It's hard to keep track of all the carnage at The News & Observer. Approximately 40 newsroom staffers have taken buyouts or been laid off since May, as the newspaper's parent company, McClatchy, struggles with declining ad revenue and more than a billion dollars in debt.
The paper's getting thinner all the time. Sections like What's Up are being folded into ever-slimmer print sections. The N&O's losing reporters, researchers and longtime editors—the people whose institutional memories put facts in context and keep errors out of the paper. Fun stuff, like Dwane Powell's editorial cartoons, are going away, too.
But whatever else is happening to our paper of record, The N&O is still providing the most important service a newspaper can: investigative reporting.
In the midst of all the bad news last week was one nugget of good news: Executive Editor John Drescher said he plans to fill the position left open by the retirement of Pat Stith, one of two full-time dedicated special projects reporters. At 66, the Pulitzer Prize winner was near retirement age, but a buyout offer spurred his departure. His last day is Oct. 3.
In just the past year, Stith's work exposed the multi-million-dollar failure of the state's mental health reform and a policy by Gov. Mike Easley's administration to destroy public records.
The decision to fill Stith's position is evidence that The N&O has its priorities straight.
"The kind of work that Pat did here for almost 40 years is crucial to our mission," Drescher said. He recognized that losing Stith is a huge blow to an already demoralized newsroom. But he said Stith had also mentored many younger reporters, are now vying to carry on his work.
"When you get in a situation like this, it forces you to look at everything you do and decide what's most important," Drescher said. "Whenever we have a discussion around here about what's important, the public service journalism—specifically watchdog reporting—always comes out on top. We believe in it, and it's really what we do better than anybody else."
Stith himself urges readers to stick with The N&O. He said the paper has a long history of empowering beat reporters to delve into their own investigations. "When they come up with a really good story that needs a little extra time to develop, The N&O cuts them free of their beat and gives them time to do the work." He points to the work of Andy Curliss and Dan Kane, which led to the indictment and imprisonment of N.C. House Speaker Jim Black.
Also, consider the recent investigation by Kane and Benjamin Niolet. Their Sept. 21 story showed that how obscure but quietly influential Democratic fundraiser and Department of Transportation board member Louis W. Sewell Jr. had directed $375,000 worth of state work to roads near his properties.
The story had direct, immediate impact. As the team called officials, Sewell became the subject of an ethics investigation. By the end of the week, he had quit the board.
It takes reporters and researchers checking tax records, analyzing state contracts and reading minutes with a magnifying glass to uncover and nail down the what, when, how and why. Who knows how many other public officials have been doing the same thing Sewell did, or worse? Without investigative reporters, how would we find out?
"Now, I'm not under some kind of illusion that we find out about any significant portion of the things that go wrong," Stith said, "but I will tell you this: We're in the game. I don't see that changing, not with the guy we got now, John Drescher. He's made it quite clear since he came in as executive editor that he's a hard news guy and he wants investigative stories in The N&O."
Some friends and acquaintances have recently told me they plan to cancel their subscriptions. That's a mistake. True, there's less local news, especially if you live in Durham or Orange counties, where the number of reporters has shrunk and the zoned edition disappeared in June.
But what's left of The N&O's print edition contains stories you won't find on blogs or on the evening TV newscast. And what's left of the staff are hardworking journalists with the hunger and ability to uncover all manner of malfeasance.
With all that's happening around us, we can't afford to cancel that.