Deep personnel cuts came Monday to The News & Observer, along with news that the Raleigh newspaper will consolidate coverage with The Charlotte Observer.

The paper has cut 70 jobsabout 8 percent of the workforce. Among those were 16 full-time and part-time newsroom employees whose last day will be June 27.

Sweeping editorial changes are also on the horizon. The paper will cease publishing a version of the newspaper geared toward readers in the western part of the Triangle. The Business section will be folded into the City & State section. And coverage of sports, politics and features will be produced jointly by the Charlotte and Raleigh papers, both of which are owned by the Sacramento-based McClatchy Company.

In a story published in the business section Tuesday, Executive Editor John Drescher conceded that it’s not just employees who’ll feel the painreaders will notice profound changes in local coverage.

“Clearly, when you look at these changes and some other changes we’ve made, print readers are going to get less,” Drescher was quoted as saying. New online content, he said, would offer readers more to make up for that loss.

Drescher declined to comment on the layoffs. He referred calls to Publisher Orage Quarles, who could not be reached for comment.

The news in Raleigh came on the same day McClatchy announced it would cut 10 percent of its workforceabout 1,400 jobsat its 30 daily newspapers across the country, a move expected to save the company $70 million annually. McClatchy has carried heavy debt ever since it purchased the Knight Ridder chain in 2006. The Charlotte daily cut 123 jobs Monday, or 11 percent of staff, including 23 in the newsroom.

Layoffs at The N&O come after a round of buyout offers in April that were accepted by 33 people, including five editors and one additional newsroom staffer. Further cuts were expected, however, and Drescher forewarned employees that they would be severe. (See “Cuts to run deep at N&O,” May 23.)

Yet, some of the laid-off workers were caught by surprise, as they had not been among those offered buyouts.

Monday afternoon, the newspaper posted news of the layoffs on its Web site, but staffers were still learning piecemeal the names of individuals who would be let go. Most prominent among them is Sports Editor Sherry Johnson, according to sources inside the paper. Sources also say at least two reporters were laid off, and that Steve Riley, a senior managing editor who handles investigative projects, will move from full- to part-time.

In a memo e-mailed to staff, Drescher said deadlines will move up by one hour to accommodate money-saving changes in production, beginning June 28. “We’ll have to develop new strategies to send our readers to for late-breaking news and sports,” he wrote.

An additional memo from Drescher and Charlotte Observer Executive Editor Rick Thames outlined the ways in which they would “link the two newsrooms more tightly” in four areas:

  • A single capital bureau for state government reporting will combine five N&O and two Observer reporters, and be edited by current N&O staff and based in Raleigh.
  • The sports departments will merge and be edited by a Charlotte-based editor.
  • The news research departments will merge and be headed by an N&O staffer.
  • The features departments will “develop several jointly produced sections.”

McClatchy has a history of avoiding layoffs, but a loss of real estate advertising revenue due to the foreclosure crisis and $2 billion in outstanding debt have pushed the company to make moves increasingly common in the newspaper industry, says John Morton, an independent media industry analyst in Maryland.

“They’ve had the policy in the past of not bulking up in good times so they don’t have to lay off in bad times. Clearly, apparently, the bad times are worse than they had anticipated,” Morton says. “I will say that they, unlike some newspaper companies, are doing it across the board rather than focusing its cuts just on the newsroom, which a lot of papers have done to the detriment of the coverage.”

With fewer people, tighter deadlines and ever more online content to produce, those left in the South McDowell Street offices, and at the community bureaus, will have to do more with less.

“This is a traumatic day,” Drescher wrote in his memo to staff. “This process took too long. In recent weeks, under difficult circumstances, you have done remarkably well in focusing on the journalism and giving our readers strong reports in print and online. The difficulty will continue. We will be saying goodbye to some colleagues, then embarking upon more change than we’ve ever seen before. If we pull together, which I know we will, we can continue to gain readership and serve this community and state with the kind of public service journalism we have done for more than 100 years.”