Ellis Williams was thrilled. At 25, he was offered a heck of a sportswriting job: covering Oklahoma State University for The Oklahoman and its award-winning sports section.
Ellis started making arrangements to travel with his mom from his hometown of Hastings, Minnesota near the Twin Cities to look for a place to live in Oklahoma City. He was scheduled to start Aug. 12.
One phone call changed everything.
Last week, The Oklahoman’s human resources department called Williams with bad news: GateHouse Media, which owns The Oklahoman, had implemented a hiring freeze. The Oklahoman rescinded its job offer.
“It was completely blindsiding and it left me dumbfounded,” Ellis told me Wednesday. “Really, it was a gut-punch and I felt in the dark there, to be honest.”
By the end of the next day, The Oklahoman’s deputy sports editor, Jeff Patterson, offered Williams his apologies. Soon after, Williams said, longtime Oklahoman sports columnists Berry Tramel and Jenni Carlson reached out to Williams with encouraging words.
But it didn’t change the fact that Williams didn’t have a job that he was offered and had accepted.
Williams said he still is going through the gamut of emotions. He didn’t even tell anyone, except for his mom, the bad news for a week after The Oklahoman withdrew its offer. Eventually, he had to say something on Twitter.
“(This week) it really felt real,” Williams said. “I was angry, I felt alone.”
Williams had been working at the Post-Star in Glen Falls, New York, when The Oklahoman reached out a couple of months ago. He quit the Post-Star before getting an actual job offer, but felt optimistic that an offer was coming. He wanted to take a short break back home in Minnesota with family and friends before embarking on the next chapter of his career.
It all seemed to pay off when The Oklahoman offered him the job. When that happened, Williams said he stopped looking for any other jobs and actually passed up chances to discuss other openings.
Would he have left the Post-Star if he never talked to The Oklahoman?
“I likely would not have been as confident in my decision to leave The Post-Star had my conversations with The Oklahoman not been going as well as they were,” Williams said. “However, a pillar of this industry is trusting one’s instincts and mine were signaling that my time at The Post-Star had expired.”
Williams said he has gotten through the past few days with support from his family, the National Association of Black Journalists and several of his mentors.
“They really helped me feel as if we’re all in this together, that I wasn’t alone,” Williams said. “So that anger earlier has really transitioned into understanding.”
Kelly Dyer Fry, publisher/editor and vice president of news at The Oklahoman, told me in an email, “Ellis is a talented young man and we wish him all the best. There is never an easy way to make difficult cost-saving decisions. Trying to save local journalism can sadly break hearts.”
Williams said he holds no grudges.
“I know that this wasn’t the sports editor, Ryan Sharp’s decision,” Williams said. “It was out of his hands. There is no animosity. I’m not taking this personally. It happens.”
Williams added, “People who have been in this game longer than I have said they’ve never heard of something like this before. I guess if there’s some history to be made, this is the kind I didn’t want to make.”
GateHouse has not responded to a request for comment. GateHouse, which purchased The Oklahoman just a few months earlier, announced plans this week to merge with Gannett to form what will be the largest newspaper chain in the country.