Washington Star publisher Joe L. Allbritton sat on a desk in his newsroom yesterday and announced to reporters and editors who surrounded him that "the dark days are over" and the "war" has began.
There will be noontime "drills in the parking lot," with "broomsticks" and "wooden guns," said Allbritton, as he jokingly primed the staff for what is anticipated to be a new surge of competition between the Star and its morning rival, The Washington Post.
Nevertheless, staff members, who were surprised and stunned at the news of the Star's sale to Time Inc., remained cautious about the impact of the change in the newspaper's ownership.
"We have been through so many crises we are rather phlegmatic at this stage . . . always aware of how much worse it could have bee," said editorial writer Anne Crutcher.
National reporter William Delaney said "everyone is encouraged by it. A big established firm gives confidence to the advertisers and the people in the community as well as the writers."
Others were skeptical about the effect of the sale on the company's policies and operations, especially an enlargement of the staff.
"If this means we are going to have some more money and that in turn means we are going to have more staff, then that's good," said reporter Walter Taylor, a member of the national staff, as he entered the Star building on Virginia Avenue yesterday morning.
During the staff meeting yesterday, Allbritton warned his editorial employes not to comment on the sale to reporters from The Post.
Unusually tight security measures were enforced at the Star building yesterday. Reporters from other news organizations who came to cover the sale story were prohibited from going beyond the building's floor looby until they were escorted by guards up a special elevator to the meeting room where Allbritton held his press conference. No one other than Star employes was permited access to the third floor newsroom.
The Star assigned one reporter, George Beveiridge, the newspaper's ombudsman, to cover the press conference.
The deal between the Star and Time magazine was described as a well-kept secret by numerous employes.They understood that the Star's acting editor, Sidney Epstein, had placed the story in the paper at 4 a.m. yesterday.
john Mckelway, a Star writer for 25 years, said he had heard about the sale on the radio as he was driving to work and "almost drove my care into a tree on Reno Road."
"Who bought it?" asked Diana McLellan, the writer behind the Star's gossip column. "The Ear."
"Time magazine bought it?" she asked. "That's fantastic!"
Sports writer Kathleen Maxa said she got an early morning call about the sale from a friend in the newsroom. Another employe said she heard about the deal from her lawyer.
"All I know what was on the front page of the paper," said travel advertising manager Peter Backus.
There was talk in the newsroom last week that the sale of the newspaper was imminent. One reporter, Lance Gay, who said his name was tagged to the rumors, was sought out by Allbritton who was said to be annoyed at the gossip.
Gay said he was at a District police station paying some parking tickets when the publisher came looking for him.
"The Star's been through a lot and it looks like we are getting back on our feet," Gay said yesterday as he sat in the Star cafeteria.
Philip Kadis, former chairman of the Star unit of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, one of the newspaper's labor unions was one of 15 reporters who resigned recently. He took advantage of an early retirement program designed to cut back on the newspaper's expenditures.
"We have all shared an agonizing period: it was difficult holding people together," said Kadis. The sale, he said, "makes it much easier to leave . . . because it reinforces the Star's longrange growth opportunities."
Columnist James J. kilpatrick, who was at the Star building yesterday, said the sale "is going to give the Star financial resources that even Joe Allbritton. . . . hasn't been able to put behind it."
Now, Kilpatrick said, "You are going to have a Time-Star publication operating in competition with Post-Newsweek." Newsweek magazine, Time's biggest rival is a wholly owned subsidiary of THe Washington Post Co.
By the end of the day, staff members said they were left with unanswered questions about the sudden switch in the newspaper's ownership. Two sources expressed dismay over what was felt to be Allbritton's lack of candor during his briefing with staff members. At the staff meeting, the publisher seemed only to repeat what he had told members of the general news media at his 2 p.m. press conference.
"I feel there is positive apprehension among the staff," said Bill Wilson, an assignment editor in the Star's photographic department, where the staff has been reduced by five people in the past two years.
"In the meeting (with Allbritton) I was waiting for "What does that mean to us?" He didn't promise an increase in manpower," Wilson said.
At the press conference, Allbritton said he felt that Star's editorial staff was "adequate" and fore-saw no immediate increase in the number of editorial employes.
THe atmosphere at the Star yesterday was described as calm compared to the turmoil and confusion that followed announcements of staff layoffs and the resignation of editor James Bellows, who was seen by the staff as primarily responsible for injecting new vivaltiy into a sagging operation.
Bellows left the Star to become editor of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. like others, the former editor was pleased with yesterday's announcement.
Ironically, Allbritton in absentia touced the start of Bellows' work day as well.
"I just think it's weird that this morning when I got up to go work. . . . the Cougar I usually drive was blocked in and I had to drive the Cadillac that Allbitton gave me," Bellows said of the car that had been his farewell gift when he left Washington.