Outside the window of Bob Ashley’s office are the piney woods that drew him back to North Carolina to take a job as editor of The Herald-Sun in Durham one year ago. From this part of The Herald-Sun building, just off U.S. 15-501, the view is peaceful, a wall of evergreen trees filtering the afternoon sunlight. To the left of his desk, however, the view is dreary: a newsroom that has seen its staff and its morale plummet since Ashley’s first day of work, when 80 of its 350 employees were fired, including beloved executive editor Bill Hawkins, whom Ashley was sent to replace. Some reporters have described the atmosphere as toxic, with new owners imposing a production-oriented management style while simultaneously freezing salaries and cutting bonuses. One year later, the resentment lingers like an odor that won’t come out of the carpet.

His wife and teenage son still back in Kentucky (she’s still looking for a job here), Ashley has spent a lot of time in this office over the past year, often staying late and coming in on weekends. He has immersed himself in the job. He also attends scores of community events–government meetings, fund-raisers, basketball games and awards ceremonies–determined to show he and his newspaper are committed to Durham and Chapel Hill. He writes about these events in his weekly column, offering an upbeat, gee-isn’t-Durham-great perspective in each one. In town, Ashley’s persistent presence has begun to win over members of the community. But the newsroom itself remains unfriendly territory.

“It’s been a difficult year for some folks here,” Ashley says. But he’s pleased with the changes in the paper, particularly the focus on local news. “A lot of people have been very affirming of what we’re trying to do. I think we’ve had a mixed bag internally. We’ve had more turnover than I wish we’d had.” About a dozen newsroom staffers quit this year. “A number of folks have decided that, either for their careers or maybe because they never could quite get over the memories of what things were like before Jan. 3, they needed to move on.”

No question, it’s been a difficult year for the paper overall. Numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulation released in November showed that The Herald-Sun‘s circulation plummeted in 2005. Weekday circulation fell 15 percent to 42,298; Sunday circulation fell 15.4 percent to 45,793; and Saturday fell a whopping 25.6 percent to 39,835. The Herald-Sun is by far the largest circulation newspaper in Paxton’s chain; its flagship paper, the Paducah Sun, is less than 30,000. Newspapers all around are having a tough time, but The Herald-Sun‘s drop is worse than the industry average.

Page counts don’t bode well either. Thanksgiving weekend is one of the biggest weekends for newspaper ad sales, generating the thickest newspapers. In past years, The Herald-Sun‘s page count has been between 80 and 96 pages, the maximum capacity of their presses. This past Thanksgiving, it was 56 pages.

Ousted editor Hawkins has been watching from South Carolina, where he has been executive editor of the Post and Courier, Charleston’s 100,000-circulation daily, since March. “I really did underestimate these folks,” he says. “They’ve got it down to Paducah quality and almost Paducah size in record time.”

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Even before the Rollins family sold it, The Herald-Sun was never a great paper. But even its critics admitted it was a scrappy paper with high ambitions about the kind of journalism it wanted to accomplish. It scooped its much larger and better-funded competitor, The News & Observer, on local stories having to do with municipal government corruption and crime. For instance, in 2004 reporter Ben Evans uncovered a delinquent city housing loan that had gone unpaid for more than eight years; he also discovered that a Republican fund-raising group was targeting senior citizens in North Carolina, a story that was picked up by the Wall Street Journal. It was a small-town paper with big-time goals.

“More local news” has become the catchphrase of the new Herald-Sun. Ashley expects at least three and as many as five local stories on the front page each day, with four local stories on each section front. That goal, along with the task of “restoring financial health” to the paper, has necessarily meant doing more with fewer reporters and fewer resources. Besides the staff reduction, the paper has cancelled its subscription to The New York Times news service and reduced use of syndicated photos. Many who survived the firings and stayed in the newsroom for the better part of last year say they were stretched thin, with poor communication and little oversight or guidance from the paper’s management. Reporters say that for Paxton, production was more important than content, quantity more important than quality, and painting a flattering picture of Durham took priority over hard-hitting exposés.

