9:30 a.m. Pink Pants is still on my AOL buddy list. He’s online right now. I wonder what he’s up to. Pink Pants is our nickname for the gentleman who stopped by on the way to the Hamptons one Friday, wearing Pepto-Bismol-pink slacks, saying he wanted to buy the company while we were in Chapter 11. But there was something fishy about this guy. We kept searching for his name on the Internet but couldn’t find anything.
Finally, I put his name in the search engine of SEC.gov, the Web site of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Turns out, the name I was putting in was his alias. Mr. Pants was a convicted felon, a former insider trader with a rap sheet of corporate infractions.
Believe it or not, he was the second shady character who pursued us during bankruptcy. A mysterious priest kept calling us to offer help. Thinking it odd that a priest who’d taken a vow of poverty might be looking to invest in a bankrupt dot-com, we Googled him, too. This time, it turned out that the kindly father had been indicted on narcotics smuggling charges. True, the Cali cartel would be an excellent business partner in some ways (many techniques for eliminating competition), but we decided to pass on that.
The weird thing about bankruptcy is that being a convicted felon is not a decisive blow against your chances of acquiring a company. It’s all about helping the creditors, so if a bank robber got up in court and said, “Here’s my list of convictions—and here’s my check and I am offering 20 cents on the dollar,” the court would be legally obligated to consider it. As frustrating as this was, there was a rough justice to this philosophy. I came to actually admire the radical nature of business bankruptcy laws, which tell shareholders and managers: You had your chance; first priority now is to get money for the people you owe.
10 a.m. Daily editorial planning meeting. In the midst of all the bankruptcy proceedings, we had scrambled to keep quality up. Happily, we now get to plan more than a few days in advance.
In the past two Decembers, we’ve given a Beliefnet’s Most Inspiring Person Award. We’ve been asking our readers for nominations. Started to narrow down the list. Lisa Beamer, check. Bono, sure. Could we get Jesse Helms to do the nominating essay? Coal miners. A lot of nominations for Oprah and George W. Bush. In fact, they outdistanced Jesus and the pope this year. We delight in the political mix of our users, who nominated both Bill O’Reilly and Paul Wellstone.
We had a package scheduled for tonight on integrating Buddhist practice into daily life, but it seemed a tad abstract. Fortunately, Wendy Schuman, the inspiration editor, has been secretly collecting examples of before-meal blessings from many faiths, so we switched the lead to “Saying Grace.” Spirituality editor Lisa Schneider is working on a piece about the religious nature of George Harrison’s final days, and Paul O’Donnell, the morality editor, proposes something on the “warm-and-fuzzy side of the End Times.”
Exorcism package shaping up nicely, but struggling for fresh take on Nostradamus. Entering our “sweeps season,” which is to say the nonstop parade of religious holidays. Diwali … Ramadan … Thanksgiving … Rohatsu … Hannukah … Solstice … Advent … Christmas, and New Year’s. (New Year’s Day a religious holiday? Yes, around here we tend to think of everything as a religious holiday.)
2:30 p.m. Need to find stock certificates for company. Buried somewhere on desk under “Let’s Roll” baseball cap and Islamic Horizons magazines.
Found them. Look very august. Big American eagle, with wings spread, perched on a globe. These stock certificates were a big part of why we were able to emerge from Chapter 11. When we first went into bankruptcy we knew we would not be showered with money from investors. We had to figure out a way to become self-sufficient and generate some cash for the creditors.
To do that, we had to make sure our users didn’t go away, because if they left, so would the advertisers. On March 22, shortly before we entered Chapter 11, I had to lay off everyone (including myself), one of the most miserable moments of my professional life. These staffers were the ones who had stayed on after the venture capitalists had moved on. I was in awe of the dedication of this group and kept thinking especially about the intense sense of mission they all had in the hours after 9/11.
We needed eight or nine of them back right away, but had only enough money on hand to hire three or four. So we made an offer: If you work for much lower wages, we will treat the difference between your new paycheck and what you should be getting as if it’s a cash investment in the company. When we re-emerged, this dollar amount would be converted to stock.
Most everyone accepted the offer, though I don’t think they really took seriously the stock idea. After all, the previous promises of stock option glory had proved mythical. Mostly, the employees desperately wanted to keep the company going. So, we were able to bring back a number of people quickly and keep readers and advertisers satisfied.
The net effect is that the company is now majority owned by the staff. We stumbled into employee ownership!