The McClatchy Company’s acquisition of The Herald-Sun from the Paxton Media Group this week came as a surprise, and prompted many questions since McClatchy also owns The News & Observer.
Some of the answers are unlikely to be good for the Herald-Sun staff, which got the stunning news roughly 12 years after Paxton acquired the newspaper and proceeded to gut the staff. McClatchy’s deal, which had been in negotiation for only a few weeks, became official Wednesday and McClatchy takes ownership of the newspaper at 12:01 a.m. Monday.
A little after 4 p.m. Wednesday, just before the story about the acquisition went up on The N&O’s website, there were surprise visitors at the Herald-Sun’s office in the BB&T Bank building near Northgate Mall. Delivering the news to staffers who were in the office at the time were John Drescher, the N&O’s executive editor; Sara Glines, the N&O’s president and publisher; McClatchy’s East Coast Human Resources vice president; and The N&O’s HR vice president.
Glines, who will oversee the Herald-Sun’s operations, said that the Herald-Sun’s staff all learned the news for the first time Wednesday afternoon, including Editor Bob Ashley. He declined comment. Rick Bean currently is the publisher for The Herald-Sun and the High Point Enterprise.
“I think they were surprised, but there’s a sense of opportunity and I think there’s hope for them,” Glines said. “I’d hate to characterize how they felt. I think there’s hope for them that being part of a company like McClatchy is a really good thing for their future, so I think there was optimism. We were certainly optimistic and felt good about it.”
Glines says that no layoffs are planned “while operations are reviewed,” but the length of that review is unclear.
“There is no really set timetable,” Glines said. “We just all start working together now, and we’ll see where the opportunities are and where the synergies are and where the duplications are.”
Paxton began laying off people as soon as it took control on the first Monday of 2005, and laid off 80 of its 350 employees by the end of the week. Glines suggests that there won’t be a repeat of that quick purge.
“As we told them when we walked in: ‘At 12:02 on Dec. 26, we want you to come in and do exactly what you’ve been doing and the conversation starts from there,’ ” said Glines, adding that she did not know the purchase price. “There’s nothing planned. The way this industry is these days, we always look for opportunities to consolidate operations, but we’re really just looking at things.”
McClatchy, which bought The N&O in 1995, put in a bid for The Herald-Sun late in 2004 when Paxton paid — according to an Indy Week report shortly afterward — $125 million for the Durham Herald Company. According to a source who worked at The Herald-Sun at the time, the Herald-Sun’s owners, the Rollins family, didn’t want to sell the newspaper to McClatchy. There was also speculation that Paxton overpaid for the newspaper.
Paxton vacated its Pickett Road facility for the second floor and part of the third floor of the BB&T building in January 2015 and, according to an N&O report, sold the Pickett Road building July 1 to WJM Holdings for $3.25 million. Paxton was asking $8.3 million when it went on the market in 2014.
The Herald-Sun’s office will remain at the BB&T building.
Newspapers sometimes are acquired to be shut down and folded into another publication. When the Tampa Bay Times bought the Tampa Tribune on May 3, it combined the operations of the two newspapers and ceased publication of the Tribune the same day.
“That is not our plan,” Glines said. “We’re buying The Herald-Sun because of the presence it has in Durham and its relationship and its brand awareness and all of the ties it has to the local community. It’s in our best interest to do everything we can to further that.”
The goal is to have all operations transferred from Paxton to McClatchy within 90 days.
Instead of the Herald-Sun’s copy editing and design work being done at a Paxton hub in Owensboro, Ky., it will go to McClatchy News Desk East in Charlotte, one of three McClatchy hubs. It serves eight newspapers, and is expected to add The State of Columbia, S.C. and The Bradenton (Fla.) Herald next year. The quality of the design and copy editing of The Herald-Sun should improve with the move. When a desk is in another state, mistakes like the Shrine Bowl headline last weekend are more likely to happen.
The printing of The Herald-Sun will shift from the High Point Enterprise to McClatchy’s press facility in Garner. Glines said that The N&O wouldn’t necessarily get the preferred later press times and, thus, the later deadlines.
“We don’t do it by favored or not favored,” she said. “It’s really about how to be most efficient on the press run. I’m working with our production VP right now to try to figure that out. It will be how do we make both papers run off the press and hit the deadlines we need for delivery?”
