Less News is bad news

So McClatchy and the N&O management have finally implemented the next phase of their plan to turn their community weeklies–the Chapel Hill News, the Durham News and the Cary News into something closer to a shopper than a newspaper. All three have started running front page ads as of this weekend–chewing up more of the dwindling news hole and, frankly, insulting the readers by saying ‘hey you’re getting a free paper so suck it up.’ So, today, you get this instead of another story. As a former longtime Chapel Hill News reporter (I’m drinking coffee out of my CHN cup this very morning), I’ve held my fire as I’ve seen the decline of what was once one of the best little community newspapers in the South. Perhaps it was wishful thinking that after merging news staffs with the N&O and reworking older features something better would emerge. No. Such. Luck.

The N&O is clearly so focused on its own prestige and bottom line that common sense and responsibility to the community are just not that important anymore. Even after the two papers started sharing a newsroom and cooperating on stories (I served on the CHN/N&O committee that drew up the procedures for story sharing and cooperation in 1998) there had always been competition–healthy competition. Now the N&O does more than just cherry pick CHN stories. Under some strange arrangement, news stories that would be all over the front page of the paper are just repackaged N&O versions stuffed inside in roundup format. There’s very little extra reporting or investigating by the CHN on major stories. The logic seems to be that what’s good enough for N&O readers–short, often vapid takes boiled down to fit in the shrinking B section–is good enough for CHN readers. What’s more, the institutional memory of the CHN is just about gone, with most of the stuff written by a parade of 20-somethings who are in the bureau for a few years and on to something else. There are still a smattering of features and they haven’t thrown out the sports section (although the CHN hasn’t really covered Carolina for years), but the writing and, more importantly, the reporting is slipping.
(I don’t know much about the Cary News‘ situation, but I do visit their Web site and it looks like they’re similarly hamstrung. The site barely mentioned the Cary sewage spill when it was all over the N&O.)

We are all losers in this and the N&O is going to one day realize it made not just a horrible error in judgement, but that it has ruined a newspaper with a great tradition of journalism, independence, and commitment to community. Unlike Dow Jones, whose overly-clever management royally screwed up the paper in the 80s, the N&O can’t just turn around and sell it. And since it’s doubtful the N&O will ever let the CHN return to a point where it has an independent voice or breaks significant news, the route to a fluffy shopper has been cleared. Front page ads are just another indication of that.
I curse the management in the name of Louis Graves and just plain curse in the name of James Shumaker.

8 replies
  1. Anglico says:

    I’m glad to see this point of view coming from someone who knows whereof he speaks. As an outsider, the whole situation has looked like a slow motion implosion with NO redeeming value.

  2. kmr says:

    Yeah, it’s sad to see. The CHN used to be a really fun, informative read. These days, the Tar Heel does a much better job of covering the news in the town.
    In his front-page note to the readers, Mr. Quarles asks that anyone with a comment about the ads can email him a oquarles@newsobserver.com or call him at 829-4649.

  3. WillR says:

    I know I’ve brought the quality down. While the CHN is sending Lisa to Madison, I don’t expect the N&O to share her insights.

    Though an N&O subscriber (hey, the comics), I usually consume the CHN and N&O via the Internet. The N&O archives went silent years ago – when the CHN followed recently I realized hat the one niche for growth – intensively localized reporting deployed via the ‘net – was never going to happen.

    It’s a shame because the CHN still has the chops – if the N&O would just set them free.

  4. Anglico says:

    Thanks for the email link. Here’s my note:

    Dear Mr. Quarles.

    What on earth is going on with your newspaper? It’s like the wheels are falling off … and a once-admired institution is devolving into a parody of itself.

    Your editorial page is good for maybe one strong opinion a month, if that. Your political reporters carry water for Art Pope and the John Locke Puppetshow nearly every day. You have a staff columnist who recycles right wing talking points from the Carolina Journal as often as not. And now you’re selling the front page of what used the be the only decent paper in Chapel Hill.

    I know, I know, these are “economic decisions.” Of course they are. They’re the natural consequence of the decisions your company has made. This is what happens when a newspaper goes from standing for something to standing for nothing in the course of a couple of years.

    I subscribed to your paper for 20 years. I was an intensely loyal customer. And now I am so far gone, you couldn’t pay me to read the paper again.

    I recently asked readers at BlueNC.com why they subscribed to the N&O still. There was only one answer: the comics.

    Get a new editorial page editor.
    Rededicate your organization to excellence and objectivity in political reporting.
    Stop pandering to rightwing think tanks.
    Stand for something.

    That’s what it’ll take to get me back.

  5. George Entenman says:

    While I agree that the CHN has seriously declined in quality, I don’t agree with your accessment of the Dow Jones management. I assume that Fred Zimmerman was part of that management, and I think he made the paper more local again. I really liked the changes he made and wish he were back.

  6. kmr says:

    I liked Fred a lot and not just because he taught me how to invest in mutual funds in the late 1980s. No, it wasn’t so much Fred as it was DJ uppers who thought they had a paper that would fit in with the Ottaway chain. It didn’t and they didn’t have a plan B that made any sense to them beyond the free idea. So they bailed. Fred did make the paper more local as did Lee Campbell and they deserve cred for that.

  7. BrianR says:

    Thanks for writing this. Like Anglico it means a lot coming from someone who was involved with the CHN.

    So what are we going to do about it? How can a local “paper” be reinvented here in Chapel Hill? I can think of few people more qualified to do it than you. Just let me know how I can help.

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