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Willie Sawyers

It was 10 years ago this week that I first walked through the front door as the new publisher of The Sentinel-Echo. There was no welcome mat, and no one to hold the door. Suspicious stares greeted me everywhere.

It was a delicate transition, because I had competed ferociously against the Sentinel for more than nine years before my newspaper, the Laurel News-Leader, was purchased by the Sentinel's owners. I was the enemy for a long time, and now I was the new boss.

I like to kid the staff now on their lukewarm welcome for me 10 years ago. It took a few months for the misconceptions to fade and the new relationships to build. And we haven't looked back.

I fondly recall Roy House, the longtime production manager of the Sentinel, bringing the paper's old box truck down to the News -Leader's office and helping me load my office furniture. Roy was the heart and soul of the newspaper, and his acceptance of me was a vital component to the successful merging of two competing newspaper staffs.

A memorial to Roy, who died unexpectedly in 2004, will remain in the info box on the Forum page as long as I'm publisher of the newspaper.

Even though my entrance was a bit awkward, I actually felt like I was coming home. I grew up reading the Sentinel and my first true newspaper job was here back in 1978 when I worked as a reporter between semesters of college. Luke and Margaret Keith gave me an opportunity to work under the tutelage of longtime Sentinel icon Skip Garrison, who taught me the nuances of high-quality newspaper photography.

A few years later. when I was a cub reporter at the Corbin daily, I had an opportunity to interview new Sentinel owner-publisher Al Smith for a hospital story I was working on. He brought me up to his spacious, private office overlooking courthouse square. I made a promise to myself then I would someday sit in that publisher's chair.

Nearly 20 long, winding years later, the publisher's job was mine, but the chair wasn't. The office that Al impressed me with was being sublet to an attorney. I was disappointed to move into a small office downstairs. It took several months for the attorney to move out before I was finally home.

I will let others decide the relative merits of my stint as publisher of the Sentinel the last 10 years. But I have a positive outlook on where we've been, and where we're going.

I am proud that I've helped build a successful, vibrant newspaper in a vibrant community that happens to be my hometown. I'm sure the other longtime employees of the Sentinel feel the same way — that we can ply our trade in a great community and continue the legacy of this 135-year-old publication.

I love my job. I love the dedicated employees who make my job easier. And I love London. That means more to me than a higher-profile position at a larger newspaper in a larger community. I’ve had opportunities to move elsewhere over the last 10 years, but it’s hard to beat what I have here.

Besides, larger newspapers in metropolitan areas are having difficulty these days with the recession and the loss of their readers to the Internet. The Lexington Herald-Leader, for example, just completed another round of layoffs due to slumping advertising revenues and readership.

We’ve not had any layoffs at the Sentinel, and don’t anticipate any in the foreseeable future, even though some segments of our advertising are suffering. We have lost a few subscribers to the Internet, mostly those from out of state. I can’t blame them either, because why wait a week for the post office to deliver their newspaper, when they can read it online.

But by and large, most community newspapers like the Sentinel are solid and have a healthy future. Their local content, like local news, sports, and community news, can’t be easily duplicated by competitors online. There is the trust factor as well.

It is my job as publisher to make sure the newspaper is well positioned to make the transition to the digital age, just as it was 10 years ago to make a smooth transition between two competing newspaper staffs.

It’s challenges like this that make me look forward to the next 10 years.

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