Friday, April 26, 2013

The sale of a newspaper

The company that owns the Freeman was sold earlier this month. You may have heard about it; it was in all the newspapers.

Indeed, the sale seemed to attract more public attention than previous times when Freeman ownership changed hands. (More on that history in a moment.)

Maybe that was because the parent company was in bankruptcy for the second time in three years, prompting many in the public to expect us to go out of business as the latest casualty in what is often described as a dinosaur of an industry.

Maybe it was because there are more print, digital and broadcast outlets attempting to cover our community these days, some of which weren’t around to chronicle past sales.

Maybe it was because the sale coincided with negotiations with unions representing employees at our newspaper and others owned by the parent Journal Register Company. As typically occurs when unions (public and private sector) seek outside support in hopes of applying pressure on management, the unions expressed dissatisfaction about what they were facing at the bargaining table during talks with 21st CMH Acquisitions, soon-to-be new owner of Journal Register Company (and an affiliate of Alden Global Capital, the soon-to-be former owner).

I get it.

But here’s where I’m going to take on the persona of Father Time, as I’ve increasingly found myself doing over the last several years.

When you’ve worked at the same place for nearly 43 years, you get leather-skinned about the kinds of major business developments at your place of employment that you’ve experienced time and again in the past.

Put another way, while the sales of the Freeman’s parent companies and/or a resulting change in management are always unsettling for employees and a curiosity/concern for customers, it’s less so to the greybeards on the payroll.

I don’t mean to be cavalier about it. It’s a lot easier for me, someone who’s a lot closer to the end of a career than to a beginning or middle – and one who’s lived through it to tell the tale – to react with little more than raised eyebrows. No doubt the level of angst is elevated among my younger colleagues.

That said, before I tell you where I think the Freeman is and where it’s going, for some context, here’s a bit more on that aforementioned history, in abbreviated form.

The Rondout Daily Freeman was born in 1871. The owner -publisher was one Horatio Fowks. Over the next 20 years, what soon became the Kingston Daily Freeman was sold to S. D. Coykendall, then to Charles Marseilles, then back to Coykendall. The newspaper was losing money in 1891 when 25-year-old Jay Klock purchased it.

Klock ushered in what was considered the “modern era”, installing new presses, moving the operation into a building at the foot of Broadway (currently the home of Mariner’s Harbor restaurant) and making the kinds of improvements that saw its circulation grown from 3,000 to over 20,000.

After 45 years in charge, 70-year-old Klock died in 1936. For the next 30 years, the Freeman was run by his widow, Lucia.

(Yes, the Klocks were the namesakes of the Klock Foundation, which for decades has been a generous benefactor to a variety of worthy causes in the community.)

“Modern era No. 2” began in 1966 when the Freeman was purchased by Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, two nationally known impresarios who’d made their fortunes producing TV game shows like “The Price is Right”, “I’ve Got a Secret”, “Match Game”, “To Tell the Truth” and “What’s My Line?”, among others.

The sale coincided with the onset of larger companies purchasing family-owned newspapers. Newspaper families made large sums of money and the companies immediately realized big profits and considerable influence. Today, it takes a bit of searching to find a daily newspaper that is still family-owned.

Goodson and Todman purchased what they were to call the Daily Freeman (Kingston was dropped from the flag) and other similar-sized newspapers in the Northeast. The Freeman now was part of a “chain,” albeit a small one, managed by noted journalist Ralph Ingersoll. (Ingersoll had invented a short-lived publication called PM in the late 1930s. Some look back on it today as USA Today decades before its time.)

Ingersoll’s son, Ralph II, later came on board to manage the Goodson-Todman properties, as well as a number of other newspapers that he purchased, all of which fell under the umbrella of Ingersoll Publications Company.

In 1989, Goodson (Todman had died several years before) ended his management agreement with Ingersoll and formed the Goodson Newspaper Group for the newspapers he wholly owned.
Goodson died three years later, but his newspaper company, inherited by his children, carried on until 1998, when it (including the Freeman) was sold to Journal Register Company.
Saddled with significant debt after a couple of huge acquisitions (including the Goodson deal), and faced with a severe downturn in the economy and the newspaper industry, Journal Register Company entered and quickly exited bankruptcy in 2009, with Alden as its new owner. Journal Register Company, still faced with huge debt, emerged from a late 2012 bankruptcy earlier this month, with yet another new owner (the aforementioned 21st CMH Acquisitions).

Yes, that was the abbreviated version of our history. It didn’t include the long line of CEOs, CFOs, VPs, publishers, department heads, etc., who have directly and indirectly influenced the Freeman over the years.

I’m guessing most of you who have read this far didn’t have any idea about how much was going on behind the scenes as long as your newspaper was delivered each day.

A statistic worth noting – and I offer it more to make a point about turnover than to pat myself on the back – is that my 25-year tenure as Freeman publisher was longer than anyone else in the newspaper’s history besides Jay and Lucia Klock. (You are likely aware that I stepped aside as publisher last August and took on the role of publisher emeritus. Jan Dewey now publishes the Freeman and Journal Register Company’s New York newspapers in Saratoga Springs, Troy and Oneida.)

So what’s the point? Oh, yes, the point.

Changes here aren’t new. The history above briefly describes the evolution in ownership. There were also many publishers and editors for whom I’ve worked since walking through the door as an idealistic 22-year-old in 1970: Dick Treat, Ralph Ingersoll II, Tom Geyer, Jim Plugh, Peter Barrecchia, Irwin Thomas, Charlie Tiano, Chazy Dowaliby, Rob Borsellino, Reg Gale, among others. And that roll call doesn’t cite the many corporate people to whom I have reported or the laundry list of adjustments and improvements we’ve made to the publication itself, not the least of which was becoming a 7-day morning paper instead of a 6-day afternoon paper.

Understandable internal and external anxiety aside, the sale of the Freeman’s parent company this month is business as usual for us. We have another new owner, new management, new procedures, and a reinforced commitment to digital publishing, which most observers agree is the future of our industry (and which Journal Register Company and its umbrella management group Digital First Media were spearheading long before many of our industry colleagues).

I’m betting on the Freeman being here long after I’m gone. In what form? If anybody in the newspaper business can tell you that for sure, they’re kidding themselves.

Who knows … maybe the parent company will be sold again. After all, it’s happened before.

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