It's hard to imagine a worse way for a company that wants to be accepted as a vital community institution to come to town. Paxton Media Group LLC signed the papers taking control of the Durham Herald-Sun around 10 a.m. Monday morning, and by 10:30 they were calling in its top executives--people who had been leaders in the community for decades--and unceremoniously escorting them to the parking lot.
By Tuesday, more than 40 people had been laid off, and the new owners said as many more heads would roll. They plan to lay off one out of every five employees in the newsroom--17 out of 87 in a department that has already suffered cuts.
What's the message here?
Well, just read The Herald-Sun's own account of the takeover. In the fourth paragraph of Tuesday's story, the new editor, Bob Ashley, is paraphrased telling the staff that the "changes are vital to making The Herald-Sun profitable again (emphasis added)." He is then quoted directly as saying: "This is a newspaper that, frankly, in recent years has seen its expenses exceed its revenues."
That's a claim that rings hollow. A source inside the paper told our Fiona Morgan that while the paper has had some money-losing months, it's "not fair to say that over an extended period of time." Nor does it account for the "huge dividends paid to the Rollins family," another source said. More likely, the newspaper's profit margin over the last few years hasn't been as high as Paxton would like--and what Paxton likes is extremely high returns. We'd like to clear this up, but Ashley didn't return our phone calls.
It sounds like the editor is saying that money is more important than journalism. Why doesn't the editor (the editor--not the publisher, not the owner, not the business manager) say anywhere in the Herald-Sun's main story that he wants to do the best community journalism in the nation or, better yet, do some of the best journalism, period? Isn't that more important to him than the economic decisions driving the new owners? Isn't that the most important message to send to the people of Durham?
In all honesty, The Herald-Sun is sometimes as reviled in Durham as it is beloved. It's done some dumb things. So have we all. But it was often more than just the best place to find out when the city would be giving away free mulch. Just last week, the Washington Post was citing it for breaking a story about college Republicans using front organizations to raise millions, in part by taking advantage of senior citizens.
Judging by the new owners' first couple of days in town, that kind of hard-hitting journalism--rare in a daily newspaper of just 50,000-circulation--may become rarer still.