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The Loss of Freedom

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A major media player in Texas is up for grabs. Freedom Communications Inc. has been seeking bids on its assets. It owns 100 newspapers, including The Brownsville Herald, El Nuevo Herald, The McAllen Monitor, the Valley Morning Star in Harlingen and the Mid-Valley Town Crier in Weslaco. (By the time this column is published, new owners of Freedom’s assets might have emerged.) These South Texas newspapers are on the front lines of immigration, drug trafficking and border violence—not to mention chronic poverty, lingering racism, massive unemployment and environmental degradation.

In a downtrodden newspaper business, this border newspaper shift raises a thousand red flags:

Why the hell would anyone spend the money in the first place? What’s the end game? Most important, what does it mean for border residents and anyone else who looks to border papers for news from one of the most newsworthy regions in the nation?

The Freedom chain is not perfect, but I wonder what will come along to replace it. Freedom has openly advocated its libertarian principles, and it’s questionable whether the less-government-is-good-government editorials that often run in the Valley papers are wildly out of tune with a region that still has areas without running water. “They have to tow the libertarian line,” says Steve Taylor, a former Freedom reporter who runs the online Rio Grande Guardian. The Guardian has aggressively looked at the festering problems surrounding the colonias in the Valley.

Taylor, who knows the region as well as anyone, agrees it is massively difficult to cover—especially when newspapers have dwindling resources and fewer reporters. The papers do what they can, when they can. In the end, he believes the papers really don’t “do any in-depth investigations,” the kind that “force people out of office.”

Some activists in the Valley say it’s clear the papers already lack the resources to take on the hard issues. “The paper has gotten slimmer and slimmer as our social realities have gotten thicker and thicker,” says Mike Seifert, a former priest who helps lead the Equal Voice for America’s Families network, and who has been reading The Brownsville Herald for 15 years. “There are so many stories out there.”

My colleague at the University of Texas School of Journalism, professor Wanda Cash, has deep experience in Texas newspapers. She says the border papers do a good job with limited resources. “Olaf Frandsen (publisher of the Monitor) and Daniel Cavazos (publisher of the Herald), in particular, are outstanding newsmen who value good storytelling and share a deep commitment to serve their communities with truths that are not always pleasant,” she says.

As with other newspaper buyouts, it’s possible that a buyer could strip the papers to the bone. There are worrying signs. A couple of the interested buyers are private equity groups that have a history of starving newspapers, like Platinum Equity of Los Angeles, the MediaNews Group Inc., and Angelo, Gordon & Co.

Here is what the State of The News Media: An Annual Report on American Journalism (2010), produced by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, said about Gordon and Platinum: “While the private equity owners are undoubtedly in the newspaper business motivated by a chance to make money rather than for public service, they appear to be betting that these distressed properties will bounce back after several years.”

Some media analysts have said that the private equity firms might be looking to use their new newspapers to launch advanced online ventures. Perhaps that is where the Valley papers are headed.

There’s a lot at stake. This is a part of America that desperately needs watchdogs. That needs investigative reporting. That cries out for the righteous indignation that can only be summoned by powerful reporting. If new owners emerge, they’re duty bound to pursue all of that. The people who live along the border deserve nothing less.