Ahwatukee newspaper, a survivor, asks for a little help to get by

By Nick R. Martin | November 8th, 2009 | 3:38 am | 2 Comments »

Renie Scibona

Len Gutman over at the Valley PR Blog made a pretty amazing discovery when he opened up his copy of the Ahwatukee Foothills News on Saturday.

The little community newspaper that survived recent cutbacks by its parent company, Freedom Communications, had printed a full-page ad in the day’s edition essentially begging for reader donations.

“We too have done more with less!” publisher Renie Scibona wrote in the letter to readers, noting how the newspaper has added videos and photo slide shows to its website. “Your loyalty and voluntary contribution will help us continue to bring you one of Arizona’s best community newspapers for years to come.”

The letter was also posted online along with a link at the bottom, urging readers to give whatever they can. In exchange, the paper will give contributors a free classified ad. (A free classified ad, you say?)

“Really? I’m supposed to help pay to keep your business afloat?” Gutman wrote. “How much do you want? A twenty? A Benjamin?”

As he points out, the letter is, well, a little disconcerting.

Freedom Communications owns several newspapers in the Phoenix area. The largest by far, the East Valley Tribune, announced last week it would be shutting down on Dec. 31 because it was losing money by the bucketful. Not even winning a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year was enough to keep the newspaper afloat.

The media chain’s other local papers include the Daily News Sun in Sun City and the Ahwatukee Foothills News in Phoenix. Both were held up as survivors when Freedom announced the Tribune’s demise last week. They were the life rafts that would keep community and local news alive in the suburbs, even after their sister paper folded.

Now one of those survivors is begging for a life raft of its own.

The letter came just days after Heat City revealed that Freedom Communications has been dishing out millions of dollars in bonuses to its top executives as the company headed toward bankruptcy earlier this year.

On Sept. 1, Freedom Communications filed for bankruptcy protection, saying it didn’t have enough cash on hand to make payments on more than $1 billion in debt it had accumulated. In the eight months beforehand, however, at least 19 executives pocketed as much as $2.6 million in bonuses, many receiving payments just two weeks before the company filed for bankruptcy.

While Scibona wasn’t on that list, many of her bosses were. Freedom newspapers chief Jonathan Segal this year pulled in more than $190,000 in bonuses above his regular salary, including a $108,750 payment on Aug. 14. Former CEO Scott Flanders, who left the company in April, raked in more than $1.1 million .

Now the Ahwatukee Foothills Newa is asking for you, the reader, to keep it going “for years to come.”

It’s worth noting that Heat City, the place where you’re reading this post, is funded through voluntary contributions. Since launching in January, the site has had two fund-raising periods to help pay for the costs of notepads, pens, public records and even a broadband Internet access card to file stories from the field.

Quality information is expensive. There’s no question about that. What Gutman is questioning, and what others are sure to ask, is whether news organizations are worth supporting on a personal level if they aren’t adapting to the times.

The Ahwatukee Foothills News is soon to find out.

[Full disclosure: While I never worked for the Ahwatukee Foothills News, I did work for the East Valley Tribune and was among those cut in a large downsizing in January. I have earned money from Freedom Communications in the past but am no longer connected to the organization.]

  • Wow. Why should we pay to keep around a service we don’t use? Why weren’t they charging enough in the first place? A CLASSIFIED AD? Seriously?

  • Wow. Why should we pay to keep around a service we don't use? Why weren't they charging enough in the first place? A CLASSIFIED AD? Seriously?