Freedom Interactive ’Tearing Out the Infrastructure’

When Freedom Communications recruited Michael Mathieu, the monetization leader from United Online (Classmates.com, NetZero, etc.), it was opting for change with a capital “C.” Freedom, of course, is the longtime libertarian owner of 70 properties, including The Orange County Register, a bunch of small papers, a number of magazines and specialty publications, and 21 TV stations. But it has traditionally held back from investing in new media.

Six months later, Mathieu has gotten a budget approved to hire up to 80 staffers  it is currently up to 40  and laid out the blueprint of what’s now being called “The Phoenix Project.” And … it looks a lot like Gannett’s Information Center, as Mathieu is the first to agree.

“It does seem similar. We were surprised when we first saw what they were also doing. It is all about how we deal with information and target and engage local audiences” with user-generated content, and events directory via Zvents, and other features. “It’s not just news,” he adds.

Moreover, the changes are “not just cosmetic. We’re tearing out the infrastructure. Everything we’re doing is Web first, print second.”

Mathieu says the company has been amazingly supportive of all his efforts. “They knew they’d disintegrate in a couple of years” without drastic change, he said. It was also helpful that Freedom brought in Scott Flanders as CEO just a year ago.

One of the first orders of business has been Mathieu’s creation of a national sales organization and Freedom Net, a national network representing Freedom’s 225 various Web sites. “We’re using common ad sizes for national ads,” he says. “If McDonald’s wants to promote their McRib sandwich tomorrow, they can do it.” Freedom Net will eventually have 12 national salespeople across the network.

Another early effort has been helping to break the industry’s cold war with Monster.com and signing up as a partner, instead of going with Yahoo! Hot Jobs or pursuing an alternative strategy. “We are so impressed with them,” he said.

Before the end of 2006, co-branded Monster sites were launched in the company’s largest markets: Orange County, Colorado Springs and Mesa, AZ. By the end of the first quarter, all the newspapers will be co-branded. And by the second quarter, the TV stations will be co-branded as well.

As for The Phoenix treatment, the first sites to be Phoenix-ized aren’t the newspapers, as one might expect, but the TV stations. “TV is a much easier canvass,” says Mathieu. “The newspapers are more complex, with monthlong ad deals” and other factors. Thirteen of the 21 stations have already been redone.

Mathieu says he considered partnering with Web site enablers for the TV stations, such as WorldNow, IBS and BIM. In the end, however, he made the decision not to partner. “We’d have to give up too much revenue share,” he said. The company has also gone its own way in building its own content system.

Another priority, says Mathieu, has been to further develop Freedom’s “Faux Alt” newsweekly, Squeeze OC, which may be replicated in other markets. The Squeeze OC team, in fact, has just moved to Freedom Interactive’s headquarters, which is a couple of miles from the corporation’s headquarters in Santa Ana, CA. It is all by design, he says. “We’re giving them the resources to flourish online.”

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