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What's going on at The N&O?

Announcements from the editors have left more questions than answers

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Change is afoot at the Triangle's daily newspaper of record. Since the beginning of the year, The News & Observer has slowly implemented a series of shifts in editorial personnel and coverage.

Veteran columnists are back to beat reporting. Reporters have been pulled from bureaus in Durham and Orange counties to help bolster coverage of booming Wake County. The features department is undergoing a makeover. And there's a new emphasis on the Web as a tool for continuous, breaking news.

But many readers remain uncertain about just what exactly is going on. While a series of announcements in the paper by Executive Editor Melanie Sill, Public Editor Ted Vaden and various columnists have explained the changes bit by bit, the most recent of Sill's columns indicates that readers are becoming anxious.

And from what we hear, there's as much anxiety in the newsroom itself.

In a recent interview, Sill said The N&O's reorganization, both in news and features, originated from a planning process that began last summer. She and Managing Editor John Drescher listened to staff brainstorming and met with department heads, staff committees and reporters to discuss how to do a better job in general, and online in particular. The first changes came in December with the announcement of plans for a continuous news team and an Under the Dome blog on state politics, which will launch "soon," according to Sill. She says the paper now breaks most news online, with "a deeper story for the paper" the following day. The N&O has also launched a new online forum, share.triangle.com, on which readers can post comments and photos.

"It had become clear to us that the whole landscape of information had shifted," Sill says, "that we needed to do more than just kind of tweak around the edges." The N&O had already started experimenting with blogs and online video, but the bigger picture required a more holistic approach. "We decided we wanted to look at reorganizing our newsroom, not just adding more things here, taking away things there. Because in order to do a lot of new things, we had to figure out what things we were going to stop doing.

"The bottom line of what we wanted to do was, rather than being on the defensive, being back on our heels, always trying to keep bad things from happening, we wanted to take the offensive and say, 'How can we do great work, online and in print—take some of our talented people and give them new assignments that would raise their impact?" Sill says.

The N&O's parent company, Sacramento-based McClatchy Co., has been struggling with its own big changes. The company purchased the Knight Ridder chain last year, raising hopes that the general slump in the newspaper industry could be corrected by the business savvy of McClatchy's CEO, Gary B. Pruitt. McClatchy has a reputation for not laying off employees during periods of financial uncertainty. But McClatchy saw its stock price decline, and in December it sold its biggest newspaper, The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, for $530 million—less than half of what it had paid for the paper eight years prior. (The company awarded Pruitt a $950,000 bonus this year, nonetheless.) In a story headlined "White Knight Turns Pragmatist, and Newspapers Tremble Again," The New York Times quoted industry analyst John Morton as saying, "If you had this warm and fuzzy feeling about being taken over by McClatchy, I suspect that has dissipated."

The N&O has been a McClatchy paper since 1995, so its relationship with corporate management is nothing new. The economic hardships McClatchy faces are hitting across the industry as daily newspapers face competition from online news sources. McClatchy has intensified its focus on the Web. In January, its flagship paper, The Sacramento Bee, launched Capitol Alert, an online news service focusing on California state politics available for a $499 annual subscription. The paper—which closed its Los Angeles and San Francisco bureaus to cut costs—recently began sending the staff a daily e-mail letting them know how many Web hits their stories have gotten, and staffers there say it's started to affect news decisions on the front page. The company also has stakes in online service sites Career Builder and Cars.com.

As The N&O reassigned veteran columnists and editors to reporting jobs, there was fear that the changes were a pre-emptive strike against financial pressure from Sacramento. Were people being demoted to save money? Sill says the paper has seen "no financial savings" from any of the reassignments, and no directives have come from Sacramento about how to proceed. "Everything we did here at The N&O was generated here at The N&O. But certainly they want us to be moving into the future. Any company does."

Here's how readers found out about the changes:

On Jan. 14, Sill wrote a column giving an extensive explanation of changes to the TV tab, "Channels"—stories, highlights and puzzles would be dropped to cut costs. Midway through the column, she broke some other news. "At the same time, we'll reduce the number of news pages by a modest amount throughout the rest of The N&O."

