Wednesday, September 2, 2009


“Freedom as a company - especially the newspapers in the Valley - will continue to operate as normal...” - M. Olaf Frandsen, publisher of The McAllen Monitor.

By Patrick Alcatraz

McALLEN, Texas - First, this must be said: filing for bankruptcy is not a good thing; it means you cannot pay your debts and are asking for relief from the courts. A newspaper, or news media company, filing for bankruptcy is not operating as if all is normal. Yesterday was a bloody bailout day for Freedom Communications Inc, owner of the Rio Grande Valley's three daily newspapers, The McAllen Monitor, The Valley Morning Star, and The Brownsville Herald. In all, 70 local employees of the California-based company have been laid-off in the past 18 months, according to a report in The Monitor earlier this week.

Unpaid furloughs have also been part of the New Deal coming from Publisher M. Olaf Frandsen's air-conditioned office over at the corner of Nolana Loop and Jackson Road here. Yes, it's not easy to see the pain being felt by the RGV's dailies. That Monitor's much-ballyhooed state-of-the-art building stands as if a monument to Wall Street greed. It is the largest, fanciest building in the neighborhood, there across the street from two well-known, much humbler convenience stores and a coming bank nearby.

Freedom Communications, the newspapers reported in this morning's editions, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization Tuesday in a Delaware court. The agreement will cut Freedom’s debt to $325 million, down from more than $770 million. "All Valley Freedom Newspapers will continue to operate as normal during the reorganization process, which is expected to last four to six months, Freedom’s interim chief executive Burl Osborne told company representatives in a teleconference Tuesday afternoon."

Frandsen, exhibiting the optimism of General George Armstrong Custer on the day before that fateful doomsday scrap against the Sioux in the Dakotas, "...said Monday that Chapter 11 bankruptcy would have no effect on Valley newspaper subscribers, advertisers or employees. “Freedom as a company - especially the newspapers in the Valley - will continue to operate as normal,” he said.

Oh, really?

Let's see: you feel the pain of a staggering drop in advertising revenue, you layoff employees, including newsroom employees, you furlough people for days on end without pay and you announce the filing of bankruptcy and you will continue to operate as normal? Gag me with another joke, Olaf. You cannot be serious.

The Monitor and its sister papers here in the RGV are part of serious, sometimes killing financial straits being faced by the newspaper industry as a whole. Newspapers are closing their doors. Senior employees are being given buyout packages. Hiring freezes are now in place from San Diego to Bangor. Editors are taking part-time jobs at bookstores and local colleges. It is High Noon across the National Newspaper Map.

And Olaf Frandsen tells his readers that all is normal? Talk about coming clean with the people you serve. The Monitor and every other newspaper the company owns in this area ought to tell it like it is. Area residents deserve that, especially since most of the dollars they pay to Freedom's newspapers here for advertising or subscriptions leave the RGV for the company coffers in Southern California. The product suffers and the people at the very least deserve to be told what's going on, and what they may expect if and when the days turn darker.

Everyone knows the Internet has walloped print publications. Newspaper executives such as Frandsen now acknowledge it openly. Where print newspapers go from here is anybody's guess. The RGV is unique in that it is far from any serious competition, yet a growing, better-educated community still expects its local newspaper to wage the fight against corruption, crime, silly politics, international disarray, and whatever else tends to soil the environment. Outsider Olaf Frandsen should keep that in mind.

You simply cannot keep gutting a product - trimming, trimming, trimming - and expect the readers to want to keep paying the three quarters newsracks demand from Monday thru Saturday and the $1.25 the daily sells for on Sunday. Yes, it is true that Freedom Communications has no daily competition in the Rio Grande Valley, but in terms of personal satisfaction, well, employees at all three dailies must be feeling the sort of agony only a parent who's lost a child can feel...mind-blowing & crippling, in other words...

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