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Paper Tiger

by Karen Martin

May 5,2006

To the nice people at McClatchy Co.: Welcome to Charlotte!

Yes, I know your purchase of the Charlotte Observer is not yet official, and there haven’t been mobs of people wearing yellow tee-shirts to herald your arrival, but trust me – there are plenty of us here in the Queen City who are eager for your appearance, because we believe that a strong, well-respected newspaper is one of the hallmarks of a world-class city.

Sure, we’ve seen the statistics of declining circulation, and we’ve heard the claims that “no one reads the newspaper anymore,” and we can tell you that the latter, at least, is a bunch of hooey. The people who care about this city and its environs, the ones who want to understand why things are they way they are and then change things for the better, read the newspaper.

Unfortunately, we haven’t had much to read in the past couple of years.

The last few months have actually had some analytic, thought-provoking pieces: articles about immigration, and foreclosures, and court-appointed attorneys who milk the system for extra income. Great stuff. Interesting reading.

But a while back, maybe a year ago, even the casual reader could see that things behind the scenes were spinning out of control. Every week, it seemed, there was some sort of format change: one section was merged into another and moved to another area of the paper, or sections disappeared altogether. I’m only half-kidding when I say that the Monday paper at one point totaled about ten pages. Crunched for time after the birth of our twins, my husband and I chose to take the paper only Thursday through Sunday, reading the online edition during the remainder of the week.

Then there’s the reporting. As a former freelancer for the Observer, I’m always interested in who’s writing what. I noticed that the writers’ bylines began changing fast and furiously. In one week alone, two trusted columnists announced their much-too-early retirement. More articles began appearing with the byline subhead reading, “Special to the Observer,” which, as you know, is newspaper-speak for “written by someone who doesn’t work at the Observer.”

The people who do work at the Observer have described a dismal newsroom environment. Columnist Tommy Tomlinson wrote that there were days he didn’t like the Observer. Who can blame these individuals, when their departments are asked to continue putting out a quality product on a smaller and smaller budget?

I got out of daily news in the early 1990s, and even then the budget beast was looming large. When reporters left the television newsroom for better pay in bigger cities, their jobs often were left unfilled. Instead, inexperienced (and lower-paid) “editorial assistants” drafted news copy that frequently needed fact-checking. Meanwhile, our parent company demanded additional newscasts – so the reporters, already stretched for time, were required to write several different versions of their stories for the additional shows.

Several years later I attended a writers’ conference at which novelist and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen was the keynote speaker. He decried the state of daily journalism as owned by giant corporations, giving as example the most recent annual report published by his corporate employer: “There are words in here like “paradigm” and “forecasting” and “market realities,” he said. “It took me until page 75 to figure out what…we do.”

So it will be a welcome relief when you settle into town, given that you bought the News & Observer of Raleigh ten years ago, and it remains a solid newspaper. Ditto for the Star-Tribune of Minneapolis-St. Paul, a McClatchy holding for nearly eight years.

I wish I could offer sage advice for reclaiming readership, but no doubt you have people much smarter than I already working on it. I do believe that people will read more when they see changes that make the paper worth reading. (Every time I see an “it’s” where an “its” ought to be, I cringe. Just like the time I saw a reference to someone “sewing” her wild oats.)

Surely additional resources will result in a higher-quality product. I – and many others – are excited to see how the Observer’s new edition will unfold.

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