The reasons for the page cuts, Sill explained, had to do with declining revenues and other changes affecting the entire newspaper industry, including McClatchy (changes which also have affected the Independent). "Cost cuts are part of the response, and newspapers' main expenses are newsprint and people," Sill wrote. The second reason, she added, is that "The N&O is no longer a print-only medium," so even as physical pages decline, she promised more news and features at the paper's two Web sites, newsobserver.com and triangle.com.

What would this mean for coverage? Sill promised more breaking news online, more multimedia storytelling, more blogs and forums, adding that the coverage would be guided by the "same core values." But beyond that, she didn't offer a lot of specifics about just what changes were in store—or which pages would be cut.

And left hanging in the air was the ominous juxtaposition of "cuts" and "people." In an era of massive newsroom layoffs, this was enough to raise alarm. In the newsroom, uncertainty gave way to full-blown anxiety as changes in assignments were made.

Dennis Rogers, a longtime metro columnist, was the first to announce his change in assignment in his Jan. 24 farewell—of sorts. He announced that his 30-year stint as a columnist was over, and that his new assignment was to cover the state's military bases and the impact of the war in Eastern North Carolina, which he had done at the beginning of his career. "Things will be different the next time I show up in the paper," he wrote. "My next offering may be a familiar-looking column like this one. Or it may be tucked into another part of the paper. Every now and then, I hope it will be splashed on the front page," he added. While Rogers conveyed enthusiasm for his return to the old beat, he also conveyed between the lines, intentionally or not, an uncertainty about just what his editors' plans were.

On Feb. 4, Sill wrote again to announce "Newsroom changes for a new era": a new emphasis on the Web for breaking news and in-depth content, and a newsroom reorganization. "Our new newsroom redefines some jobs, invents others and reshuffles some teams to spark new kinds of storytelling," Sill wrote, announcing a new team of editors and reporters who would report online throughout the day. "Some of our most experienced journalists will move into new roles," she wrote. "We're also realigning our staff to recognize Wake County's explosion in population, moving a few positions from management to reporting and content production...."

The trouble was, even though change in general had been announced to the staff, some in the newsroom didn't yet know what their new assignments would be.

It wasn't until Feb. 9 that Metro Editor Van Denton e-mailed a memo to the news staff detailing the long list of new assignments. The changes included:

  • The announcement of a new state politics blog, Under the Dome, with Wake County reporter Ryan Beckwith assigned to be its full-time writer and producer. This will be part of a larger Capitol team comprised of two editors and nine reporters, including Beckwith, to cover legislative and statewide issues.

  • The expansion of the Wake County news desk, with two editors and nine reporters, along with a Wake and Johnston county growth team of one editor and five reporters, including Bruce Siceloff's transportation coverage.

  • A "SWAT team" for breaking news, made up of Editor Richard Stradling and six reporters, including one swing-shift general assignment reporter.

  • A continuous news desk headed by former Q Editor Jane Ruffin with a team of two reporters working on a two-month rotation.

  • A new demographics reporter to cover changing trends in population and ethnicity.

  • The Durham bureau lost two positions, including the editor of the weekly Durham News, Charles Jeffries, who moved to newsobserver.com. Former Sunday Editor Rob Waters became the sole editor in Durham, and there are six reporters putting out both the daily paper and The Durham News.

  • The Orange County bureau, which also produces the weekly Chapel Hill News, lost one reporter; it now has two editors and six reporters.

The newsroom has shrunk since its high point around 2000 due to attrition, Sill says. A side effect was that "our reporter-to-editor ratio had gotten a bit out of whack," she says. "We really wanted to get more firepower back into reporting and writing and front-line work, so in the whole reorganization we reduced the number of management jobs probably by about five and shifted that emphasis back into front-line work."

As for the staff reduction in the Durham and Orange bureaus, Sill says it came from the need to spread finite resources across shifting geography. She says the population of Wake County has grown by about 150,000 since 2000—approximately the population of Orange County. So it was necessary to assign more staff to cover Wake. The N&O had invested big bucks to launch the nearly 70,000-circulation The Durham News shortly after the sale of Durham's hometown newspaper The Herald-Sun, to the Paxton chain in January 2005. "Durham's not any less important to us than it was," Sill says.

