In the coming weeks, the snappy headlines in The Herald-Sun newspaper about Durham's city council race, the UNC football scandal and the shoplifting incident at the local Food Lion will be brought to you by a team of Kentuckians. According to sources at The Herald-Sun, seven jobs—a third of its newsroom—were cut July 28, leaving fewer than 20 people in the editorial department.
Herald-Sun managers told employees that production duties—page design and copy editing—will be shuffled to the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, also owned by The Herald-Sun's parent company, Paxton Media Group. Six of the employees have until the middle of August to leave, sources said, and one employee has been reassigned. The workers are eligible for severance.
Herald-Sun Publisher Rick Bean didn't return phone messages seeking comment; nor did executives at Paxton, a privately held company based in Paducah, Ky.
As newspapers nationwide have struggled to keep readers and generate revenue, The Herald-Sun's circulation has been halved. Around the time of the Paxton purchase, it averaged a daily circulation of about 50,000. It recently reported a daily circulation of about 24,000 from October 2010 to March 2011, according to the most recent figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
Every department has faced cuts, and the recent climate at the paper could only be described as "ghastly," said one employee. All Herald-Sun employees interviewed for this story withheld their names for fear of retribution.
"It's a blow to the community," said one staffer who was laid off. "The copy editors safeguard the information going out. Having some group of people two states over designing your newspaper seems twisted to me."
Gone will be the Durham-centric editors who already know City Councilman Mike Woodard's last name has only one "w," and that Chapel Hill Street and Chapel Hill Road are not the same.
At least one Herald-Sun alum seems somewhat optimistic. "It's just one of those things that's a reality of modern print journalism," said Bob Ashley, the paper's former editor, who retired in January after six years. "It helps save money at a place where I think money can be prudently saved. I have a great deal of confidence that The Herald-Sun will ... continue to be a source of commentary and communication, and help cement the community fabric."
The strategy is on-trend with large media companies, notes Andy Bechtel, a journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who has closely followed layoffs and consolidations. Text from reporters at the Winston-Salem Journal, owned by Media General, now gets shipped to a production center in Richmond, Va., or Tampa, Fla., to be edited and spilled onto newspaper pages. Writers at the Hartford Courant will soon zip their copy from Connecticut to Chicago to be designed by staffers at The Chicago Tribune. And here in North Carolina, The News & Observer is shipping stories to a production center at The Charlotte Observer. Both The N&O and The Observer are owned by The McClatchy Company.
"I understand the economic realities of what these companies are dealing with, but at the same time, will readers be well served when the people who are writing the headlines are hundreds of miles away?" says Bechtel, an editor at The N&O from 1995 to 2005. Editors who don't live in the community don't know the politics, the history and other local nuances.
"It would be a real challenge," he says, "for someone in Charlotte to edit a story about the Wake County school board."
Corrections (Aug. 3, 2011): In earlier versions of this story, Kentuckians was misspelled, and the figures given to describe the size of the newspaper were labeled as the paper's readership instead of its circulation.