“One of our jobs is to shine a light on things that are going wrong in Durham,” Ashley says. “We need to write about the school board problems. We need to write about the too-high dropout and truancy rate. We need to write about the city commission decisions that seem to favor a sitting city commission member. We need to write about gangs and drugs. All those things are important. But what we need to do–and frankly we haven’t done nearly as much of it yet as we need to, but it’s where we’re headed–we need to help explore solutions as well as identify the problems. We need to be supportive and celebratory when there are successes in those areas. We need to, institutionally and personally, be a part of the community, listening to people, talking to people, to try to reflect what’s important. We need to, frankly, trumpet reasons when Durham and Chapel Hill have reason to be proud of themselves. There are a lot of things that Durham needs to celebrate, and it’s not very good at that.”

For readers, the result is something more akin to the small-town newspaper coverage of garden clubs, high school football and gala fund-raiser who’s-who. Some readers really like that kind of coverage; the boosterism has certainly helped mend fences with some who were put off by the mass firings. But how can a newspaper maintain its role as watchdog when it’s fired its most experienced reporters and devoted itself to community cheerleading?

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He’s not a bad guy, by all accounts. Of slight build with thinning white hair, a cheerful smile and an avuncular voice, Ashley works hard to make a good impression. Former newsroom staffers say they had either a neutral or a positive impression of him, though his ventures into the cubicles were infrequent.

Ashley admits this is true. “Looking back on the year, I’ve probably spent at least enough time with my management team and probably not enough time getting to know reporters and what they were working on, on a one-on-one basis,” he says. “A couple of them told me that on their way out of the door,” he says with a laugh. “I had a conversation with a very, very good reporter that I actually think I had a good rapport with, and she said, ‘You’ve just got to spend more time out there. People don’t see enough of you.’”

The need to improve public perception of The Herald-Sun‘s new management drove Ashley out of the office to win over readers. “We had to convince people that we really were a community newspaper with leadership that cared about the community.” There’s also a learning curve. He grew up in North Carolina and graduated from Duke in 1970 and worked for the Mount Airy Times and The Raleigh Times before spending 10 years at The Charlotte Observer. Much has changed since he left the Triangle.

Ashley has been the only public face of the paper’s new management since Paxton took over. He’s the only one to answer phone calls from outside media or to articulate Paxton’s policies to the staff, a role usually reserved for the publisher. It hasn’t been an easy job. At a party last month, he was introduced to a woman as one of the people who had joined The Herald-Sun with the new owners. “You know,” the woman said to him, “I don’t like you very much.”

But that type of thing rarely happens anymore, he says. “The anecdotal feedback we get–which is just about all we get–is positive.” He’s banking on the hope that his efforts to rebuild goodwill will translate into better circulation in 2006.

Ashley is relentlessly positive about the dramatic changes in the newspaper over the past year. Brought up from the Messenger-Inquirer in Owensboro, Ky., he believes his local news philosophy is why he was chosen to steer the largest ship in Paxton’s fleet. The Messenger-Inquirer has a circulation of 30,000, and like all of Paxton’s papers except The Herald-Sun, it is the town’s only newspaper. “Ironically, one of the concerns that was articulated, maybe by one of my friends at the [UNC] journalism school, was that we’d toss out all the local news and fill it up with wire copy because that was cheaper. In fact, what we’ve done is 180 degrees different.”

Paxton gives him and publisher Bob Childress complete local control over editorial decisions, Ashley says. “It’s one of the reasons I really like working for Paxton Media Group as an editor. Their policies are such that if this newspaper does a good job for this community, it’s because of me, and if it does a lousy job for this community, it’s because of me.” He worked for 17 years for Knight-Ridder, a chain known for heavy corporate involvement in the management of its papers, and says the difference is dramatic. The only conversation he says he’s had with Paxton executives was last January. “They said, ‘Local news is real important,’” Ashley recalls. “That’s the first, last and only discussion we’ve had about any content or any editorial decision or any news decision in this newspaper.”

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With local TV news showing pictures of distressed citizens throwing their newspapers back on the driveway of The Herald-Sun building, executives at The N&O saw an opening in the Durham market big enough to drive a delivery truck through. Adding another dimension to the rivalry is the fact that the McClatchy chain, which owns The News & Observer, bid on The Herald-Sun and lost to Paxton, which paid somewhere between $100 million and $125 million for the paper, more than analysts at the time said it was worth (the exact amount has never been disclosed).

