BY EMILIO BRUNA AND JACK PRICE
It seemed odd that, at the time of the holiday season announcement, no one around here knew much about the obscure Daytona Beach firm, Halifax Media Holdings, LLC, that purchased the Gainesville Sun and 15 other papers (including the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Lakeland Ledger) from the New York Times.
The face, power and money behind the Halifax Media Group is arch conservative Arkansas billionaire, Warren Stephens, who, along with his brother and other family members, is believed to be worth up to $5 billion. And, as is the case with many “humble beginnings to extreme riches” stories in two generations, the family’s path to great wealth is littered with questionable actions, close calls and hardball politics.
A recent example: when Halifax bought these newspapers for $143 million, employees were given a “noncompete” agreement to sign, stating they could not work for other media companies within the following two years that were in a city with a another Halifax owned business. Yet, Halifax retained the right to fire them. Employees who didn’t sign were told they would lose their jobs. (Halifax dropped this requirement after the Poynter Institute and others questioned the legal and ethical ramifications.)
Another example: In Tampa, about 30 of former New York Times Regional Media Group employees were laid off, and given a severance only if they wouldn’t talk to the media about package details and would not make “disparaging” remarks about the company.