I used to jokingly tell people that the company I worked for was founded on one basic premise: “If you don’t like it, leave.”
It usually drew a laugh. And like most one-liners it was only loosely based in truth. The complete story of Freedom Communications and its cranky Libertarian founder R.C. Hoiles is far more complex. The abbreviated version is this: Sometime in the 1920s R.C. Holies, who was prone to making people angry when he was making a point, had a disagreement with his brother over a newspaper’s operations and left. He bought a couple of newspapers in Ohio. There he got involved in a newspaper turf battle. At some point, a bomb blew up on the front porch of his home. Other bombs were found — including one in his car. Coincidence?
So he decided to move very far away — to a desert outpost known as Santa Ana, Calif. and started the Santa Ana Register. It became a metro-sized newspaper now called The Orange County Register. Ultimately, the company he named Freedom owned more than 100 newspapers, magazines and TV stations. Indeed, the rise of R.C. Hoiles’ media empire was the embodiment of the American dream.
And now it’s gone.
The company I worked for from 1984 to, well, Monday, is essentially no more. The Times-News and other properties were sold to a variety of suitors a few weeks and months ago. We’re still in the process of changing over from Freedom to Halifax Media, a transaction that should be completed by July 1. The Times-News, along with other North Carolina and Florida papers owned by Freedom, will soon be taking the signature torch from our newspaper pages, websites, buildings and vehicles.
Monday, Freedom announced the sale of everything it had left. It jettisoned its flagship newspaper — the one founded by R.C. Hoiles — and six others to a company in Massachusetts. That was it. There are no more newspapers, TV stations or magazines to sell. Freedom for all practical purposes is no more.
To borrow a cliché that happens to be true, it is officially the end of an era. I say officially because Freedom in most ways ceased to be Freedom after members of the Hoiles family gave up the company in 2010 to a consortium of investors in order to escape a mountain of debt incurred over the previous few years. The situation was created by a family split, overexpansion, the economy and the decline of print media.
The day the remaining Holies family members left was a sad one in many ways. While I was never perfectly at home with the company’s Libertarian philosophy on the editorial pages, there is a lot to be said for working within a family operation. The owners were not faceless entities. I met them and shook their hands. We talked about newspapers and reporting over lunch, dinner and drinks on an annual basis. They believed in this business and were deeply committed to it. People like Jon Segal, a family member and Freedom executive with strong North Carolina ties, had a passion for news, information and commentary that goes well beyond a corporate boardroom.
Starting in the 1990s to 2008, I attended several meetings of our company’s editors and publishers. Most included seminars with some of the top editors, writers and thinkers in journalism. Freedom at that time wanted to make sure its editors had access to up-to-date information about what new trends were developing in our field. It was information we, in turn, were supposed to take back to our offices.
While Freedom’s committment to journalism for its newspapers grew over the past two decades, it truly started in the 1980s. When I began my time with Freedom in 1984, each newspaper received a monthly critique of all the company’s papers compiled by a University of Texas journalism professor named Red Gibson. The “Tuner” mentioned strong stories, great leads and winning headlines while also noting a problem here or there. I still remember my first Tuner mention, for a high school state championship football story. Red liked my lead. One of our reporters, Frank Isley, started calling him “Red Tuner,” as in “Red Tuner doesn’t like me.” It became what our staff called Mr. Gibson — but they still read his critiques. later it was taken over by a U of Texas colleague of Red’s, Griff Singer.
The Tuner went on hiatus for a time but was restored later as the eTuner. It was compiled by Steve Buttry, a highly respected reporter, editor and digital media expert who at the time was with the American Press Institute. I came to know Steve over the years through Freedom’s annual editor’s meetings and continue to engage him today via social media. He and others who attended like Rob Curley, have been tremendous influences in how I view journalism today.
For years API, an outside journalism organization, graded our newspapers annually for clarity and fairness of our reporting, writing style, reader engagement, community involvement and the design of our pages. Newspaper editors understood that there was a company standard to be met. We were encouraged to experiment. When new ways of delivering news arrived on the scene, Freedom pushed its sites to embrace them. We were directed to tackle web reporting and be digital first for breaking news. It led to incredible growth in our websites. As recently as November, a social media push began to up our presence on Facebook and Twitter.
All of our papers shared content — and not just for the editorial page. Features about food, pop culture, entertainment and lifestyles produced by Freedom newspapers were made available to pick and choose as each individual property wished. Register food features have been a staple of our weekly coverage for years. Thanks to Lee Lerner at Freedom for heading this up. We will miss it.
I also attended the legendary “Freedom Schools” where opinion page editors were exposed to Libertarian thinkers from around the nation. I had mixed feelings about those but can say they were free-wheeling sessions in which dissent was encouraged. I will note that Freedom Schools were distinctly separate from the previously mentioned journalism sessions. I have stated before and will do so here again, not once did a corporate directive land on my desk regarding how the news is covered. Freedom left its properties to govern themselves in handling news.
As for the company’s editorial philosophy, well Libertarianism always creates a mixed bag. People who believe the company too conservative conveniently overlook that Freedom was consistently against war and was a major critic of military action in Iraq. It stood up for personal freedoms on all fronts and was a strong voice against the Patriot Act and other measures that encroached on liberty following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Freedom newspapers also endorsed the service of gay troops in the military and have expressed opposition to measures such as the recently approved Amendment One concerning same-sex marriage. Freedom was the first media company to criticize the War on Drugs and the first to endorse more lenient marijuana laws.
And those who think we’re all the liberal media should remember that Freedom’s position was always for smaller government, user fees instead of taxes and private schools or school choice. If there was some way to get the government down to zero and have it all privatized, well, Freedom would’ve liked that just fine.
All in all, working for Freedom over the past 28 years was an interesting ride. And I owe the company a debt I can’t repay. During my career, I’ve worked for three newspaper companies and while the newspapers I worked for still exist, the ownership has changed at all three.
Now I prepare for a fourth. Goodbye Freedom. Hello Halifax.
A new era starts.