The N&O hired Herald-Sun refugees Jim Wise, city historian, and Flo Johnston, a religion reporter, two of the paper’s first casualties, and has recently lured away Ferreri and business reporter Anne Krishnan. (The Raleigh paper is now in a hiring freeze. McClatchy has a no-layoffs policy.) It has been offering $40 per year subscriptions to readers in The Herald-Sun‘s circulation area (the regular price is $158), forgoing revenue in order to make a dent in the market. In March, with backing from its parent company, it launched The Durham News, a weekly supplement delivered free to nearly 70,000 homes every Saturday.

“We had been thinking for some time about starting a community newspaper in Durham,” says N&O managing editor John Drescher, “and then when the ownership changed, we saw an opportunity.” He says The Durham News has “filled a void in community news in Durham. It’s everything from breaking news to enterprise to more neighborhood-oriented stories. It’s worked well for us.”

Two managers from The N&O went on a reconnaissance mission to Owensboro in January to check out the competition. Paxton acquired the Messenger-Inquirer in 2001. “What we were looking for was a change in ownership situation,” Drescher says. “It was part of an effort to learn about their company and their style of operation. We did our research on them, and I’m sure they’ve done some research on us.”

The difference is, McClatchy is a much bigger chain than Paxton and has a lot more money to spend. Given their frequently stated concern that The Herald-Sun needs to tighten its belt–in part to cover the high price paid for the paper–it looks as if Paxton isn’t willing to spend any more money.

“Our internal joke is The Durham News with tire tracks on them at the end of the driveway,” says Ashley. “With all due respect to my colleagues–you included–in the business of free papers, it’s of less value to an advertiser. A lot of them never get picked up.”

Joking aside, The N&O‘s moves in Durham and Orange counties are of serious concern to The Herald-Sun. That steep Saturday circulation drop is especially painful because it indicates that The Durham News is a going concern. The N&O now has eight metro desk reporters covering news in Durham, compared to seven metro reporters at The Herald-Sun.

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In 2005, The Herald-Sun saw a dramatic reduction in national and international coverage, with regional coverage usually left to wire services. For instance, a visit by President Bush to Kernersville (70 miles west of Durham) was front-page news in the New York Times on Dec. 6, and was the top story in the N&O that day, with coverage by staff writer Rob Christensen. It was a below-the-fold AP story on The Herald-Sun‘s front page, alongside staff-written stories on land-use rules, truancy, Partners Against Crime groups and an increase in rainfall.

Paid columnists such as Carl Kenney (who is a contributor to the Independent) were replaced with Community Comment, a weekly feature written by a rotating group of six or seven unpaid contributors. By doing this, Ashley says, “we’ve increased substantially the number of local columns, local commentary on the editorial and op-ed page.” Contributor Leigh Scott, executive director of the Volunteer Center of Durham, says the column has been an effective way to get the word out about the needs of the nonprofits and public agencies her group serves.

Ashley attributes the circulation drop to several factors that seemed to reach their apex during the period the audit was taken. He and Childress made the decision to abandon aggressive telemarketing sales, which result in a high “churn rate” for subscriptions–people rarely renew when they didn’t want it in the first place. They also abandoned an arrangement that allowed sponsors to purchase copies of the paper with in-kind contributions (ads, usually) to then be distributed free of charge, a perfectly legit but slightly misleading way to boost circulation figures. They also stopped delivering papers to southern Virginia, which was more expensive than it was worth.

But Ashley admits that another reason for the circulation drop is the bad PR his bosses created on their first day in town. It seems that many of those who pledged to drop their subscription to The Herald-Sun in protest of Paxton’s bloodbath actually did. Yet another reason is the fierce competition that many say Paxton execs never counted on.

Hawkins says Ashley’s “in a tough position. He’s not in a position to call the shots. Ashley’s the luckiest man in the world in some ways, in that [managing editor] Bill Stagg, [assistant managing editor] Rocky Rosen and [assistant managing editor] Nancy Wykle are still there. They’re the only thing holding it together as a semblance of a real newspaper. They’re very good editors. If he loses them, he’s in big trouble.”

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One of those who defected was Mark Schultz, the former metro editor beloved by young staff for his mentorship and hands-on editing. “The shit didn’t hit the fan until after Mark left,” one reporter said. “He did such a good job of protecting us from all the stupid stuff.” Shortly after the takeover, the paper dropped Nuestro Pueblo, a bilingual supplement Schultz had edited since its inception in 1998. Schultz left to oversee The N&O‘s Orange County coverage and edit The Chapel Hill News.

