Bend Bulletin owners plan to sell everything and dissolve the company

The Bend Bulletin building has been on the market since 2017.

Emily Cureton/OPB

The owner of the Bend Bulletin plans to dissolve the company and sell the seven newspapers of its Pacific Northwest chain, according to

a liquidation plan filed Wednesday in federal bankruptcy court

.

In the plan, Western Communications outlines the terms of its own demise, but provides few details about who might buy the newspapers, real estate and other assets. The company has about $30 million in debt, about two-thirds of which is secured by a single creditor under the terms of a previous bankruptcy. This week’s court filing assures creditors that the company is negotiating with a short list of buyers.

“Five [potential buyers] visited Debtor facilities and engaged in follow-up discussions and negotiations,” according to the disclosure statement signed by Chairman Elizabeth McCool.

Reached by phone Thursday, McCool declined to comment on the plan, or the $44,000 in salary she received over the past two months, according to financial disclosures. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on January 22, triggering a wave of layoffs. More than 20 people have been laid off this year, while others left voluntarily, according to social media posts and former and current employees. Former company president and Bend Bulletin publisher John Costa resigned in April.

Court records show how Costa, McCool and other insiders have 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 her 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 their employees, many of whom have already experienced years of layoffs, furloughs and late payments. Their newsrooms cover a slew of Oregon and California where few other media report on local government or mark important daily life events. Guessing who might buy the papers is particularly opaque, as any interested party has been asked by the company’s sales agent to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

If sold, Western Communications would be another part of the Oregon media landscape that has changed in recent years. In 2017, the Medford Mail Tribune and Ashland Daily Tidings sold to Rosebud Media, LLC, which has diverted much of its reporting resources to video production. In 2018, the Eugene Register-Guard — which belonged to the family for more than 90 years – sold to national media conglomerate GateHouse Media. And earlier this month Advance Local Media, owner of the Oregonian/OregonLive, sold the New Orleans Times-Picayune — a decision that has raised questions about this company’s commitment to local news coverage.

According to its liquidation plan, Western Communications “plans to seek bankruptcy court approval in June 2019 to complete one or more sales of its media operations in June or July 2019.”

A full liquidation like this is atypical of a Chapter 11 proceeding, because Chapter 11 is based on the assumption that a business can survive if new terms are negotiated with creditors. That’s the path Western Communications took after 2012, when it emerged from a restructuring with $19 million in secured debt, much of it related to building a new headquarters in Bend. This building has been up for sale since 2017. Its printing press serves more than Western Communications, publishing local outlets in 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.

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