Mark McDermott

Freedom Communications and Easy Reader enter management agreement

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Easy Reader. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Easy Reader. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Easy Reader this week entered into a management agreement with Freedom Communications, the Santa Ana-based company that has cut against the grain by aggressively reinvesting in print journalism in a time of general decline in newspaper publishing.

The deal allows Easy Reader to maintain local ownership and keep its existing staff.

Owner Kevin Cody, who co-founded the paper in 1970 as an all-volunteer organization and has overseen an expansion that now includes three magazines and circulation of 50,000 throughout the Beach Cities, will continue in his role as publisher.

Cody said the deal enables the newspaper to remain independent while gaining the financial and editorial resources of a larger, expanding news organization.

“It’s the start of a new era,” Cody said. “We are going from a small town weekly to one with the potential to be a part of a larger regional news organization. We have a four decade legacy of serving the journalistic needs of the beach communities of Los Angeles… We are going to build on that legacy, utilizing their financial and managerial resources. We are appreciative of what Freedom Communication brings to the table.”

Freedom Communications owns the Orange County Register and four other dailies as well as more than 30 community newsweeklies. The agreement represents another step in Freedom Communications’ bold strategy to launch a new daily newspaper, the Los Angeles Register. Much as it has done in Orange County, Freedom will utilize community newspapers to feed local news to the Los Angeles Register, which is scheduled to launch this spring. Aaron Kushner, Freedom co-owner and CEO, has praised the Los Angeles Times as a great national newspaper but has suggested the LA Register will strive to be a great local newspaper.

In a statement, Kushner praised Easy Reader’s commitment to community journalism.

“Kevin Cody, [advertising director] Richard Budman and the entire team has built over many years a fabulous franchise of local journalism and publications supporting local advertisers that fit perfectly with how we strive to build community,” Kushner said. “We couldn’t be more excited to work with and welcome the Easy Reader staff to our broader Freedom Communications mission of building community. We are looking forward to expanding the breadth and depth of what we are able to provide to readers and advertisers in the coming years.”

Freedom intends to expand Easy Reader’s circulation into Torrance in the near future and is exploring northward expansion into Santa Monica and Malibu. After the LA Register launches, news coverage that appears in Easy Reader and its sister publications — Beach, Peninsula People, and Drop Zone LA magazines — will also be utilized in the daily newspaper.

LA Register editor Ron Sylvester said that Freedom Communications’ focus is to build on community journalism, and as such Easy Reader will be a central component of the LA Register’s larger strategy.

“That is exactly why we are here and working with Easy Reader,” Sylvester said. “Because Easy Reader covers news the way we like to cover it. This is going to be the community news base for our LA operations, and this is going to serve as the coastal bureau for the LA Register when we launch it.”

In an interview, Kushner stressed that Freedom Communications’ ethos is based on the notion that papers such as Easy Reader play a crucial role in the communities they serve.

“We believe newspapers — our papers, certainly — exist to build community,” Kushner said. “In our view, this includes great local journalism, but goes beyond that, as well, in terms of how we think about all aspects of our business — whether that be marketing or advertising or how we are helping local businesses grow, through reaching out and doing creative partnerships, hopefully. And we try very hard to have our mission infuse everything we do, not just the journalism.”

Kushner and his business partner Eric Spitz, representing a group of confidential investors, bought Freedom Communications in 2012. They paid $50 million for a news organization once valued in the hundreds of millions. Like nearly every daily newspaper, the advertising drain from the internet and the impact of the economic recession had drastically devalued the Register.

Kushner has been the subject of both admiration and skepticism within journalism in that he and his investors doubled down on the struggling business — adding more than 100 positions and entire new sections to the OC Register — at a time most newspapers have been contracting or going out of business altogether.

Last Friday, both the OC Register and another recent Freedom acquisition, the Press Enterprise in Riverside, announced roughly 75 layoffs. Sources within the company said many of those employees laid off would be rehired in other capacities — some copy editors, for example, would be rehired as reporters as Freedom expands its footprint in Southern California.

Kushner, though acknowledging the difficulties facing newspapers, said he still believes.

“We believe newspapers really matter,” he said. “They really do matter. We believe newspapers are core to the fabric of a community — whether from a democratic perspective, from a local business perspective, from a non-profit perspective — any kind of element that makes a community healthy and vibrant. Absolutely, that is what attracted us to the newspaper business. It’s not because it’s an easy business.”

He dismissed the “hyperlocal” buzzword that has been attached to a trend towards community coverage within the industry.

“I don’t like the word,” he said. “We cover our own communities. Some say, well, that is hyperlocal, or super local — at the end of the day, life is lived in communities. And that is what we cover. It’s very challenging to do it, and it’s expensive, but when you do it well, you are able to really connect. The depth of engagement you can deliver for advertisers and for the entire community is at a whole different level.”

“I have great respect for the LA Times — they are a very good national newspaper. But that is not our objective. Our objective is to build community, and most of that is local, and that is where we focus.”

Kushner said the practice of journalism within a community has a pervasive and often powerful effect.

“Whether it’s things that make us cry, in a healthy, good way, or smile, or inspire us, or engage us to learn about things we never expected to be interested in — there are so many things news can do, and we believe good newspapers are able to do,” he said. “It’s part of why we are so excited about  Easy Reader and the work you all do — the reporting is our kind of journalism. It’s serving and covering the community, all aspects of it, and we believe that is important.”

He also reiterated Freedom Communication’s intention to take Easy Reader’s model of community coverage and expand upon it.

“We are very excited to work with the Easy Reader team and expand what Easy Reader is able to do throughout the entire coastal communities, extending all the way up to Malibu,” Kushner said. “That is what we do. That is why we exist.”