Denton's memo did not address changes beyond the news department, but there were more in store. The features department was also undergoing reorganization, with new assignments and change contemplated for the three Sunday features sections to be consolidated into one or two. Food Editor Susan Houston was transferred to a features writing position in the Orange County office, and there were rumors that the paper's food coverage would change, but it was unclear how. None of this was communicated to readers, not specifically. The newsroom grapevine still buzzed with uncertainty.

Sports columnist Ned Barnett wrote his farewell column on Feb. 11, announcing his new role as editor of the Sunday newspaper, replacing Rob Waters. "I welcome the change," he wrote.

But another columnist was not so happy. On Feb. 13, G.D. Gearino announced the end of his column in the Life section with a bit of joking antagonism toward his editors, confirming staff tales of an episode in which he reacted angrily to his new assignment, writing profiles. "I'm tempted to explain this turn of events by vaguely stating that I've decided to return custody of this space to The News & Observer's overlords, that I'm looking for a new adventure in my life, that it's time for me to make way for a new generation of columnists, blah blah blah," Gearino wrote. "Fact is, I had to be dragged away from this column. Threw a tantrum and generally behaved like a spoiled child, I did. But it was to no avail. A sweeping reorganization of the news staff is under way, and I've been assigned to a new gig."

Again, in spite of two announcements from Sill that changes were in the works, the specific changes showed up in the pages of The N&O in a startling way. Sill hadn't mentioned these columns were on the block.

On March 4, Public Editor Ted Vaden wrote a column of his own, "The matter of the missing columns," to clarify the situation. But Vaden merely repeated the news those columnists had delivered themselves. He shared a reader's question—was this a sign of "the gradual extinction of the columnist in the N&O?" Vaden reiterated that all three former columnists would continue to write for the paper, and he assured readers that Ruth Sheehan, Barry Saunders and Rick Martinez would remain as is. He also quoted Sill saying that the changes were not made to save money.

But Vaden also dropped a new bomb: Books Editor and literary columnist Peder Zane would become an "ideas columnist," ruminating on larger cultural trends. "Sounds like an intriguing idea," Vaden wrote, "but I anticipate protests from our book-loving readers."

Ask and ye shall receive. Calls poured in from local authors and literature fans concerned that the paper would follow the trend among dailies and abandon its coverage of local books in favor of wire copy reviews in a section whose editor in 1989, Michael Skube, won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

In hindsight, Features Editor Thad Ogburn says it would have been better for the announcement to come in his section of the paper, along with a more detailed explanation of the plans for books coverage. "I think by it just being a small item at the end of Ted's column, it kind of took on a life of its own. People were reading into it because we did not explain." He says that once Zane moves into his role as columnist, there will no longer be a books editor, but the section will be coordinated by Copy Editor Marcy Smith, who has worked with Zane for years. Ogburn says there is no plan to reduce books coverage—in fact, he says, there are hopes of adding more.

As for the rest of the features department: Food will be edited by former What's Up editor Amber Nimocks when she returns from maternity leave; arts writer Ellen Sung has left the paper to attend business school and will not be replaced; and longtime dance and theater staff writer Orla Swift will join Craig Jarvis as an arts and entertainment writer. Former Life, Etc. section editor Adrienne Johnson Martin becomes editor of What's Up and a grouping of coverage called Pop Culture (including music and film), and Arts Editor Suzanne Brown will become the Sunday features editor. The biggest change to come is the fate of the Sunday features sections themselves. The lineup of Sunday Journal, Arts & Entertainment and Travel is up for consideration—instead of three eight-page sections, Ogburn says, there might be two or even one larger section. But he says there are no plans to cut back on arts coverage or on successful features such as the Sunday Dinner and A.C. Snow columns. "We really want to keep the best of what we're known for," he says.

One week after Vaden's column, on March 11, Sill was back to defend the changes in a column titled "Our new ideas don't eclipse old." She reported having spent the week reassuring readers that books coverage and (remaining) columnists weren't going anywhere. "These concerns surfaced as readers heard about some staff moves and picked up rumors, some unfounded, about changes that might result from The N&O's steady push into new endeavors." The changes in coverage, she insisted, were not "a zero-sum game." There was one more vague portent of change before a long list of recent stories that Sill said pointed to a "commitment to journalistic excellence": The Sunday features sections would "evolve" in the year ahead.

