When the Observers fall silent

Posted: March 24th, 2009 | Author: Tyler Dukes | Filed under: journalism | Tags: , , , , , , , , | View Comments

twotowersIf I was a gambling person, or had any luck, or any money, I’d start making my bets now on when The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer will close their doors for good.

The fatal blows at the newspapers have already begun. Like a bully hastily overcompensating for his own inadequacies by demanding milk money from the nerdy kids, parent company McClatchy has put the squeeze on both organizations, forcing 160 people out of the job. Almost 60 of those layoffs come from the newsrooms of the N&O and The Charlotte Observer.

All of this, of course, is in an attempt to defy a continuing recession and make up for McClatchy’s $2 billion of debt by cleaving into the bone of these two still profitable newspapers.

It’s an effort to become a leaner organization, according to McClatchy Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt. In his words, the cuts will “realign our workforce and make our operations more efficient.”

That’s funny, since it didn’t seem like McClatchy was too interested in efficiency when it bought Knight-Ridder Inc. (and The Charlotte Observer) in 2006, weighing the company down with another 20 papers — oh, and that $2 billion in debt it’s now so eager to pay down at the expense of its employees’ livelihood.

But the other effect of the buy was more foreboding for the future of North Carolina.

The purchase consolidated the state’s two largest and most powerful watchdogs under one company.  Success — the unlikely scenario in an age of declining readership and ad revenues — would mean great things. Failure would mean the collapse of the Two Towers of North Carolina journalism.

In that single irresponsible act — committed apparently while Pruitt twirled his thin mustache with a dastardly grin –  the McClatchy Co. doomed North Carolina to a crippled ability to hold its government accountable.

But those were the glory days! No one knew what was going to happen! The Dow Jones Industrial Average was more than a year away from reaching its all-time high of 14,164.53. And everyone in the business world knows it’s totally normal for the market to rise almost 100 percent in five years.

Pruitt even took a shot at all those ignorant naysayers who insisted newspapers needed to innovate and cut back to get stronger:

Pessimism about our industry is indeed widespread these days, but we believe it is misinformed.

Boy was he right! With those instincts, it’s no wonder the McClatchy board of directors wants to keep Pruitt at the helm despite his performance and fierce criticism from industry insiders!

If either or both of these newspapers fail as  a result of McClatchy’s financial blunders, North Carolina will suffer.

Although our state is no Illinois, we have our share of corruption. It was the work of reporters at The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer that exposed former Speaker of the House Jim Black’s misdeeds. N&O investigative juggernaut Joseph Neff dug deep into the Duke lacrosse case, wading past all of the national television sensationalism and producing an amazing series that decoded a complicated tale of corruption and bias on the part of former Durham D.A. Mike Nifong.

The public knows it will miss this work. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 74 percent of those surveyed said the closing of their local newspaper (online or print) would hurt civic life “a lot” or “some,” although only 58 percent said they’d miss the paper “a lot” or “some.”

Even competing television reporters understand how the obliteration of both of these papers would devastate N.C. journalism. Tim Boyum, the host and executive producer of News 14 Carolina’s Political Connections, had this to say an a recent e-mail conversation:

We would lose some of the public’s best investigative abilities in the great reporters who dig deep and [uncover] issues and people that are doing wrong in the state.  Television news does its best, but we are an immediate platform.  We don’t have the time to take a few days or weeks on a story.  Newspaper editors give that time and that’s how stories like the mental health and probation investigations come to light.

We would lose a strong voice, and those who want to do wrong could sadly use that as an avenue to do wrong.

How soon these papers might stop the presses is unclear, especially given G.D. Gearino’s interesting and clever assessment about the impracticality of the N&O’s sale. But to say the death of these giants isn’t likely is naive.

Journalism will suffer in North Carolina at the expense of McClatchy’s bad decisions.

But I think the state will become the testing ground for the country’s first great experiment in how community journalism (bloggers and small papers included) can fill a watchdog role.

It will take time, but we already see some progress. The Raleigh Connoisseur, for example, already does a great job of keeping tabs on the growth and development of downtown Raleigh, mixing fun entries with good old fashioned beat reporting.

Let me clarify here that we’re not talking about the loss of the paper. We’re talking about the loss of the news that goes inside it. I don’t care about either one of these papers’ print product necessarily. But I do care about the journalists who work there and the great jobs they do in keeping the citizens of this state informed.

We have to make a place for them in these new journalism models, because every time an Observer staffer is laid off, Jim Black and Mike Nifong punch a baby for fun. And that’s just not cool.

  • I've heard many print journalists cry out, "You'll miss us when we are gone!"

    But, I don't think this is so. I think the death of newspapers will herald the resurgence of true journalism.

    From the ashes of the largely superficial news business will emerge old-school muckraking.

    The only thing holding good journalism back these days are the behemoth organizations employing all the people who would rather be reporting about things that matter instead of things that guarantee obscene profit.
  • Leo
    My feelings exactly, good post.

    I think we are past the point of feeling sad for the newspapers and people need to get over it. The print paper copy of the news is a natural failure of a product in the age of the internet and by not embracing new technology, they are doomed. The leaders at the N&O and Charlotte Observer have not figured out a way to get the great content that they produce in front of people, even with the power to reach so many more, that it costs good journalists their jobs.

    When the towers collapse, it will be interesting to see what rises out of it.
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