Thursday, September 25, 2008

News & Observer eliminates 53 positions, including 20 in newsroom

The Raleigh News & Observer announced it has eliminated 53 jobs, including 20 positions in the newsroom.

The News and Observer Publishing Co. cut 53 jobs in its most recent round of staff reductions as the company continues to contend with falling revenue.

Publisher Orage Quarles III, who also oversees community papers such as The Cary News and The Chapel Hill News, said Wednesday that most of the people affected will leave next week through a voluntary buyout program announced this month.

That effort did not generate all the cost savings needed, and some layoffs also were necessary, he said. As part of the voluntary and involuntary cuts, The N&O newsroom will lose 20 employees, said Executive Editor John Drescher.

Among those departing are several staffers and columnists who have become the faces of The N&O for many readers.

They include: Danny Hooley, whose TV column runs in Life, etc.; Grey Blackwell, an illustrator who pioneered online animations for with spoofs of politicians and local sports celebrities; Vicki Lee Parker, who writes the Savvy Consumer column for the Work & Money section; Kinea White Epps, an education columnist; and Marcy Smith, who edits the book pages and writes the Notions craft column for Home & Garden.

Separately, award-winning editorial cartoonist Dwane Powell, who is now working part time, plans to leave the newspaper after the elections in November. He's unsure of his plans, saying he might continuing drawing for the Creators Syndicate that distributes his work or retire completely.

Quarles said he hasn't yet decided whether to replace Powell but might try out some new cartoonists on the editorial page.

The job reductions are the third since May, as The N&O seeks to keep expenses in line with sinking ad sales. The newspaper also has trimmed the number of sections and pages it produces to save on newsprint, prompting readers and employees alike to question where the newspaper is headed.

"We are going to put out the very best newspaper in the state," Quarles said. "It's just not going to be as big. We're not lowering our expectations."

Drescher acknowledged that morale in the newsroom, which has lost more than 40 employees this year through buyouts, layoffs and attrition, has deteriorated. But he said those that remain are committed to quality.

"The staff has been punched in the gut," he said. "But I've been impressed by our resiliency and commitment to produce first-rate work. ... Our challenge will be to focus on what's most important."

Among the priorities, Drescher said, are political and ACC sports coverage and investigative work. To that end, he plans to fill the investigative reporting position being vacated by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Pat Stith, who is retiring.

The N&O's challenges have been prompted by several factors. Like many metro dailies, the newspaper is suffering amid the economic downturn that has sapped advertising revenue in key categories -- employment, real estate and automotive.

At the same time, a broader move by advertisers to the Web is eroding print advertising that has long sustained newspapers and the journalism they produce.

The N&O has made strides online and its audience there is expanding, but revenue is not growing fast enough to offset declines in print.

Further complicating matters is the health of The N&O's parent, The McClatchy Co. of Sacramento, Calif. Not only is it logging large revenue declines in other markets where it operates -- especially in Florida and California -- but it is saddled with debt.

The 53 number is significantly less than the "up to 70" range Quarles was talking about last week. Does that leave the door open for additional reductions?

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