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.