Mike Potter was at home last Friday morning, checking e-mail and preparing to cover the Carolina Hurricanes' presser that afternoon for The Herald-Sun, when he was called into the office to meet with Editor Bob Ashley. Potter's been a sports reporter in Durham for 24 years.
"I've been a sportswriter since I was in college," Potter says. "I'm not planning on becoming something else."
He may need to change his plans: Potter was one of seven newsroom employees who lost their jobs this week at The Herald-Sun and its daily Orange County edition, The Chapel Hill Herald.
The Durham Bulls organization posted tributes to Potter on its Web site. "You are as much a part of Bulls baseball as any of the players that have come through and any of us in the front office," wrote General Manager Mike Birling.
After this round of layoffs, Durham's daily newspaper of record will now have one reporter, Ray Gronberg, covering both city and county government. Durham County reporter Matt Goad and education reporter Laura Collins were laid off. Only two photographers remain following the departure of Mark Dolejs, according to sources close to the paper.
Ashley declined to confirm specific personnel changes but acknowledged "another round of job reductions" in his weekend column. The last layoffs took place in July 2008.
"I'm afraid I'm not going to have any comment on this, beyond what I said in my column on Sunday," Ashley wrote in an e-mail to the Independent.
His column did not explain which reporters would cover which beats in the future, nor did it say which other departments have seen personnel cuts.
"[W]e're assessing our core mission," Ashley wrote. "We continue to believe local news is critical, so we again have worked to be sure reporters on the streets are sustained even as we make necessary cuts elsewhere."
"He never really answered any of my questions, either," says Potter, who was told the cuts were due to the economic downturn.
Multiple sources confirmed several beat reassignments in both locations.
Neil Offen, who in January left The Chapel Hill Herald after six years as its editor to become The Herald-Sun's metro editor (a promotion he did not seek), is back on a reporting beat. Managing Editor Nancy Wykle will assume Offen's responsibility of overseeing news coverage in Durham. Meanwhile, Durham higher education reporter Greg Childress will move to Chapel Hill.
That leaves five news reporters in Durham.
Longtime copy editor Jack Threadgill has also been let go.
The Chapel Hill Herald now has a total of three editorial staffers: former Durham metro editor Dan Way, now Herald editor, reporter Beth Velliquette and Childress. Daniel Goldberg, who covered UNC and the Town of Chapel Hill, lost his job Friday. Lisa Young, who covered K-12 education, left the paper voluntarily a week before the layoffs.
The staffing changes follow modifications in content.
Last month, the paper folded its stand-alone business section, which used to run three days a week, into the daily metro and sports section paper, while launching a weekly features-style Business & More section Mondays, increasing the output of the paper's sole business reporter, Monica Chen.
As for sports, there is now one dedicated full-time reporter, Brian Strickland, and four others with editing and desk responsibilities.
"The sports downsizing has been ridiculous," Potter says. "We once had 13 people doing what they're now trying to get 5 people to do."
Since Paxton Media purchased the paper in 2005, The Herald-Sun has lost two other major sports reporters: ACC basketball reporter Al Featherston, who was laid off when the chain took over, and Frank Dascenzo, who took a buyout last year.
Fewer staff inevitably means a loss of quality, Potter says. "I don't think institutional memory means anything whatsoever to Paxton Media in running a newspaper."
Newspaper job losses are barely news these days. Advertising revenue has declined thanks, leading to the closure of newspapers across the country and to a call for an altogether different business model to fund journalism.
The News & Observer laid off 31 employees in April, bringing its newsroom headcount down to 132, about half of what it was just four years ago.
But in some ways, the Raleigh daily is thriving compared to The Herald-Sun. The Durham paper has always been a significantly smaller operation that managed to hold its own.
Then came Paxton. The Paducah, Ky.-based company purchased the paper from the R.T. Rollins family for an unspecified amount of money. Sources estimated as much as $125 million, twice what analysts estimated the paper was worth.
With circulation of about 50,000, The Herald-Sun was the largest paper in Paxton's portfolio of 29 newspapers, mostly in small non-competitive markets across the South and Midwest. At the time Paxton purchased The Herald-Sun, the average daily circulation of its two largest newspapers, The Paducah Sun and the Messenger-Inquirer of Owensboro, Ky., were both under 30,000.
The Durham daily has seen a 45 percent decline in print circulation since the sale. Today, The Herald-Sun's average daily circulation is 26,000 and its Sunday circulation is 29,600, according to Audit Bureau of Circulation reports for the period ending March 31, 2009, down from 48,000 daily and 52,000 Sunday for the same period in 2005. The News & Observer's print circulation declined 7 percent during that time.
Job losses have also been more severe in The Herald-Sun's newsroom. At the time of the takeover in January 2005, there were 87 newsroom employees. As of Monday, there were 29.
Opining on the economic downturn in his column, Ashley framed the job losses in the context of a spendthrift culture. "We have too many houses, too many cars, too much stuff—too much that has been bought on easy credit but now we must pay the piper."
Potter offers a different metaphor. "I was eating pizza with some friends the other night. They ordered a deluxe pizza, and I was trying to describe to them what Paxton has done to the paper: Imagine increasing the price and then taking all the toppings off."
Correction (May 22, 2009): This story misreported the average daily average circulation of Paxton's 29 newspapers. At the time Paxton purchased The Herald-Sun, the circulation of its two largest newspapers, The Paducah Sun and the Messenger-Inquirer of Owensboro, Ky., were both under 30,000. Many of Paxton's newspapers do not report to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, so an average is difficult to calculate.