The addition of The Herald-Sun boosts the newspaper total for the Sacramento, Calif.,-based McClatchy chain to 30, including seven in the Carolinas.
“We’re happy to be able to able to expand the McClatchy organization a little bit right now,” Glines said. “I think that’s a sign that McClatchy is doing the right things and in a good place as a company.”
Glines expects that The N&O and The Herald-Sun will share stories.
“I would hope so. I think that’s part of the opportunity,” she said.
The N&O and The Charlotte Observer, since McClatchy owns both, share stories and don’t duplicate many beats. In sports, the only writing position duplicated is columnist. The Charlotte Observer uses stories written by the N&O’s ACC beat writers and The N&O runs Carolina Panthers stories Charlotte’s two Panthers beat writers produce.
Unlike The N&O, The Herald-Sun has an N.C. Central beat writer (Jonas Pope IV). The N&O has an N.C. State beat writer (Joe Giglio), which The Herald-Sun hasn’t had since 2005. But both newspapers have a UNC beat writer (Andrew Carter for Raleigh and John McCann for Durham) and a Duke beat writer (Jessika Morgan for Raleigh and Sports Editor Steve Wiseman for Durham).
The N&O generally only covers the Durham Bulls on Opening Day or during the playoffs. But The Herald-Sun covers every home game, although it doesn’t have a dedicated beat writer.
It seems likely that some sports writers will either be reassigned or laid off. The same potential is there for news reporters covering Durham County and Orange County and other beats that the respective newspapers duplicate.
Likely saving at least one person’s job is Keith Upchurch. After working with Durham newspapers since 1973 as both a reporter and a copy editor, he just retired. His last day was Friday.
For years, The Herald-Sun (and before 1991, The Durham Morning Herald) and The N&O were bitter rivals. Despite a smaller staff, The Herald-Sun beat The N&O on some stories, particularly in the pre-Paxton days before the newsroom endured major reductions. The Herald-Sun fought hard to maintain its control of the Durham and Chapel Hill markets and did quite well for years.
In 2005, the same year Paxton took control of The Herald-Sun, The N&O launched the Durham News as a weekly Saturday publication, and it later became a twice-weekly newspaper.
“We bought The Herald-Sun because we appreciate its relationship to Durham and its readers and advertisers and that’s something where we think we can build and grow,” said Glines, who became the N&O’s publisher in September. “We think there’s nothing but good road ahead.”
Will McClatchy discontinue publication of the Chapel Hill Herald since The N&O has the Chapel Hill News?
On that first week of 2005, Paxton laid off Bill Hawkins, the longtime executive editor, and named Ashley editor. Ashley left the paper in 2011 to serve as executive director of Preservation Durham for 13 months before returning as editor.
Several N&O staffers formerly worked at The Herald-Sun, including Durham News/Chapel Hill News Editor Mark Schultz, Durham reporter Virginia Bridges, Orange County reporter Tammy Grubb, religion reporter Flo Johnston, Night Metro Editor Deborah Jackson and photographer Chuck Liddy. When Liddy took an iconic photo of Christian Laettner’s shot in Duke’s classic 1992 NCAA tournament victory over Kentucky, it was as a Herald-Sun photographer.
The purchase price wasn’t disclosed, but McClatchy no doubt got a better deal than if its 2004 bid had been successful. The Herald-Sun has gone from 350 employees when Paxton bought it to about 35 today,according to The N&O story. By comparison, The N&O, according to its story, has about 320 employees.
The Herald-Sun’s weekday circulation was just over 50,000 in 2003, fell to about 42,000 in 2005 and was around 21,000 in 2012.
Since Glines took over as publisher, there have been cuts at The N&O.
The sports pages for its 10 twice-weekly community newspapers were eliminated and three sports reporters were laid off last month. This month, merit raises were delayed for each employee for at least a year, in a move the McClatchy corporate office announced, and the compensation for work travel, which once was 37 cents a mile, was reduced to 31 to 30 cents a mile.
“The important thing for us to look at is how do we take those legacy pieces and invest them in our future because it’s probably not the best business practice to continue to invest in the part of the business that is declining and not invest in the piece that is growing,” Glines said. “So it’s a constant balancing act to keep cost out of the side that is printing and put it into the digital operation. We will continue to look for efficiencies.”
Whatever happens next, it’s likely that there will be fewer daily newspaper reporters in the Triangle and obviously significantly less competition.