It seems no one at Freedom Communications in Arizona is safe from the chopping block this month.
Publisher Renie Scibona and Managing Editor Brian Johnson have been shown the door at the Ahwatukee Foothills News, one of several newspapers in the Phoenix area owned by the California media chain.
Freedom Vice President Julie Moreno sent a memo to staffers last week announcing the layoffs and wishing the two “the best of luck in their future endeavors.”
The news comes just days after Freedom announced it was shutting down the Pulitzer Prize-winning East Valley Tribune in Mesa, costing about 140 employees their jobs.
Moreno’s memo said the Ahwatukee Foothills News, located in Phoenix, will now be run by Jason Joseph, the publisher of the Daily News Sun of Sun City. He will be performing double duty as head of both Freedom newspapers. Similarly, the newsrooms at both places will be managed by Daily News Sun editor Dan McCarthy, the memo said.
Or as Moreno put it, Freedom is “consolidating leadership of the newspaper products” to create a “restructured organization” in Arizona.
Moreno’s letter to employees said that Scibona and Johnson would be helping with the transition. However, a woman who answered the phone at the publisher’s office on Monday said Scibona was “no longer with the company.” A separate message left on Johnson’s newsroom phone was not returned.
The Ahwatukee Foothills News and the Daily News Sun had been fortunate last week to largely survive their parent company’s cutbacks. Both newspapers had been put up for sale along with the East Valley Tribune as Freedom tried to earn some quick cash in the midst of federal bankruptcy protection, which it entered on Sept. 1. But when no serious buyer stepped forward, Freedom decided to close the Tribune instead of selling it off for a basement price. Only the smaller two newspapers would remain.
There are signs, however, that even the surviving newspapers had been feeling the financial pinch recently.
Len Gutman of the Valley PR Blog noticed Saturday, for example, that the Ahwatukee Foothills News was running a full-page advertisement signed by Scibona asking readers to donate money to the newspaper, which is normally distributed for free.
“We too have done more with less!” the publisher wrote, saying the paper underwent “staff reductions, furloughs and even pay decreases” this year as the economy and media industry continued to slide. “Your loyalty and voluntary contribution will help us continue to bring you one of Arizona’s best community newspapers for years to come.”
Also last week, amid the cutbacks and begging for cash, Heat City broke the news that Freedom Communications has been handing out hefty bonuses this year to its top executives, including Moreno – who continues to run news operations in Arizona. All the while, the company has been telling its creditors it does not have the money to keep making payments on more than $1 billion in debt. (None of the publishers or editors at the Ahwatukee or Sun City newspapers are among those known to have gotten bonuses this year.)
As part of Moreno’s announcements last week, she also noted that several employees from the East Valley Tribune would be moving over to the new organization. Among them, circulation manager Todd Bradshaw, IT manager John Benson from and web developer Ron Brasher will all make the move.
So far, no one from the Tribune’s newsroom, which won a Pulitzer Prize in April, has been kept on. The Mesa newspaper is slated to be shut down by Dec. 31.
[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.]