August 16, 2017

The Morris Family Gutted the ABH, but Will the New Owner Be Any Better?

City Dope

Photo Credit: Blake Aued

Billy Morris' palace of print is now mostly tech companies.

Any readers of the Athens Banner-Herald who are left know that the local daily newspaper’s corporate ownership in Augusta has run it into the ground. Father and son Billy and Will Morris have been rewarded with $120 million.

That’s the price GateHouse Media is paying for the ABH, the Augusta Chronicle, Savannah Morning News, Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville and 75 other publications owned by Morris Publishing, according to an announcement last week. Good riddance.

The sale comes after a decade of the Morrises cutting fat, then cutting muscle and bone, then hacking off whole limbs and removing organs from their chain of newspapers. The staff—of which I was a member from 2005 until 2012, when I decided I ain’t gonna work on Billy’s farm no more—had its overtime taken away and salaries cut, to the point where at least one reporter had to declare bankruptcy. The printing press and copy desk have been outsourced to Augusta, and soon the Athens paper will be printed in Columbia, SC, three hours away. After several rounds of buyouts, layoffs and frozen positions, an editorial staff that once numbered more than 30 journalists has shrunk to nine. Whole beats, including music and food, are largely ignored.

Media outlets everywhere, especially regional and local ones, have endured two recessions in 15 years, shrinking print advertising revenue and competition from Facebook and Google, which are eating up 99 percent of online ad growth, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.

But Morris’ problems go further than that. On top of erecting the News Building and other similarly monumental structures in other cities, and investing in art and horses, the company went $415 million into debt in the 1990s—the worst possible time to buy newspapers. Unable to pay back bondholders, Morris declared bankruptcy in 2011. But Billy and Will created a separate company that contracted to manage their own company, ensuring they still got paid, even if their creditors and employees didn’t.

After all that, Uncle Billy, as he’s known, once had the temerity to tell employees they had better vote “the right way” because the U.S. government was so far in debt. And that’s not even the most tone-deaf thing Morris executives ever said. When Morris cut pay, two vice presidents came to Athens to tell us to order off the dollar menu at Wendy’s. They sacrificed too, they said, canceling a trip to a conference in Las Vegas.

Now, the entire company is worth less than a third of the debt it couldn't pay off five years ago. But the Morrises still get $120 million, and they retain control of valuable real estate in other cities that they’ll redevelop for a tidy profit. (They sold the News Building in Athens several years ago; it’s now mostly tech companies, with the ABH leasing a tiny corner.)

Other things ultra-conservative Billy Morris will retain control of include the ABH, Chronicle and Morning News editorial pages. So the GateHouse deal will not bring readers any respite from forced Trump endorsements or columns comparing Democrats to ISIS.

While Morris is an awful company to work for and views its readers with contempt—believing they’ll accept an inferior product or are too dumb to tell the difference—it’s unclear whether GateHouse will be any better. It went through its own bankruptcy in 2013, and is now owned by a holding company, New Media Investment Group. Investors have no interest in journalism or Athens as a community, and only care about the bottom line. GateHouse also has its own history of gutting its papers. Don’t expect much investment in the product.

If they gave a crap, the Morrises would have sold the ABH to locals who might have rebuilt it as a public service. Perhaps the best-case scenario now is that, under a company that owns more than 500 publications, the bean-counters won’t pay too much attention, leaving local journalists to their own devices. Other than the editorial page, of course.