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"Iknow you're dead set against this, Abby. But I don't think we have any choice."
Abby Warner swallowed past the lump in her throat and stared at James Lipic, who sat next to her at the round table in the Oak Hill Gazette's tiny conference room. Twin vertical grooves were etched in the center of the older man's forehead, forming sharp right angles to the flat, resigned line of his lips.
None of the other finance board members looked any happier, she noted, taking a quick survey. Harold Walsh's ruddy face was pinker than usual, his shock of unruly white hair falling into even greater disarray as he jabbed his fingers through it. Vernon Lutrell stared down at the table, giving Abby a good view of the top of his head, where bristly gray hair spiked to attention on either side of a shiny bald runway. To complete the circle, Tony Parisi doodled on a pad of paper in front of him that was blank except for a series of dollar signs.
That's what it all came down to, Abby reflected, trying in vain to stem the tide of bitterness that washed over her. The almighty dollar. Forget about truth and heritage and independence. Let's just make money.
"There has to be another way." There was a note of desperation in her voice, but Abby didn't care.
"We've tried to come up with other alternatives, Abby, but this is the only viable option." Harold's voice was gentlebut firm.
Much as Abby wanted to vent her anger and frustration on the paper's board, she knew that wouldn't be fair. Bottom line, it was a fiscal issue. Publishing conglomerates were gobbling up smaller papers, making it difficult for independents to survive.
Nor was this a new problem. The fortunes of the weekly Gazette hadbegun to sour fifteen years ago, forcing Abby's father to enlist the aid of three successful local businessmen who were willing to support a free and independent press. Each investor had acquired a fifteen percent share, leaving her father fifty-five percenta controlling interest.
Then, twelve years ago, he'd had to add a fourth investor in order to keep the paper solvent, tipping the voting power in favor of the board. The members had never sided against himor hersince she'd taken over ten years ago, after her father's fatal heart attack. Even now, she knew they'd prefer not to press the issue. But bills had to be paid. And the well was fast running dry. She understood their dilemma: they were all good men who wanted to do the right thing, but their backs were against the wall. Just as hers was.
"We're open to suggestions, Abby." Tony spoke again when the silence lengthened. "If you have any other ideas, we're happy to look into them."
With unsteady fingers, Abby adjusted her bronze-rimmed glasses. As they all knew, the only source of funding on the horizon was Spencer Campbell, founder and CEO of Campbell Publishing, who had expressed interest in acquiring the Gazette.
"I wish I did, Tony."
"At the rate we're going, I doubt we can sustain operations for more than six months," Vernon offered as he perused the financial report in front of him.
That was pretty much what Joe Miller, the staff accountant, had told her yesterday when they'd gone over the budget. And there was little Abby could do to bolster the numbers. The operation was already as lean as it could get.
Bottom line, Abby felt like a failure. For more than a hundred years, under the leadership of her family, the Oak Hill Gazette had been a trusted voice in the rural counties in Missouri that it served. Her great-grandfather had started the paper in 1904 with little more than a crusading spirit and fifty dollars in his pocket. Her grandfather had won a Pulitzer prize. Her father, too, had held truth and honesty in far higher regard than monetary gain.
Now, under her watch, that sterling legacy would disappear.
"I just can't see selling the paper to some giant publisher who may not even care about journalistic integrity and all the things the Oak Hill Gazette has stood for during the past century." Her voice choked on the last word and she dipped her head, blinking to sweep the moisture from her eyes.
"There is another alternative," Harold said when no one else responded.
He didn't need to spell it out. They all knew what he meant: let the paper go belly-up. Liquidate. Close up shop. Abby, too, had thought about that option. And dismissed it, convinced that another way would be found to save the Gazette. But they'd run out of time. Selling out or shutting down now had to be considered. Even if both options made her sick to her stomach.
"I'm sorry. It seems I've let everyone down." A tremor ran through her voice, and Abby removed her glasses to massage her forehead.
"It's not your fault," James consoled her. "The good Lord knows you've tried. It's just a sign of the times. The little guy can't compete anymore. At least Campbell Publishing seems to be a reputable outfit. What can it hurt to talk with them?"
He was right, Abby conceded. Agreeing to talk with Spencer Campbell didn't mean they had to accept his terms. If nothing else, it would buy them a little breathing space. And maybe, just maybe, some other solution would present itself.
Besides, Abby knew she owed it to these men to at least consider the offer. They'd all invested a considerable sum in the paper, more out of friendship for her father than because it was a sound business move. They'd lose a lot of money if it folded.
"Okay." She gathered up her notes. "I'll set up a meeting."
The conference broke up, and as Abby headed back to her office she couldn't shake off the specter of doom that hovered over her. Time was running out, and she knew that only a miracle would save the Oak Hill Gazette.
So before she turned her attention to reviewing the copy that was waiting on her desk, she took a moment to send a silent plea heavenward.
Please, Lord, grant us that miracle.
Spencer Campbell was not what Abby had expected. Yes, the patriarch of the publishing conglomerate did look like the photos she'd found of him on the Net. At sixty-eight, he was tall, spare, white-haired and distinguished, with piercing blue eyes and a bearing that commanded respect. And he was just as sharp, astute and insightful as she'd assumed he would be. But instead of the pompous, arrogant manner she'd anticipated from this business tycoon, he was pleasant, personable and down-to-earth.
