In the plan, Western Communications outlines the terms of its own demise, but provides few details on who might buy the newspapers, real estate and other assets. The corporation owes roughly $30 million in debt, about two thirds of which is secured under a single creditor through the terms of a previous bankruptcy. This week’s court filing assures creditors the company is negotiating with a short list of buyers.
“Five [potential buyers] have toured Debtor’s facilities and engaged in follow-up discussions and negotiations,” according to the disclosure statement signed by Chairwoman Elizabeth McCool.
Reached by phone Thursday, McCool declined to comment on the plan, nor on the $44,000 in salary she was paid over the last two months, as per financial disclosures. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Jan. 22, triggering a wave of layoffs. More than 20 people have been let go this year, while others left voluntarily, according to posts from social media, and former and current employees. Former company president and Bend Bulletin publisher John Costa stepped down in April.
Court records show how Costa, McCool and other insiders loaned the company millions since 2013. McCool is the daughter of late founder Robert Chandler, who bought the Bend Bulletin in 1953, and acquired more community newspapers as his reputation grew as an editor, publisher and philanthropist in Oregon.
In addition to the Bulletin, Western Communications owns the Baker City Herald, the Curry Coastal Pilot, the La Grande Observer and the Redmond Spokesman in Oregon. In California, the company owns the Del Norte Triplicate in Crescent City and the Union Democrat in Sonora.
It remains to be seen what the end of Western Communications will mean for each of the newspapers, their readers or the employees, many of whom have already experienced years of layoffs, furloughs and late paychecks. Their newsrooms cover a sweep of Oregon and California where few other media outlets report on local government or mark the important events of daily life. Guessing who might buy the papers is especially opaque, because any interested party was asked by the company’s sale agent to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
If sold, Western Communications would be another piece of the Oregon media landscape that has shifted in recent years. In 2017, the Medford Mail Tribune and Ashland Daily Tidings sold to Rosebud Media, LLC, which has diverted many of its reporting resources into video production. In 2018, the Eugene Register-Guard — which had been family owned for more than 90 years — sold to national media conglomerate GateHouse Media. And earlier this month, Advance Local Media, which owns the Oregonian/OregonLive, sold the New Orleans Times-Picayune — a move that raised questions about that company’s commitment to local news coverage.
According to its liquidation plan, Western Communications “anticipates seeking Bankruptcy Court approval in June 2019 to complete one or more sales of its newspaper businesses in June or July 2019.”
A total liquidation like this is atypical under a Chapter 11 proceeding because Chapter 11 is based on the assumption a business can survive if new terms are negotiated with creditors. That was the path Western Communications took after 2012, when it emerged from a restructuring with $19 million in secured debt, much of that related to building a new headquarters in Bend. That building has been listed for sale since 2017. Its printing press serves more than Western Communications, publishing local outlets across Central and Eastern Oregon, such as the Sisters Nugget and the Burns Times-Herald.
Editor’s Note: OPB reporter Emily Cureton worked for a newspaper owned by Western Communications between 2011 and 2015.