Black folks in Durham, particularly black elected officials, are getting the sense that the new management of The Herald-Sun is making a concerted effort to improve its relationship with the black community. Editor Bob Ashley has been seen at numerous events and meetings. "I think I'm the only editor of The Herald-Sun that ever sat through the entire annual meeting of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People," Ashley says.
His efforts seem to be paying off. People are taking notice. "In my 40 years, I have never seen an editor from The Herald-Sun or The News & Observer come to as many events as him," says city council member Howard Clement. "I appreciate it. It gives him a slant his predecessors couldn't get."
Ashley's presence is an outgrowth of The Herald-Sun's new focus on community news. "If you look at the paper now, you see community-type news on the front of the page--sometimes at the top of the fold, sometimes at the bottom, but it's not buried in the back sections of the paper," says Mayor Bill Bell. "It seems to focus more on the positive instead of the negative way of doing things."
Ashley explains: "As we have ramped up local coverage, we have just by the nature of that increased the coverage of the African-American community. And I think we've set out to make sure that we really pay attention, not just to things that are going wrong."
The paper's coverage under the old ownership was not well regarded among more than a few black public officials in Durham. Joe Bowser, a former Durham county commissioner who is suing the paper for defamation, says, "I don't think an organization could have been more biased towards the African-American community, and I don't think an organization could have done more damage to the Durham community than that paper did." Clement described the culture of the paper as set on pushing blacks down. In some instances, the poor coverage severed relationships. "I just said that I didn't have to pay anybody to read about what they were saying in a negative sense," Bell says. "I stopped my subscription."
Ashley is aware of the relationships with the black community that he has inherited. "I do think there's probably a long history of the ownership of the paper--and certainly through the '60s and '70s--reflecting rather poorly on the African-American community," he says.
If poor coverage of the black community is a byproduct of the relative lack of African Americans in the newsroom, the The Herald-Sun has a long way to go. Of the nearly 70 people in the newsroom, six are black. And according to a Knight Foundation study, Paxton ranks 25th out of 26 large newspaper groups on newsroom diversity.
But after a year under Ashley's management, The Herald-Sun has still won the approval of many African Americans who felt alienated under the old leadership.