Staff cuts at The Herald-Sun last week are further evidence of what any reader can see: Paxton Media Group is running Durham’s hometown daily newspaper into the ground.

Layoffs and other staff changes that began last Tuesday may be responses to tough economic times, while newsroom reassignments will slightly increase the number of reporters. But none of those changes addresses the drastic decline in circulation and reporting resourcesnot to mention qualitythat has marked Paxton’s ownership of the paper.

On Tuesday, July 29, The Herald-Sun laid off or offered early retirement to approximately 10 staffers, including eight in the newsroom, according to sources close to the paper.

In a column published Wednesday, July 30 [registration required], Editor Bob Ashley confirmed that the paper had “lost a few positions,” including some in the newsroom, as part of an effort “to cut costs fairly sharply” in response to declining ad revenues.

“Such moves are always painful,” Ashley wrote, “but we had to recognize the financial realities in front of us.” He said “fewer than 10” jobs were cut company-wide, adding that management “took great care to preserve our ability to put reporters on the street to report and write local news.” Some staffers were “redeployed” to fill vacant reporting positions, he wrote, “boosting us to our greatest reporting strength in many months.”

But sources inside the newsroom say the net gain will be only one reporter, thanks to the loss by attrition of many others in recent and coming months. “It sounds like there are a lot more reporters,” said a newsroom source, “but there really aren’t.”

“Half the desks are empty now, and there are dead computers and phones all over the place,” said a recently departed staffer. “Every day there is like going to a funeral, and I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

Those left in the newsroom are told to do more with less. They describe plummeting morale and an editor completely out of touch.

“Bob Ashley has no idea what’s going on in the newsroom,” said one newsroom staffer. While reporters struggle to write nine to 10 stories per week, sources say, Ashley frequently leaves the office for three-hour lunches, even on busy news days.

The Herald-Sun‘s circulation has declined by 38 percent and its staff by more than half since the Paducah, Ky.-based Paxton Media Group bought the newspaper. Paxton, a private company, owns 32 newspapers, including seven in North Carolina, and one television station. But as chains go, it’s a small-time operation. Most of its papers are in small Southeastern and Midwestern towns where there is no competing publication. The Herald-Sun continues to be its biggest newspaper.

But that paper is shrinking in every conceivable way.

Since Paxton’s takeover, the paper shuttered its Hillsborough office, where Chapel Hill Herald reporters used to cover Orange County government. Ashley waved off rumors last May that the paper would cease publishing the Orange County zoned edition (see “Herald-Sun owners weighing fate of The Chapel Hill Herald,” May 2, 2007). So far, The Herald abides.

As part of last week’s cutbacks, photographer Kevin Seifert was laid off, leaving only three staff photographers to shoot for both The Herald-Sun and The Chapel Hill Herald.

Veteran copy editors Joel Haswell and Carl Boswell were offered early retirement packages, according to sources in the newsroom, as was longtime copy editor Keith Upchurch, who opted instead to join the metro reporting staff. Copy editor Lisa Young will fill The Chapel Hill Herald spot occupied by departing reporter Ginny Hoyle, and associate editorial page editor Greg Childress will also become a reporter. Matt Goad will report part-time while maintaining part-time duties as weekend editor, sources at the paper say.

Database librarian Mary Clements and obituary clerk Amanda Jordan-Farmer were also let go. Sources also say the paper lost at least one advertising designer and one employee in the finance department.

If you count not just the layoffs, but scheduled retirement and other attrition, the newsroom looks even smaller. Court reporter John Stevenson will retire this fall, and a newly hired education reporter quit abruptly this spring.

Management at the newspaper would not confirm any information about which staffers have left or will be reassigned. “I’m not going to be answering any questions,” said publisher Rick Bean. Ashley did not return calls seeking comment.

Tuesday’s layoffs were not a great surprise, given the rash of newsroom firings in recent months, including at The Herald-Sun‘s competitor, The News & Observer in Raleigh (see “The N&O cuts 70 jobs,” June 18, 2008). Both papers are owned by corporate chains. Sacramento-based McClatchy, which owns The N&O, has laid off hundreds of employees at its 30 dailies nationwide.

But of the two chain-owned local dailies, The Herald-Sun‘s management is acting in a way that makes readers fear for its survival. While it’s true that the daily newspaper business appears to be sinking these days, it doesn’t help to shoot holes in the bottom of the boat.

One year after Paxton came to town, the Indy carefully studied how the paper had changed: Had it delivered on a promise of “more local news,” as its billboards claimed? We spoke with more than a dozen sources, including Ashley himself, who graciously granted a sit-down interview. (See “Inside The Herald-Sun,” Jan. 18, 2006.) We calculated the percentage of stories in the paper that were local and staff-written, the number of local stories in general and the number of sources per story, among other things, as indicators of quality. (See “How has the paper changed?” Jan. 18, 2006.)

We discovered that, while editors placed more local stories on the front page, there were fewer local news stories overall. And those stories were shorter, quoted fewer sources and were more likely to be coverage of events or meetings. Enterprise reporting, not so much.