He’s noticed changes in The Herald-Sun‘s coverage this year. “You see a lot of community stuff, you see quick hits. And there’s value to that, but it’s not the same kind of stuff we were doing even a few months ago. You don’t see enterprise reporting.”

Fewer reporters with less time to dig have to set their sights lower, Schultz says. “I don’t want to be all negative, because I think there are positives, too. But I think there are fewer people putting out the paper and it shows. People are working really hard. I feel for those guys.

“I think he’s a good guy,” Schultz says of Ashley. “I think he has a really hard job to do. I think he’s committed to local news. The trick is he’s trying to do it with many fewer resources than we had before.”

Ashley bristles at the suggestion that his paper is no longer as competitive with The N&O. “We’re deeply competitive with The N&O, but on our terms. In Durham and Orange counties, I think it’s hand-to-hand combat. I will tell you that we track every day what we’ve beaten them on and what they’ve beaten us on.” Managing editor Bill Stagg sends out a daily e-mail listing stories exclusive to each paper. On one particular day in December, The Herald-Sun‘s list of eight scoops included a story on school zones in Durham, a fatal wreck on I-85 and coverage of the Durham holiday parade. The N&O had a piece on the Early College program at NCCU moving to another campus building. “None of these are barnburner stories,” Ashley says.

Asked about any big scoops or enterprise stories over the past year, Ashley concedes there haven’t been many. He mentions explanatory reporting on the Durham bond initiative written by Ginny Skalski and coverage of the Durham school board strife reported by Mindy Hagen. He does not mention that both of these reporters have recently left to work for papers in South Carolina. The N&O, meanwhile, broke two major Durham stories this year: about the hydraulic fluid used to clean surgical instruments at Duke hospitals and the extensive criminal record of mayoral candidate Vincent Brown, which The Herald-Sun was completely silent on for several days.

Drescher, The N&O‘s managing editor, says Durham is still a competitive newspaper town. “They beat us on some stories and we beat them on some stories. If you’re a Durham newspaper reader, you really benefit by our being aggressive, and they’re aggressive, too.”

On a day-to-day basis, there’s little question that The Herald-Sun still offers more timely, in-depth coverage of the city’s goings-on. Sculptor Andrew Preiss grew up in Durham and has been reading the paper for most of his life. He’s always had his problems with it. “I did quit the paper a few years ago to try the [N&O] out, but I just wasn’t satisfied with the immediacy of the local political stuff.” When his wife wanted to cancel after the Paxton takeover, he compromised by signing up for The N&O as well.

“The bottom line of why I get the paper is that, despite the efforts of The N&O to cover Durham more specifically, a lot of the local political issues are covered more thoroughly and quickly in the Durham paper. I’m very interested in local politics and activities in the community. I read it in the morning, and I’m interested in what happened at the city council meeting last night, and that’s always covered. And the sports stuff, I think they cover Duke basketball more thoroughly.”

In other sections, such as national news and the weekly automotive section, he says he’s noticed an increase in syndicated stories. “It’s not that I think those are bad articles necessarily, but it seems to me that without a huge additional effort, if they had a bigger staff, they could do those things locally. I know a lot of people in Durham, so in many of the stories, I know people who are in the story. There’s a little bit less of that kind of connectedness when they use stuff from out of town.”

Management decisions have set the paper’s quality on a downhill slide, say many former newsroom staffers. Cost-cutting has turned out to be penny-wise and pound-foolish, and poor communication has made things worse, they say. “A lot of decisions they made are clearly along the lines of trying to squeeze more profit out of the paper as opposed to making it a better newspaper,” says J.P. Trostle, former illustrator and designer who left The Chapel Hill Herald office in November. “It used to be a scrappy paper. Now it’s just scrap.”

“You’ll find,” says Hawkins, “that Paxton has among the highest profit margins in the industry. They squeeze ’em, and as a result they have one of the highest returns of any chain out there, well over the likes of Gannett. Which means they’re not putting it back into the product. That’s going to make it tough for them in that market.”

The paper launched a “Faith & Family” section in March after firing its religion reporter in January. Feature writer Cynthia Greenlee found out she was to be the new religion reporter when someone congratulated her on her new assignment. An agnostic with no interest in covering religion, Greenlee says it was the last straw. She quit in November after failing to convince her editors to give her another assignment. The section is now mostly filled with wire copy.

