In a surprise announcement, Cox Enterprises said July 24 it is considering sales or mergers of its 14 nationwide TV stations, including Atlanta’s flagship WSB-TV. The move also means an abrupt end to a plan to merge the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB, leaving the paper based in Dunwoody for now, but with its long-term future unclear.

“Everybody thinks there’s already a suitor,” said a source at Cox. The deal has not been fully explained, and Cox staff are worried a buyer or partner could be acquisitive companies like Tronc, which just slashed the New York Daily News staff, or Sinclair Broadcast Group, which drew criticism for requiring anchors to read an editorial warning of “fake” news in an apparent nod to President Trump.

Cox’s announcement, published on the AJC and WSB websites, said the Sandy Springs-based company will “explore strategic options” for its TV stations, “including partnering or merging the stations into a larger company.” The statement did not address Cox’s plan, announced internally less than a year ago, to merge TV, print and radio news operations at WSB’s Midtown headquarters.

The cryptic announcement surprised Cox staff members and few details are available internally, even after July 25 staff meetings, the source said. The news hit “like a thunderclap” on the staff, the source said. “This came out of the blue… This is just cataclysmic for the Atlanta media world.”

“All the TV people are freaked out because this is like a family company,” the source said.

One thing that’s clear is that AJC is “not moving to WSB anymore.” The paper’s newsroom, for now, will remain based at a Cox building on Perimeter Center Parkway in Dunwoody. But there is a short-term lease, as a developer has plans to remake the whole bock as “High Street,” and local and state officials will not confirm or deny that the property is part of Georgia’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters.

The assumption among staff, the source said, is that a TV station buyer is “probably not interested in the newspaper,” leaving the AJC’s “fate somewhat unclear.” Word after one staff meeting July 25 was that the paper might be retained as a “vanity project” for the Cox family, even if it doesn’t make big profits.

The AJC moved from downtown Atlanta to Dunwoody in 2010.

In recent years, Cox has sold some other newspapers and radio stations across the country, and shuttered or sold some digital sites.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.