While we have yet to make another careful study of that data since, reading the paper and listening to newsroom staffers indicates that trend has continued.

The Herald-Sun seems to be going in the direction of becoming a shopper,” said a newsroom source. In other words, management regards the newspaper’s output as a vehicle for ads.

That attitude confounded the efforts of reporters, who continue to work aggressively to scoop local news competitors. But there’s little support from management to do more than the bare minimum. Reporters are expected to write about two stories per day.

“It’s very frustrating here,” said another newsroom source. “There’s not much push for quality. You just have to get it out.”

Meanwhile, the number of reporters has dwindled considerably. On the day Paxton took over in January 2005, management fired 17 of its 87 newsroom staffers. As of last Monday there were fewer than 50. As of this fall, sources said the newsroom head count will be 41.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy that once you start cutting staff, you’re not going to have time for investigative reporting,” a source said.

Then there’s the Web site. Shortly after the corporate takeover, management scrapped a custom-designed site and replaced it with a design shared by other Paxton papers, a clunky, unnavigable interface that buries the newsa pop-up ad slowly pushes the day’s top story below the fold as you look at the home page. What’s worse, at a time when even The New York Times decided to forgo paid registration to access its archives, trading relevance and audience for the scant subscriber revenue that came from walling off their site, The Herald-Sun‘s management decided to require readers to register in order to view the current day’s stories.

In this day and age, lack of attention to the Web means getting scooped. For instance, on the day Eve Carson’s body was found on a Chapel Hill cul-de-sac, Herald-Sun reporters, photographers and editors were on top of the story. But readers seeking information couldn’t find a single mention of it on the paper’s Web site until late in the evening. Days later, a breaking news spot was added to the site, and a few web updates have been posted on the Carson story, but only a few. The N&O, which has put increasing emphasis on its Web site, owns the Carson story.

Another indication of fewer newsroom resources can be seen in the case of the mock press conference. In April, The Herald-Sun ran a story on a study of oncologists’ ability to empathize with cancer patients and the impact of that relationship on cancer outcomes. The study is real, as are quotes from a Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center spokesperson, but both were presented to the freelance reporter at a mock press conference during a journalism class at UNC. The student journalist gets points for initiative in pitching the story; editors get demerits for not exercising quality control.

The 634-word dispatch includes six corrections, several of which reveal fundamental mischaracterizations of the study’s origins and findings. But editors never ‘fessed up to readers about where the story came from. The only reference to the story’s peculiar origin is buried in the language of one of those corrections: “The assertion … was not made by the study or during the class exercise.”

Rick Bean became publisher of The Herald-Sun in June of this year, its third publisher in three and a half years since Paxton took over.

Staffers say they’re cautiously optimistic about Bean’s leadershipthe decision to swap editors for reporters does address some of the paper’s critical needs. Before last week’s changes, editors outnumbered reporters almost 3 to 2.

Bean has a long history with Paxton. He had been publisher of The High Point Enterprise, for three and a half years; before that, he spent 10 years at The Daily Dispatch of Henderson.

Under Bean’s leadership, 20 people were laid off at The Enterprise in October 2004. The firings came less than six months after the death of that paper’s previous president and publisher, Randall B. Terry Jr., who had defiantly held on to his 50 percent stake in the paper even after his partners sold their half to Paxton. Terry accused Paxton of trying to cut local content. As Terry was dying of cancer, Paxton sued him, claiming he mismanaged the paper’s finances.

In a February story announcing his arrival, Bean and former publisher Geoff Moser said “new reports” showed the paper’s circulation had “climbed to 38,000.” But if those reports happen to be Audit Bureau of Circulation reports, the gentlemen seem to have read them wrong: As of March 2008, daily circulation was 32,845 and Sunday circulation was 32,711.

Here’s another tidbit about Bean: Shortly after the Indy‘s one-year-later analysis of The Herald-Sun came out, I got a call from an anonymous staffer at The Enterprise who told me Bean had circulated a copy of the story to every employee with a note that said, “Everything in this is untrue.” (Neither Bean nor any representative of Paxton ever contacted the Indy with contradictory information or sought any correction on that story.) The staffer was too scared to send me a copy of the memo, fearing individual copies had been seeded with distinguishing minor differencesin other words, the staffer suspected Bean’s goal in sending the memo was to flush for leaks.

Here’s hoping that atmosphere doesn’t follow Bean to Durham.

One last note about leadership: While not unusual, it’s somewhat galling that neither the newspaper’s publisher nor its editor would answer questions about what is happening there. Herald-Sun employees daily call people who represent both public bodies and private companies, seeking comment and explanation. Yet its executives, perhaps under order from Paducah, won’t answer a reporter’s questions.

Let’s see if they’ll answer yours. Call Mr. Bean (419-6501) and Mr. Ashley (419-6678) and see if you can engage them in dialogue about what these changes mean for coverage of your hometown. If Mr. Ashley doesn’t pick up the phone, try catching up with him during his mid-day jog along Cornwallis Road.

Correction (Aug. 6, 2008): requires readers to register to view the day’s stories, but it does not require paid subscription.

An earlier version of this story was posted online July 30.