Worrell's world: ex-DP boss re-envisions newsbiz
Given the dismal state of the newspaper business, former Daily Progress owner Thomas A. Worrell Jr., who in 1995 sold the DP and 28 other publications to Media General Inc. for $230 million, appears to have been somewhat prescient. Although Worrell might have made more if he'd held on for another 10 years, if he'd held on for another 15, he might have been left with nothing to sell.
Today, Media General Inc., which owns 24 dailies, including the Tampa Tribune and Richmond Times-Dispatch, as well as 19 network-affiliated TV stations–- not to mention printing plants, real estate, and internet subsidiaries–- is now valued at just $70 million, less than a third of what the company paid Worrell for only a portion of its holdings.
But Worrell, 63, says he can't claim credit for knowing what was going to happen.
"In the early 1980s, I thought it was going to be cable that was going to destroy newspapers," says Worrell. "But it turned out to be the Internet."
Still, the ex-newspaperman turned luxury spa owner, philanthropist, and water technology entrepreneur, may have been on to something when he grew tired of running a media empire, which he acquired from his father, Gene Worrell, who founded the Bristol Virginia-Tennessean in 1949, and at one time owned 30 newspapers. Gene Worrell died in 2006.
"The newspaper business had an old railroad business kind of mentality," says Worrell, "and I didn't like it. Newspapers got used to big, heavy profits, but I think they let the ball go. They looked at cable, and later the Internet, as an annoyance, when they should have embraced them."
So is he glad he got out?
"Yes, I'm glad I got out of it," Worrell says. "But I'm sad I wasn't big enough, strong enough to change things, because newspapers are the bastions of the First Amendment in our country."
Indeed, Worrell showed his support for the first Amendment in 1989 when he donated $3.5 million to found the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.
Still, Worrell sees hope for some newspapers.
"Small, local papers have a chance," he says, "but you have to be credible, you have to develop a reputation with the community over time, and constantly deliver on that."
Because the printing and distribution of newspapers is so expensive, says Worrell, they have been at the mercy of the Internet, which has no such costs. But Worrell thinks there are still online opportunities for local papers.
"The localization of the Internet hasn't really happened yet," he says. "Craigslist really isn't so great. There's no news, no real local focus. You need to create a real local community online."
Worrell, however, expresses no interest in returning to local publishing, choosing instead to focus on his locally-based company Worrell Water Technologies, which has developed a waste-water treatment system called a Living Machine. It's basically a man-made, technologically advanced wetland that replicates and accelerates the tidal action of an estuary, taking in gallons of sewage and spewing out clean water.
It's based on how the earth works," says Worrell, "and when it comes to a solution for fixing our water problems, I put my money on the earth."
Worrell says he first became interested in water issues on a trip to Africa in the late 1970s when the scarcity and poor quality of the water there alarmed him–- and provided a frightening future vision.
"I was a different person after that trip to Africa." he says. "I knew I had to do something."
As for the newspaper business, whose contraction caught the attention of the Miller Center, this town's top policy center, Worrell's not sure there is a fix.
"It seems like its kind of too late now to save newspapers," he says, " but I hope not."