The days have been dark and tumultuous for the staff of the embattled Free Press Houston, since the news of co-founder Omar Afra’s alleged sexual assault and workplace harassment — and his subsequent ouster from both the publication and internationally recognized Day for Night festival.
But now, John Mills-McCoin is positively ebullient.
Mills-McCoin, a former Free Press contributor, has announced on social media that he is taking over as its publisher, filling the void left by Afra. Mills-McCoin and new editor-in-chief Daniel Renfrow penned a lengthy announcement and explanation of the publication’s new direction. The message included support for the women who reported Afra’s alleged sexual misconduct:
We want it to be known that we believe all of the women who have bravely come forward with their stories of abuse. We are thankful to these women for sharing their stories, and we wish them strength as they continue their healing process.
With that statement of support, Mills-McCoin hopes that Houstonians can begin to turn the proverbial page regarding the publication’s recent dark past. “It’s the end of an era that ended poorly,” he says. “But we’re on a boat and on very exciting waters.”
Mills-McCoin teases that Free Press will have a new name, new owner, new direction, and new staff in the coming weeks. The publication will be strictly digital, initially, with a move to print later this year. For Mills-McCoin and the staff, it’s out with the old, in with the new.
“We’re burning it to the ground,” says Mills-McCoin of the old regime. “The new publication will by Houston, for Houston. There’s a lot of healing that needs to happen — and we want to do everything we can to help facilitate that.”
Renfrow, Free Press’s former managing editor, says the environment under the old regime was “unhealthy,” and that as he crafts a new editorial direction, he also hopes to create a better workplace. “I didn’t like how I and other people were treated here,” he says. “We’re going to create a healthy work environment. We are going to turn the publication around and start a new era.”
Renfrow and Mills-McCoin say they want to create a dialogue with readers, and turn the new publication into an “outlet for writers and alternative views,” says Renfrow. “We are also going to work hard to cover the Houston underground community in a better, more creative way.”
That their announcement came the same day as Bill Cosby was sentenced to jail for his sexual misconduct isn’t lost on Mills-McCoin. “Sexual assault and harassment, as we can plainly see, is a global epidemic.”
And it’s an epidemic that the often whimsical Mills-McCoin is dead serious about taking on via the publication and satellite events. “Our events will be socially conscious, not show business,” he promises. “We have a lot of work to do, to be what we want to be in Houston’s eyes and hearts. But we’re up for it.”