Newspapers reporters everywhere are freshening up their résumés and checking the very online job-hunting sites helping to drive their employers deeper into financial uncertainty. With print advertising revenues continuing to plummet and the economy slowing, America’s newsrooms have more empty cubicles.

Full-time news staffs at daily papers fell by 2,400 last year, a 4.4 percent drop and the largest decrease in 30 years, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ annual census released this week.

The News & Observer is not immune. At a meeting last week, executive editor John Drescher warned newsroom staffers there could be some tough cuts.

“We continue to have trouble financially and all options are on the table,” Drescher says. He and publisher Orage Quarles III are discussing whether to cut payroll, pages or both. Dresher says he would prefer any staff reductions to be the result of attrition, as has been the paper’s policy to date. “I hope that we’re able to avoid layoffs.” The newspaper employs 206 editorial staff.

Drescher says he expects a final decision from Quarles within two weeks. “Obviously I’ll argue my case as best I can, but I understand that there are overall needs of the company too.”

Meanwhile, staffers try to stay focused.

“At this point we’re trying to do our job,” says Durham editor Rob Waters, “and hope the financial side comes up with some solutions that will keep us working.”

Orange County editor Mark Schultz has seen his staff shrink from seven to five reporters, including one now on maternity leave.

“You can do good, thoughtful, provocative reporting with four people or five people,” says Schultz. “It’s a question of choosing the best stories, the biggest stories, and trying to find a different way to do the smaller ones, or letting some of them go.”

McClatchy, the Sacramento-based chain that owns the Raleigh daily, is still grappling with debt from its 2006 purchase of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain while facing sharp revenue declines. While McClatchy has had a no-layoffs policy in the past, that’s changing. The Seattle Times, which is partially owned by McClatchy, announced this month it will cut 200 jobs. And former N&O editor Anders Gyllenhaal, now editor of the Miami Herald, recently offered voluntary buyouts to some of his staff in an effort to reduce the head count by 2 percent.

“We’re not the only newspaper in this situation,” Drescher says. “Generally speaking, we’ve fared much better than most. The News & Observer Publishing Company made its budget last year; it’s one of the few McClatchy newspapers to do so.”

On March 30, The N&O published a set of articles discussing its future. Drescher was proud to announce that while paid daily print circulation of about 178,000 papers has “plateaued,” online readership has grown. Add print readers to online readers, and the paper’s total readership has grown 19 percent, he says.

“If these readership numbers were going down, I’d be really bummed out,” Drescher says. “But the numbers are pretty strong, and that makes me feel confident that there’s still demand for what we do.”

The problem is how to make enough money online to recoup lost revenue. No one in the newspaper industry has figured out the answer.

The N&O went through a period of cost-cutting and restructuring last year under previous editor Melanie Sill. (See “What’s going on at The N&O?” March 28, 2007.)

To reduce pages, two Sunday sections were combined, a change Drescher says he’s been pleased with. Some editors, reporters and columnists were reassigned in lieu of layoffs.

“It’s been hard,” says Schultz, who oversees both The Chapel Hill News and Orange County coverage in The N&O. “We’ve had to say ‘no’ more often to people. But we’ve also done some of the best reporting on the Eve Carson case of any media outlet in the Triangle, and that’s at this time of shorter staffing.”

Schultz says he’s adapted by using more reader-generated copy in the twice-weekly community paper. When the Chapel Hill Garden Club recently asked Schultz to cover a benefit, he published a story and photos they produced.

“What this does is allows our reporters to concentrate on town hall, the school board, the police, the courtsall the things that we really need a professional to do. Quite frankly, we don’t need a professional reporter to do a good story about the garden show. I think opening up the paper might make the paper better, given the resources we have.”

In Durham, Waters says his one assigning editor and six reporters do what two assigning editors and eight reporters did a year ago. The staff writes for The N&O and puts out The Durham News each Saturday.

“We’re not all just wandering around gloom and doom, waiting for shoes to drop,” Waters says. “There’s stuff that’s outside our control, but meanwhile, we’re trying to tell stories and chase bad guys. That’s what we’ve always done. Basically we’re trying to be good, capable, versatile, responsible journalists and hope that the bad news tapers off.”

But it’s more than bad news, Waters acknowledges. The economic model of journalism is proving obsolete now that advertising doesn’t need daily papers.

“It’s kind of frustrating,” Waters says. “Everyone else is happy to take our money, but who else is kicking the governor’s ass or taking apart the mental health system or just generally holding folks accountable in a variety of ways? A lot of the time, we’re pretty proud of what we do, but if nobody’s going to pay for it, we’ve got to think things through again.”