Bad news: Readers of The News & Observer's print edition have probably noticed there's a lot less of it lately.
Worse news: More cuts are coming.
In an interview, N&O Executive Editor John Drescher confirmed the company is considering laying off more employees and discontinuing its weekly tabloid entertainment section, What's Up.
"We are looking at ways to cut costs, and we're looking at everything," Drescher said. "It's my position that this staff has been cut enough—more than enough."
But revenues are down, Drescher said. And things aren't looking good for the newspaper's parent company, Sacramento-based McClatchy. In June, the company cut approximately 1,400 jobs at its 30 daily newspapers nationwide, including 70 at The N&O.
Drescher said content in What's Up could be folded into the Friday features section. "It's not like we wouldn't have entertainment content in the Friday paper," he said, "but under that proposal it would not be in a tab form."
It's unclear what that would mean for readers or for the venues and events the section frequently covers.
"I don't see much of a difference in our business," said John Munson, manager and co-owner of the Rialto cinema in Raleigh. "I do see kind of a difference in attitude, I guess. Maybe it's just my attitude, but an entertainment pullout gives it more of a big-city vibe as opposed to just a little paper." He said he'd heard rumors that What's Up might cease being published, but "nobody's officially told me squat."
Munson advertises daily in The N&O and weekly in What's Up and said the paper will remain his primary advertising outlet regardless. "I know a lot of people use that weekly section, because when they're talking to me about the movies, they always say, 'I saw it in What's Up.'"
Munson also advertises in the Indy.
The bigger question is whether the paper will continue to carry locally written reviews. That matters, Munson said, especially for independent and foreign films that don't have advertise heavily. "This French film we're playing at the Colony right now called Tell No One got a stellar review, and the business reflected that," Munson said.
There have been more Charlotte Observer bylines in The N&O, and Drescher said the trend will continue. Both papers are owned by McClatchy and began to share more content, particularly in sports and state political coverage, following the June layoffs.
Coordinating coverage, Drescher said, prevents overlap and gives readers "the best of both." He pointed to the papers' dispatches from the Olympics. Raleigh readers had access to Observer columnist Scott Fowler's reports, while folks in Charlotte could read Lucy Chavez's reports on the U.S. basketball team.
"Sports is kind of the brave new world where we've taken this idea the farthest," Drescher said, "and I do think there are possibilities to take it farther in features and business."
But he dispelled rumors that the two papers might produce identical sports and features sections. "I mean, there's a reason you have local newspapers; it's to provide local content."
What does this mean for cultural coverage of television shows, pop music and movies—the kind of coverage we see in What's Up? After all, The Observer has its own culture writers.
"I want our coverage to be local in this area," Drescher said. "You have to think more and more about what you do that's unique and distinctive and exploit that. If you're writing the same story that everybody else in the country is writing, I'm not sure that makes sense for a regional newspaper."
Meanwhile, newsroom staffers continue to report low morale.
"There is an increased sense of a worry about the future and a sadness about watching our paper change," one staffer said.
Many are applying for jobs elsewhere. Metro reporter Tim Simmons recently left for a communications position with Wake Education Partnership, and reporter Marlon Walker joined the Associated Press.
Drescher praised the staff's ability to weather the ongoing difficulties. "I never dreamed this year would be as difficult financially as it has been, and I never dreamed that we would be cut as much as we've been cut. Nobody likes any of that. But everyone has stayed focused on the journalism. We're still breaking a lot of stories and doing a lot of good work under very difficult conditions with a lot of distractions. It's a great group of professionals and when push comes to shove, they always do good work. I'm really proud of that."
He also expressed frustration at the ongoing financial trends.
"Our readership survey for the last year showed our print readership up more than 6 percent, which is faster than the growth of population of a very fast-growing area, and our online readership was up more than twice that much," Drescher said.
"There is this popular belief that people aren't reading newspapers anymore, and it's not true. Unfortunately, advertisers are leaving us. What I don't understand is, Why are advertisers leaving us when the readers are coming to us?"
The N&O isn't the only local outlet facing hardship. The Herald-Sun laid off several staffers in Durham and Chapel Hill last month.
It's been a rough summer for newspapers. "You're telling me," Drescher said.
- "The N&O lays off publishers at community papers," June 26, 2008
- "The N&O cuts 70 jobs, consolidates coverage with Charlotte Observer," June 18, 2008