Perhaps readers can be forgiven for worrying and listening to rumors given that the newspaper itself has made its announcements in such a piecemeal fashion.

Meanwhile, in the newsroom, a fear persisted that perhaps this slow drip of new improvements was a sign that, for all the rhetoric, management didn't really have a master plan.

Sill says the plan has been months in the making. There has been a push toward "innovation and integration" of the newsroom across print and Web, and the master plan is to emphasize "news, information and participation." The latter two indicate strategies for using the Web, not just for news but as a resource for readers.

"We want to be adaptable," she says. "I think newspapers got into trouble by losing the ability to adapt. There was a long, fairly comfortable period of time for the newspaper industry where they were pretty profitable, they were growing, and there wasn't a lot of urgency about change."

She says she understands why staffers have been concerned. "Change is hard, and especially in these times when the whole business feels under siege." As positions shifted, the musical chairs left some folks temporarily uncertain of their placement, but all of the assignments have now been made, she says. "There are some people who are quite happy, and there are some people who are unhappy. And there are some people who are just worried and waiting to see if it's going to add up to more."

Last Sunday, Vaden addressed readers' nitpicks with the paper's primary Web site, newsobserver.com, in a column headlined "New media bring new problems." Most complaints, he said, focused on registration, architecture and site features (such as a "print view" crowded with ads). Vaden mostly explained the reasons for these irritations, promising that "the paper will keep trying to make improvements."

But a more cryptic item in Sunday's print edition points to complaints over the paper's other Web site, share.triangle.com, an ambitious new public forum site that Sill says she hopes will help The N&O provide opportunities for citizen journalism.

A short item in the Q section excerpted a recent blog post by from Deputy Managing Editor Dan Barkin about a recent conversation he'd had with someone called Foghorn Leghorn, "a smart man and an entertaining fellow, and a guy who could write a book about online forums." Barkin writes that he "pleaded" with Foghorn to share his knowledge by writing a how-to for Triangle Share users.

A more detailed version of the exchange, along with its back story, can be pieced together from Barkin's blog and in the "hate it" forum of Triangle Share.

Foghorn Leghorn is the online handle of Bill Bryan, a florist from North Raleigh who was among the more active participants in the old N&O online forum. When The N&O rolled out Triangle Share on Jan. 20, it bulldozed the old forum—several years' worth of postings were permanently deleted with the installation of the new software. Since then, Bryan says, there has been a mass exodus, and he's been playing Moses.

He posted the next day, directing users to a different forum. A thread of angry user complaints with the new N&O software followed—the server is slower; it takes much longer to post; profanity is automatically censored; the "rich text" formatting makes it harder to use HTML. By March 2, Bryan and others had begun migrating to the new Triangle Free Forum (forum.trianglefreeforum.com), which he says was created specifically for N&O refugees.

Bryan estimates that about 50 of the 75 active users on the old forum have migrated to TFF. "We are a very rowdy crowd," he says. "It's just been real interesting how we've managed to stay together as a group. When it comes to politics, we're at each other's throats."

Sill replied to another of Bryan's posts at Triangle Share (headlined "Foggy here, still diggin' for survivors in the wreckage of the Fischer-Price© forums.") She was polite and solicitous, and she apologized for not providing advance notice that the forum would switch. (There was some notice, Bryan says. "They warned us on a Thursday and said they were probably going to do it Sunday," he says. "They ended up doing it on Friday afternoon. I was going to spend Saturday printing things out and saving people's e-mail addressees.") Sill thanked users for the specific feedback that would help them improve the site. "We decided to launch and build rather than build and launch. You can stamp a big 'beta' on this."

Bryan says he was surprised to hear directly from the executive editor of the newspaper, and even more surprised when Barkin offered to take him out to dinner. Bryan posted at TFF afterward, reporting, "I gave him the news that their software isn't really workable for a forum, and we aren't coming back." Bryan later took the time, however, to post specific tips at Triangle Share, both for users and administrators, which Barkin pointed readers to in his blog.

Even if the site gains new users, as it most likely will, the culture of The N&O forum has changed. The most popular topic on the old forum, Bryan says, was politics. The most recent post in the politics section of Triangle Share was four weeks ago.

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