Wednesday, August 20, 2008

How we discovered our paper was for sale

The Austin American-Statesman is for sale. This came as a shock to us that work there. I've been working for Cox Newspapers for 17 years in four different locations and I really like the company. But, as you can imagine, emotions where bristling last week.

Here's how it went down for us.

The prelude: All our sister metro papers (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Palm Beach Post and the Dayton Daily News) have had layoffs or buyouts recently. We know they are hurting for circulation and revenue, but I can't say I'm privy to how badly they are hurting. But if PBP is laying off 180 of their 300 newsroom employees, you know that ain't good.

So when we got a company-wide email on Wednesday, Aug. 13 a little after 11 a.m. about a mandatory company-wide meeting, we all suspected our time had come. Management here has said we are a strong company. Profitable, though we know we aren't making the same cash we were five years ago. Who is? But, we figured if nothing else the newspaper division as a whole has to cut, so maybe we were to share the pain.

There were two meetings scheduled at 2 p.m. and another at 2:30 p.m., all in different parts of the building. The online group I'm in met in Editorial, which I knew would be a tough crowd.

About 1:30 p.m. I got a sad face IM from a friend in Atlanta. They wouldn't chat anymore. Just a sad face. That didn't tell me much at the time other than they knew first. We have been sad for the other papers as they have gone through their own buyouts and layoffs.

At 2 p.m. we gathered in the newsroom to hear Publisher Mike Laosa tell us that the newspaper was up for sale. I was shocked. This was not the news we expected.

A couple of minutes into the meeting I was sitting on my Twinkle send button, but I didn't want to push the tweet out until we had the story on the Web site. I know our staff, and our philosophy about the web, and I knew we would publish the news before the meeting was over.

Well, Jason Meek beat me to it, which is fine. A Cox employee from Palm Beach, William Hartnett retweeted before I got it, too, but in retrospect I'm comfortable that I waited. I didn't want KXAN tweeting it before we did.

As the meeting drug on for an hour or more, Emotions rollercoastered and questions came fast and there were lots of "we don't know yet" answers. Who would buy us? Who could buy us? What about our healthcare? Should I retire? Too many individual questions for a group so large, IMHO ... questions that anyone who thought about it knew there were no answer for at the time.

It was a shocking day. My emotions over the last week have more or less modeled the stages of grieving: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Denial flew by pretty quick but the anger hung into the weekend. Not sure how I can bargain out of this and I hope not go delve into depression. Not sure I've accepted it, though.

I was dour and sour that Thursday and Friday. The weekend gave me time to reflect a little, and forget a little, and Monday was a new week. Let's get on with it.

I really believed (still believe?) in Cox as a company. I've been with them for 17 years at four different papers. They've done well to me and I have done the same in return. Intellectually, I understand why we are being sold instead of my former paper, the AJC, but emotionally it's not comforting that our "parent" has rejected us. I have a passion for journalism, but now Cox has clearly decided to get out of the newspaper business. Yes, they still have some papers, but I wouldn't bet on those properties being in the family in ten years.

I'm not in fear of my job at this point. It's going to be one hell of a job to extricate our web sites from COXnet and it will take people like me and my team to make it happen. I do worry about who we will lose.

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