Schultz’s departure in March left the paper without a metro editor for three months. During that time, reporters say there was little oversight, which resulted in errors and anxiety. Young reporters especially felt like they were working without a net. “Lots of times editors were in meetings all day long, and you couldn’t track down your editor to ask a simple question,” said a former reporter. “It just seemed like editors didn’t know what was going on on a day-to-day basis in terms of what reporters were doing. We were essentially relying on our own judgment about what to get into the paper and who to quote because Stagg didn’t really have time to vet stuff.”

It didn’t help that the new metro editor, Dan Way, made a bad first impression on an already demoralized staff. Way came from a paper owned by Gannett, which has very particular procedures for story planning. “Dan had very big shoes to fill,” says a former reporter who asked not to be identified. “He came in with this very hard-line approach and it rubbed people the wrong way. We also felt like he was trying to make a good impression on the top editors. It didn’t feel like he was supporting us, that he was on our side.” Stagg and assistant managing editor Rocky Rosen eventually took reporters aside for confidential chats about how to improve communication with Way, which did make things better, the reporters said.

But the need to feed the beast continued to lead to embarrassing situations. Mundane and even weak stories ran as A1 centerpiece spreads–a profile of a dodgeball league, for instance, was front page stuff–in order to make the local news requirements. One reporter confessed embarrassment at having written some stories with just one quoted source (journalism teachers will tell you to have at least three).

Then there was the front-page preview of the annual state high school football tournament with the lead sentence, “If you’re a high school football fan, it doesn’t get any better than today.” Make that tomorrow–the preview ran a day early. A correction followed on the front page the next day.

Ashley says the mistake was a problem of miscommunication. “The person involved in putting that story into the paper was not a sports fan and did not have any knowledge beyond what was in the story. And the person writing the story and the people on the sports desk thought it was running a different day.” He says it was not a case of institutional memory loss due to staff reductions, since everyone involved had been at the paper for some time.

Mistakes can and do happen at every paper, but the fewer pairs of eyes that see a page, the bigger and more frequent those mistakes can get. Yet reporters say corrections were rare.

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Conversations in the newsroom reflected a general tension about news judgment. “Under Hawkins, this would be a much bigger, hard-hitting story,” one former reporter recalled hearing. There seemed to be a preference at the top for good news over muckraking. And while there were no hard and fast requirements, Ashley’s expectations of local news content amounted to a two-story-a-day workload for most reporters.

“My feeling is that more local news is great in theory,” Greenlee says, “but quantity doesn’t impress me, quality does. I wonder how a metro reporter can be appropriately aggressive and accurate when they have to do 10 stories a week. How can you maintain that pace and produce anything people want to read? I think the answer is obvious, that you can’t do it if you have high professional standards and you want to have a life as well. I think this is obvious to most of the people in the newsroom, which is why they had such flight, but I don’t know if that’s obvious to Paxton yet. Maybe with this new generation of reporters they’ll rethink this.”

And perhaps they won’t. Eventually, most if not all of the pre-Paxton newsroom will be replaced by people with no memories of Hawkins or Schultz or Christmas bonuses. Journalism is a nomadic profession, with reporters often moving up the ladder from small community papers to regional ones after accumulating a couple of years’ experience and a stack of clippings. The Herald-Sun will continue to be a rung on that ladder. Gone are the days when reporters like Al Carson would spend more than 30 years there.

Ashley says he’s excited about the caliber of applicants, citing a Harvard grad with a journalism degree from Stanford who’s replacing Ferreri in the Chapel Hill office. A recent hiring boom has replaced nearly all of the reporters who quit this year, Ashley says, and raises were reinstated this month.

“There are many bright young people who can crank it out,” says nine-year veteran Jim Shamp, who covered science and medicine for the paper until he left in December to work for a biotechnology company in RTP. “What you sacrifice in corporate and community memory and history, you can trade off for youth and enthusiasm. Perhaps.”

People move on. Five or 10 years from now, if the paper’s still going, there will probably be no institutional memory of Jan. 3, 2005. Paxton might be able to weather the circulation drop and continue on its track of local news, grinding through 20-something reporters who move on to bigger and better things. Good for Paxton. But is that good for Durham and Chapel Hill? Is that what readers want? Only time will tell. See you next year.

Related stories:

How has the paper changed? A look at trends in the paper’s coverage shows a more local focus, but less news.

Adios, Nuetro Pueblo When The Herald-Sun discontinued its bilingual supplement, it nipped in the bud a relationship with Durham’s Latino community.