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Greed and speed 

City Council member worries for Durham's journalistic future

Last week a Durham institution was drastically changed, and not necessarily for the better. The Durham Herald-Sun, a venerable institution that was locally owned by the Rollins family for over 100 years, was sold to the Paxton Media Group LLC, based in Paducah, Ky.

Normally when an important and vital company such as The Herald-Sun is purchased, one hopes for enhanced quality, new promise and a rededication to our community. Unfortunately, that may not be the case with this change-over.

On the day of the sale, reportedly for between $125 million, nearly 20 people were fired including President and Publisher David Hughey and seven division directors.

Those fired were not allowed to take their personal effects or to say goodbye to their fellow coworkers. Instead, they were unceremoniously escorted out of the building.

I realize the Paxton Group is a business. But I would suggest that it is not good business to fire, in such a demeaning manor, veteran and loyal employees, one of whom worked at the paper for 50 years.

It is not good business to cut nearly 25 percent of the workforce and expect employee morale to remain high, or expect Durham to continue to have a viable, quality newspaper.

It is not good business to come into Durham and engage in classless activities that alienate your company from the very community you will be trying to serve.

Durham is not Owensboro, Ky.; it is part of a competitive metropolitan market. I'm not sure if the Paxton Group understands this reality. Nor was public confidence inspired by the rather condescending, insipid and small-townish introductory column (1/09/05) by The Herald-Sun's new editor, Bob Ashley.

Ashley touted his commitment to "community involvement" in his column. Apparently, however, he wants to buy a home in Chapel Hill, because he believes Durham schools are not up to his high standards.

Ironically, the Paxton Group's greed and speed blitzkrieg through The Herald-Sun staff has brought together diverse segments of the Durham community--from Mary Semans to the Rev. Joe Harvard and conservative community activist Charlotte Woods. Even ESPN's Dick Vitale railed against the firing of sports writer Al Featherston, during the UNC-Maryland game.

Some say this is simply private enterprise and that a company is free to do what they want. Those who say so may be right. But let's be clear: The Paxton Group didn't just buy some manufacturing plant or a widget factory. They purchased a unique Durham institution that on a daily basis reflects the heart and soul of our community. They may be a private company, but as a newspaper they have public responsibilities.

I didn't always agree with The Herald Sun or their editorials. But overall I believed The Herald-Sun was a good newspaper. And there was never a question about the commitment and dedication of their staff to our community. They were involved in Durham and they gave their time and talent to the Bull City.

I hope I'm wrong, but I believe The Herald-Sun has been purchased by a group that puts profits above all other concerns. A group whose highest vision is the bottom line. And all of us in Durham may suffer because of it.

As a Durham native and an elected official, I cannot sit back in silence, without protest, and watch the demise of my hometown newspaper. And so I say to the new owners,: Please prove my doubts wrong, for the citizens of Durham deserve better.

Eugene Brown is a Durham City Councilman.

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