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More trouble for John Rogers, the man who bought the photo archives of the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune

A lawsuit and an arrest warrant are among the latest troubles for the Arkansas businessman.

John Rogers shown in his photo archive in North Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2012.
Brian Chilson/Arkansas Times

Since we last checked in on John Rogers, the Arkansas entrepreneur who sweet­-talked the Star Tribune, the Pioneer Press and more than two dozen other large metro dailies out of their photo archives, Rogers (and his recently divorced wife Angelica) have:

1. Been sued by the parent company of the PiPress, Digital First Media (DFM), which itself is the publishing arm of a New York hedge fund known as Alden Global Capital. In a suit filed last week, DFM revealed that only seven of its twenty papers that got in bed with Rogers had actual written agreements with him when he trucked away their archives. Among the papers that didn’t get anything in writing is the Pioneer Press.

2. Seen a warrant issued for John Rogers’ arrest. The cause? Bank fraud, involving a $15 million (and growing) default judgment. When you add every claim by everyone else looking to be made good, damages against Rogers now exceed $50 million.

3. Had a strange, constantly shifting offer to buy Rogers’ remaining assets from the court by a group called Red Alert Media Matrix Inc. thrown out of court — on the grounds that whoever Red Alert was (and it was widely believed that Rogers himself was involved with the offer), the group ­­had no real money. Or, if they did, they refused to prove it. As the court slammed the door on Red Alert the offer was described as including “ … a billion shares of unregistered illiquid stock in the asset­-less concern” … plus cash.

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4. Seen a Little Rock court agree to a $150,000 working capital loan to complete scanning work on a contract Rogers had with Australia’s Fairfax Media. Other than the court proceedings, there is no indication any of the other archives shipped off to Rogers are being processed, at least not as the agreements are generally understood. (The actual archiver appear to be stored in warehouses scattered around the country.)

The latter point is interesting since the Star Tribune continues to make hopeful sounds that in the end everything will be fine. A call to the paper’s Senior VP and General Counsel, Randy Lebedoff, asking whether the Strib was mounting its own legal action against Rogers, was routed back through Steve Yaeger, their media contact, who e­mailed, saying, “I can confirm that we have not commenced any legal action against Rogers Photo Archive. We have been in touch with the receiver, and the receiver has assured us that our archive is safe and intact and that they will complete the digitization process. Like many other affected news organizations, we are expecting and waiting for a positive outcome.”

Calls to Digital First’s legal team in New York were not returned. But then they haven’t said much to anyone for the public record, not even to one of their own reporters, at the Salt Lake Tribune, who wrote: “Rogers not only failed to deliver digital archives, Web development and other services, in violation of signed contracts, the suit alleges, but also knew all along his business model was not viable. The couple’s actual intention, the newspapers assert, was to ‘personally plunder and deplete’ the archives for their benefit. … The phone number for Rogers Photo Archives was disconnected. A Friday call to his Little Rock attorney, Blake Hendrix, was not returned. John Jewell, attorney for DFM, declined to comment.”

Despite having done business with over 20 of the DFM papers, which include the Denver Post, the Los Angeles Daily News and the New Haven Register, there has been little coverage of what is being asserted to be a significant if not massive fraud. And Rogers did more business with the McClatchy papers than he did with DFM. That chain’s operations include the Miami Herald, the Sacramento Bee, the Kansas City Star, the Charlotte Observer, the Fort Worth Star­Telegram. Among other papers who did business with Rogers: the Seattle Times, the Chicago Sun­Times and the Boston Herald. But again, not a peep.

The best — and very nearly the only — coverage of the sprawling, convoluted affair still comes from George Waldon of Arkansas Business (whose stuff, alas, is behind a paywall).  

Despite Yaeger’s hope that the Strib’s archiving work will be finished, Waldon said Monday that he had no idea who is going to actually do the work, since yesterday’s order served only the interests of the Fairfax group, who were among the first to go after Rogers with aggressive legal action.

“What it’s like is a bankruptcy,” says Waldon. “That’s not what it is. But that’s the way it’s being handled, with the receiver trying to create some kind of revenue to pay off creditors. The action today was strictly on behalf of Fairfax.”

The revelation that so many of the DFM properties, including the Pioneer Press, let their archives go without so much as a signed contract baffles Waldon. “It’s hard to figure out what they were thinking.”

Out in Salt Lake, a group called Citizens for Two Voices protesting the Tribune’s Joint Operating Agreement with the Deseret News has added the photo archive blunder to its argument that DFM has “mortgaged the future” in its management of the Tribune.

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Once you get over the shock that a New York hedge­-fund-controlled entity has very little concern for a distant community’s unique historical asset — 70 years worth of photographs — you’re still left in a state of amazement that anyone with a semblance of business sense failed to do minimal due diligence on Rogers. By the time the PiPress archives were hauled away (approximately December of 2013) accusations of fraud were already being thrown at the man.

Another twist in the story, with tones of Minnesota’s own Denny Hecker saga, had Angelica Rogers, something a high­-flying socialite in Little Rock (with a Manhattan condo overlooking Central Park for getaways) filing for divorce last August. In that filing, the charge against husband John being “ubiquitous indignities.” The divorce was finalized two months later, with Angelica suddenly listed as legal owner of the couple’s assets, including the archives, which had been seized by the FBI in the January 2014 raid that tipped the enterprise over the cliff.

It’s unclear if the shift of ownership was some kind of legal strategy, or even if the Rogers were all that upset with each other. Says Waldon, “They were still popping up around town together, looking pretty chummy. It could be a divorce of convenience. With this story, who knows?”