Worrell's world: ex-DP boss re-envisions newsbiz

snap-newspaperboxes-1"Small, local papers have a chance," says former Daily Progress owner Tom Worrell, "but you have to be credible, you have to develop a reputation with the community over time, and constantly deliver on that."

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."


JLAnderson -

Your bitterness precedes you. Your inability to realize that this article is not about you is hilarious. Take your soapbox somewhere else where someone cares what happened 14 years ago, when this town was run by people like Tom Worrell, Hovey Dabney, C.W. Hurt, and Wick McNeely. Welcome to something called the future. Your stagnation is getting in the way of our progress. It's time for us all to move on.

I don't think I've ever read more self-serving crap in my life.

Tommy Worrell purports to have been such a great supporter of community papers ... bull. He states that newspapers "got used to big, heavy profits" -- he's right and HE WAS AMONG THE WORST. Ask Tommy what his profit margins were at the Daily Progress, The News & Advance and any of the other properties he sucked the life out of for years.

Whenever Tommy got the itch to buy a speed boat company or a villa in Europe or another antique car, it was the newspapers that had to fork over the increased dough. A call from Pantops ... or later Boca Raton ... to the publishers came, telling them how much more money they had to send him each month. AND HE COULD HAVE CARED LESS ABOUT HOW IT WOULD AFFECT THE INSTITUTIONS, THE STAFF AND THE COMMUNITIES THEY SERVED.

He purports to have cared about the local communities his papers served. Again, bull. He was only interested in how much he drain from them financially.

These comments by Tommy represent revisionist history at its worst. With all of Media General's missteps, I'm still glad I'm no longer an employee of Worrell Enterprises.

And please, don't paint Tommy Worrell as a paragon of virtue for corporate responsibility or as an employer who looked after his employees best, long-term interests. Ask him why the employees' pension plan invested in antique gold coins (because that was his obsession of the moment) or why, in 1995 when he sold to Media General, employees received NO 401(k) match for the year because Tommy didn't own the company on Dec. 31. The deal closed on Oct. 31, and he only paid a match once a year ... at the end of the year.

The business ethics of a snake.