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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bon voyage, News & Observer staffers

Posted by on Wed, Apr 22, 2009 at 1:50 PM

click to enlarge Click the photo to see the full front page.
  • Click the photo to see the full front page.

It's been a very sad month for those of us who work in journalism, as we watch dedicated people whose work we admire and whose talents we envy lose their jobs. What makes it all the more sad is that they aren't just victims of an economic downturn that will eventually turn back around. It's not at all clear that the jobs they're leaving will ever come back. Even though we understand the root causes -- declining ad revenue, the decoupling of classifieds with newsprint, the crushing debt of corporate owners -- we can't help but wonder at a deeper level why the work we value doesn't have the value it once did.

That, I imagine, is the doubt that hangs over those left in The News & Observer's newsroom today, following the departure of another 31 staffers due to layoffs and buyouts that were announced last month.

An anonymous staffer's mock front page (excerpted above; click the photo for the full page) lists the names of all departing staffers. (Hat tip to Jim Romenesko and NewRaleigh.) They include reporters Joe Miller, Sam Spies and Sabine Vollmer; editors Ned Barnett, Van Denton and Rob Waters; photographer Jason Arthurs; as well as several copy editors and production folks, people whose work was often behind the scenes, but nonetheless essential. There's no dead wood on that list.

A post yesterday on the paper's opinion blog by page designer and letters editor Burgetta Eplin Wheeler also pays tribute to departing colleagues.

One of the only departing staffers to say goodbye in the pages of the newspaper is J. Peder Zane, whose farewell column ran Sunday. Zane is the standard-bearer for the paper's books and cultural coverage. While he is only one of many talented and essential staffers, his loss is an example of the way the paper is changing under economic pressure.

"I’m sorry to be leaving. I love working for the paper," Zane told the Independent. "I’ll keep subscribing and keep reading the paper, and I hope they will find a way they haven’t yet to pull out of this and return the paper to what it once was."

For 10 years, Zane was the newspaper's books editor, following in the footsteps of his predecessor Michael Skube, who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1989. Zane won the Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary from the American Society of Newspaper Editors and edited two book collections of writers' essays about their favorite books.

Then in 2007, he was reassigned to become an ideas columnist and the position of a dedicated books editor was eliminated as part of broader editorial restructuring that foreshadowed the buyouts, layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs since.

"We're sad to see Peder go," says Linda Williams, senior editor in charge of The N&O's features department. "Everybody who's leaving is a big blow to us." Williams says the paper will continue to have two pages of books coverage in the Sunday edition, and it will continue to be edited by arts editor Craig Jarvis, a former arts reporter. Furthermore, she says the features sections of The N&O and the Charlotte Observer have merged, and Observer writer Pam Kelley's stories on books and reading will now appear in The N&O. "We've never in all of this considered not having books coverage," Williams says.

Yet others say Zane's departure marks the end of the newspaper's once famed literary coverage.

Nancy Olsen, founding owner of Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, says she’s disappointed Zane is leaving the paper. “I'm very, very sorry and very sad. I think it's huge step down in culture,” she says. “He not only knows the books and their importance, he's an ideas person.”

Olsen says Triangle readers will miss Zane’s coverage of local authors. Local literary coverage has suffered especially, she says, as newspapers across the country have cut back on books coverage. “It seems to be the end of an era, not just at The N&O. Historically we could always depend on some stimulating, thought provoking ideas in newspapers. Who is writing about ideas in newspapers now? Nobody. All we're getting is very polemic political articles and pop culture. What is The N&O trying to be? To who? I wonder about that. I see lots of things about styles and clothes and American Idol.”

Olsen says she will continue to subscribe to The N&O. But she laments what she perceives as a diminishing amount of analytical coverage in daily journalism. “Newspapers have changed. They’re just going with the trends and they’re not looking beneath the surface. They're not presenting in-depth analysis and answers. They're not presenting anything new."

"I’m quite certain John Drescher, the executive editor, is not making those cuts because he enjoys making them," says Skube, who is now a communications professor at Elon University. "But they are cuts, just the same, and they further diminish a paper that has lost so much of its character. Anyone who walked through those doors each morning can only be saddened in saying that. It was a paper I loved, and one where people all over the country were proud to have worked. It still has some good people, but no one can say it’s the paper it once was.

"The reason can be found in California, with the suits at McClatchy,” Skube says.

The McClatchy Company owns The N&O and The Charlotte Observer, along with 30 other daily and 60 non-daily newspapers nationwide. The Sacramento-based company is struggling to pay down more than $2 billion in debt it acquired when it purchased the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain.

“The company made profligate business decisions, and now they’ve come back to bite ‘em in the butt,” Skube says. He says the corporate cliché of "doing more with less" really means doing less. "Like so many papers, The N&O is not getting leaner and meaner. It’s getting thinner and thinner, to the point of emaciation."

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