To her surprise, he also had a hands-on knowledge of the newspaper business. As she'd taken him on a tour of the Gazette offices prior to the finance board meeting, she'd been impressed by his intelligent questions. Spencer Campbell was no ivory-tower executive who understood balance sheets and bottom lines but little else. He'd learned the newspaper business from the bottom up.
"I really did live the American dream," he told her with a smile as their tour concluded. "Thanks to a combination of lucky breaks, good-hearted people who were willing to take a chance on me and a lot of help from the Man upstairs."
As she led the way toward the conference room, Abby glanced at him in surprise. "It's not often you hear successful people attribute their accomplishments to God."
"I believe in giving credit where it's due. I couldn't have built the business without a lot of prayer and a lot of guidance."
Although Abby had been prepared to dislike the man who threatened her family legacy, she found it increasingly difficult to maintain her animosity as he spoke to the board about his humble beginnings, provided some history of Campbell Publishing, outlined the conglomerate's growth over the past fifteen years and reviewed the soundand ethicaloperating principles of the company he led.
Instead of an ogre, he came across as a man of integrity, principle and honor. Abby was impressed. And from the expressions on the faces of the board members, she could tell that they were, too.
"When we consider acquisitions, we look for papers that are well-respected, have a solid readership, reflect good editorial direction, maintain the highest standards of journalistic integrity and aren't afraid to tackle tough issues," Spencer told them. "The Oak Hill Gazette passed those tests with flying colors. That prompted our call, which led to my visit today. The next step, if both parties agree to move forward, would be an on-site operational and financial audit by one of our staff members. If everything checks out, we'll follow up with an offer."
James folded his hands on the table in front of him. "I think it's only fair to tell you that the main reason we were receptive to your inquiry was because we're having some financial difficulties. Nothing to do with the management of the paper. Abby does an excellent job. But the pressures these days on small businesses of any kind are intense."
"I understand," Spencer responded. "Most independent papers we approach have a similar story. It's a struggle to make ends meet. As a large organization, we bring economies of scale and efficiencies small papers can't attain."
"What about staffing? Do you eliminate jobs after an acquisition?"
At Abby's question, Spencer turned to her. "When we have to," he answered, his blunt honesty surprising her. "However, it appears that the Gazette staff is already very lean. I doubt we would eliminate any positions here."
"What about editorial independence?"
"In general, we don't interfere."
"Meaning that sometimes you do?" Abby pressed.
"There have been a few occasions when papers in our organization have become a bit too opinionated. In general, that doesn't happen under a seasoned editor. That's why we often require that editors remain in their positions for a year or two following the acquisition, to ensure consistent editorial tone."
Abby wasn't sure she liked Spencer's answer. But neither could she argue with it. In any case, his message was clear: if Campbell Publishing acquired the Gazette, Abby would be forced to give up the editorial control her fatherand his predecessorshad fought with such dedication and diligence to retain.
"Is there anything else you need from us today?" Harold's question interrupted her thoughts.
"No. I'll discuss my visit with my staff in Chicago and get back with you in a few days." A flurry of handshakes followed as Spencer stood, and one by one the four board members left the room.
When only Spencer and Abby remained, he turned to her. "I'd like to thank you for the tour and your hospitality todayin spite of your misgivings." At her startled look, he chuckled. "I've been through enough of these kinds of meetings to pick up the vibes."
Soft color suffused Abby's cheeks. "I'm sorry. This has been difficult for me."
"I'm aware that the paper has been in your family for four generations. It's understandable that you'd want to hold on to it."
Abby found herself responding to the kindness in Spencer's eyes. "That's part of it. But even more than losing a family legacy, I don't want the Gazette's independent voice to be silenced."
"Neither do I."
"But you said you've intervened in editorial decisions on occasion."
"Only when we begin to detect bias. But I don't see that happening here. The coverage is sound and straightforward, and the Gazette never confuses reporting and advocacy. I have no reason to think we're going to clash on a philosophical level."
His praise warmed her. And his words reassured her. But they didn't erase her guiltor her sense of failure that she was letting a century of blood, sweat and tears be washed away. The paper's demise might be inevitable, as James has suggested in the earlier finance board meeting, but she wished it hadn't happened on her watch.
"We'll both have plenty of time to think about this if we decide to take the next step," Spencer continued. He picked up his briefcase and extended his hand.
"Thank you for meeting with me today and for the tour. I'll be in touch."
"And I'll talk with the board." She returned his firm grip.
As Spencer exited, Abby closed the door behind him and headed back to her office, disheartened. While no vote had yet been taken, she knew that the finance board had been impressed and would be receptive to an investigation by Campbell Publishing. And intuition told her that Campbell Publishing would choose to proceed, as well.
When she reached her office, Abby sank into her worn leather chair and propped her elbows on the scarred surface of the desk that had belonged to her great-grandfather and which had been used by every editor since. She could no longer pretend that the threat of an acquisition was only a bad dream. She needed to face this. Sticking her head in the sand was a cop-out. Besides, it just wasn't in her nature.
But first she needed to do something even more out of character.
She needed to cry.