The Herald-Sun cuts a third of its newsroom

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Editor's Note: This story has been updated since it was first published to correct the spelling of Kentuckians and replace the word "readership" with "circulation" in reference to figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

In the coming weeks, the snappy headlines in The Herald-Sun newspaper about Durham’s city council race, the UNC football scandal and the shoplifting incident at the local Food Lion will be brought to you by a team of Kentuckians. According to sources at The Herald-Sun, seven jobs in the company’s newsroom were cut July 28, leaving fewer than 20 people in the editorial department.

The Herald-Sun managers told employees that production duties—page design and copy editing—will be shuffled to the staff of the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, also owned by The Herald-Sun’s parent company, Paxton Media Group. Six of the employees have until the middle of August to leave, sources said, and one employee has been reassigned. The workers are eligible for severance.

The Herald-Sun Publisher Rick Bean didn’t return phone messages seeking comment; nor did executives at Paxton, a privately held company based in Paducah, Ky.

As newspapers have struggled to keep readers and compensate for advertising dollars lost to the Internet, The Herald-Sun’s circulation has been halved. Around the time of the Paxton purchase, the daily newspaper averaged a circulation of about 50,000. According to the most recent figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the paper recently reported a circulation of about 24,000 from October 2010 to March 2011.

Every department has faced cuts, and the recent climate at the paper could only be described as “ghastly,” said one employee. All employees for The Herald-Sun interviewed for this story withheld their names for fear of retribution.

“It’s a blow to the community,” said one staffer who was laid off. “The copy editors safeguard the information going out. Having some group of people two states over designing your newspaper seems twisted to me.”

Former editor of <em>The Herald-Sun</em> Bob Ashley took over in 2005 when Paxton Media Group purchased the Durham paper.
  • file photo by D.L. Anderson
  • Former editor of The Herald-Sun Bob Ashley took over in 2005 when Paxton Media Group purchased the Durham paper.

Gone will be the Durham-centric editors who already know City Councilman Mike Woodard’s last name has only one “w,” and that Chapel Hill Street and Chapel Hill Road are not the same.

At least one The Herald-Sun alum seems somewhat optimistic. “It’s just one of those things that’s a reality of modern print journalism,” said Bob Ashley, the paper’s former editor who retired in January after six years. “It helps save money at a place where I think money can be prudently saved. I have a great deal of confidence that The Herald-Sun will … continue to be a source of commentary and communication, and help cement the community fabric.”

The strategy is on-trend with large media companies, notes Andy Bechtel, a journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who has closely followed layoffs and consolidations. Text from reporters at the Winston-Salem Journal, owned by Media General, now gets shipped to a production center in Richmond, Va., or Tampa, Fla., to be edited and spilled onto newspaper pages. Writers at the Hartford Courant will soon zip their copy from Connecticut to Chicago to be designed by staffers at The Chicago Tribune. And here in North Carolina, The News & Observer is shipping stories to a production center at The Charlotte Observer. Both The N&O and The Observer are owned by The McClatchy Company. (Read more about the trend in a piece from today's Chicago Tribune)

“I understand the economic realities of what these companies are dealing with, but at the same time, will readers be well served when the people who are writing the headlines are hundreds of miles away?” says Bechtel, who worked as an editor at The N&O from 1995 to 2005. Editors who don’t live in the community don’t know the politics, the history and other local nuances.

“It would be a real challenge,” he says, “for someone in Charlotte to edit a story about the Wake County school board.”

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