Some of our longtime readers were quite perplexed by our recent cover story featuring Paul Simon, president of Augusta Riverfront LLC.
In the story, Simon sat down with the Metro Spirit to explain his recent proposal to the city to expand the Augusta Common and Augusta Riverfront’s wish to build a new 130-room downtown hotel.
Many readers were shocked that the Metro Spirit would give Simon, the former president of Morris Communications Corp., such a big platform to speak his mind.
After all, Simon is the right-hand man to William S. Morris III, publisher of The Augusta Chronicle.
If Simon or Morris have something to say, they clearly have enough ink of their own to say it.
But the truth is, the Metro Spirit never shies aways from discussing an issue that could greatly impact the downtown area and this entire community.
And it’s always a pleasure to hear from Paul Simon.
One thing is certain, he is probably the most loyal Morris employees on this planet.
Remember a few years back when Simon actually wrote a column defending Morris in The Augusta Chronicle. The column ran in 2010 after Morris’s newspapers had filed for bankruptcy.
“It distresses me to learn that my friend Billy Morris has had to put his newspaper companies into bankruptcy,” Paul Simon, former president of Morris Communications Corp. wrote in a guest column in 2010 for The Augusta Chronicle. “Because of the economy and changes that have occurred in the media industry, a number of other newspaper companies throughout the country have been forced to take the same step.”
Simon wrote that the Morris bankruptcy filing allowed the company an “opportunity to pay all of its other creditors in full, settle with the bond holders and restructure the company for the future.”
The company’s prepackaged bankruptcy plan allowed Morris Publishing to exchange $100 million in new debt for $278.5 million in existing debt.
With its restructuring plan, Morris Publishing reduced its overall indebtedness from approximately $415 million to $126.5 million.
In the end, Morris was able to turn things around and get the company back on its feet.
But the reason Simon said he felt compelled to write this column was “in response to a number of recent local newspaper articles and other criticisms of Billy Morris.”
You would think that Billy Morris would have a thicker skin, wouldn’t you? Being in the media business and all.
But Augusta is not the only city that has been accused of beating up on Morris.
About five years ago, a former executive editor of the Athens Banner-Herald sent a scathing letter to the editor to the alternative weekly in Athens, Ga. called Flagpole.
In the 2010 letter, Jason Winders, the former Athens Banner-Herald executive editor, accused Morris of being a “man who sold his soul years ago to save an empire at the expense of those who helped him build it.”
Winders was unable to contain his outrage when Morris made a visit to Athens declaring the paper profitable and that he deeply cared for the Athens community.
“Let’s not forget that, in a free society, there will always be a need for someone to gather, collect and edit information,” Morris reportedly stated.
Even though Winders had moved on from his position at the Athens Banner-Herald and was working for a newspaper in Canada, he could not hold his tongue.
“I tell myself to let it go, but I cannot let this man’s words go unchallenged or, at least, without context,” Winders wrote in the letter. “Morris has been rolling out this line of bulls*** to communities infected by his ownership… These people don’t need a pep talk, Billy, they need a (expletive) raise.”
Winders didn’t pull any punches.
“You find out a lot about a man’s character when his back is to the wall,” Winders added. “I found out a lot about Billy Morris, a man to whom I considered myself very loyal at one time. I saw some cowardly acts by Morris Communications management in that News Building, but their most heinous sin was one of absence.
“Might have been nice for Billy to have shown up when pay and jobs were being cut, instead of surveying the battlefield more than a year after the mess was cleaned up.”
While Winders acknowledged that Morris Communications suffered through some difficult years, he blamed it on the company’s eagerness to borrow money.
“And then, when revenues dipped and the bills finally came due, the company scrambled to make payment after payment until, finally, it ended in bankruptcy,” Winders wrote. “Not for Billy, mind you. He and his wealth are fine. Those membership checks to Augusta National are still clearing, from what I understand. But Morris Communications was wrecked, and hundreds of people who helped build it into the wonderful company it was lost their jobs as part of the carnage.”
Winders insisted in his letter to Flagpole that he witnessed the “carnage” first-hand as employee after employee was laid off.
“Perhaps my favorite story is the one of when Billy announced across-the-board pay cuts for all Morris employees via press release around 8 p.m. one March evening in 2009,” Winders wrote. “In the spirit of transparency, Billy wanted a story in the next morning’s paper. Only problem: 75 percent of the workforce had gone home and wouldn’t know anything about it until they picked up their morning paper to find out their pay had been cut.”
The top executives at Morris also experienced some cuts, but it wasn’t quite as painful, Winders points out.
“These were guys who had plenty of padding,” he wrote. “For instance, prior to the 2009 cuts, the Morris executive vice president saw his total compensation go from $955,866 in 2006 to $970,925 in 2007 to $849,434 in 2008.”
When Winders complained about the employee cuts, executives at Morris said that the reporters weren’t “into newspapers for the money.”
“He was dead on. None of my people got into it for the money,” Winders wrote. “However, that mantra gets abused by Morris and Co. You need to realize when you cut people making less than $30,000, it’s no longer about truth, justice and the American way, but paying the bills. For many in my newsroom, that pay cut was not a matter of cutting back on extravagances; it was about surviving.”
Apparently, not all former Morris employees are as loyal as Paul Simon.