November 2, 2015 Last Updated 12:46 pm

Freedom Comm. files for bankruptcy protection

Publisher of the Orange County Register files Ch. 11 for the second time in six years, auction could lead to new ownership as former publisher of the LA Times may look to invest

The owner of The Orange County Register and The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, Calif.), Freedom Communications, filed for bankruptcy protection Sunday. The newspaper chain had previously filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009, leading to the sale of the newspaper group to led by entrepreneur Aaron Kushner.

orange-register-280Rich Mirman, CEO and publisher, said that the filing will end Kushner’s ownership stake in Freedom.

“We’re turning the page and starting a new chapter,” Mirman said. “We’ve gone through a few rocky years and we need to redefine ourselves.”

While many newspaper companies were contracting, Kushner led a rapid expansion by buying The Press-Enterprise for $27 million in November 2013, and then expanding into LA County by launching the Los Angeles Register the next spring. That launch venture ended quickly, leading to layoffs at the company. Mirman, a veteran casino marketing executive, took over leadership of Freedom shortly thereafter when investors revolted.

What happens how is that there will be an auction, one that Mirman and his partner real estate developer Mike Harrah, hope to win. But it is also possible that the former publisher of the LA Times, Austin Beutner, along with rumored bidder Eli Broad, could decide to bid on the company as part of a strategy to eventually gain control of Tribune Publishing’s Southern California newspapers.

Freedom Communications was a family owned newspaper company since its founding. It history goes back to Ohio, but the company moved to California in 1935. Then called Freedom Newspapers, the company enjoyed the rapid growth of the Southern California market following World War II. Orange County, home to Disneyland, grew tremendously as LAers moved to the suburbs. Freedom was known for years for its libertarian philosophy and support for Republican politics, in contrast to Democratic Los Angeles.

Freedom Communications continued to be privately owned until 2004 when Blackstone Group and Providence Equity Partners acquired a 40 percent share in Freedom for about $460 million. These private equity owners did what they do best, and the company declared bankruptcy in 2009 when more PEs moved in. A sell-off of newspaper and broadcast assets soon followed until what was left of the company was sold to Aaron Kushner and Eric Spitz for around $50 million.

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