series of annual doctor's appointments, culminating in a colonoscopy (and all that entails, if you know what I mean), then you would have enjoyed time off with me last week.

But at least I was prepared.

What caught me off-guard at midweek was the email from Journal Register Company, the Freeman's owner, announcing it was entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the second time in three years.

Some vacation.

Last time JRC went Chapter 11, publishers were given a crash course in advance of the filing. It enabled us to get our arms around bankruptcy, a word that most layman mistakenly associate with always meaning "going out of business."

"No, we're not closing the doors," the JRC publishers were correctly assured. "This is a reorganization to help the parent company get out from under some of its considerable debt obligations (primarily from a couple of extravagant purchases of other newspaper companies -- including the Goodson Newspaper Group, which once owned the Freeman)."

We were told, also correctly, that the company would be in and out of bankruptcy in a relatively short time (several months) and that there'd be little if any impact on the day-to-day operations of the individual newspaper properties in the interim.

The Journal Register Company that emerged from bankruptcy had new, invigorated and innovative corporate leadership. Within months, it was turning around JRC's reputation and direction. Indeed, with its new, heralded focus on digital media, Journal Register Company became the talk of the industry ... for all the right reasons.

Staring at declines in print advertising and circulation that have engulfed newspaper companies, large and small, Journal Register Company went all-in on its newspapers' digital future. The favorable results are there to be seen on our websites, along with our mobile, iPhone and iPad (the Freeman's to be available very soon) applications. They're also evident on a variety of social media platforms. Readership of our newspapers, in print and on-line, has never been higher. And digital advertising revenue has been growing steadily. Meanwhile, long-overdue internal investments were (and are) being made to replace ancient, often inefficient computers and systems. Moreover, some of the most talented people in the media world have joined our organization.

Yet, now, here we are again, with Journal Register Company once more filing for Chapter 11. How could that happen and what does it mean to the Freeman?

I'm not in a position to speak for Journal Register Company. But that crash course to which I referred earlier provided me with enough insight offer a little in return. It corresponds both with what the company has announced to the public, and what several of us personally heard yesterday from JRC President Jeff Bairstow, and what we will hear from CEO John Paton when he, too, soon visits Kingston. (Some of his comments are reported here.)

In short -- my words, not the company's -- the last Chapter 11 filing did not succeed in shedding as much of the debt as it should have. This Chapter 11 is necessary to finish the job.

I hope it does for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that just as many people associate the word "bankruptcy" with "going out of business," like the last time, many in our community hear "bankruptcy" and "Freeman parent company," and conclude it's the Freeman that's entered Chapter 11 and will soon close. (Many in our community also incorrectly said the Freeman was going out of business when we moved our press and mailroom operations from Kingston to our sister company in Troy. But that's another story.)

The misperception of us being a newspaper on death row is as distracting as it is wrong. The Freeman has been and continues to be a successful company. The Freeman did not file Chapter 11, its parent company did. There's a difference.

That is not to say we're immune from the industry wide fiscal declines I mentioned above (and have cited any number of other times here, on radio and at local appearances). But the growth of our digital business under post-Chapter 11 Journal Register Company has renewed my confidence that the Freeman is part of a newspaper company with a smart plan for a successful future.

For the short term, we'll again have to carry the Chapter 11 stigma on our collective backs. But while the corporate experts do their thing to steer us out of that fiscal condition, we in Kingston will stick to the business at hand, which is to be the area's finest digital information source for readers and advertisers, our daily efforts culminating in a vital, complete print newspaper.

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