The McClatchy Company tends to implement changes in waves, and many times they don’t reach The News & Observer — and now The Herald-Sun — until first being rolled out at other newspapers in the chain.
The N&O got the chain’s print-edition redesign in July 2015 after many other newspapers. More changes are coming in the next couple of months as McClatchy’s “newsroom reinvention initiative” comes to The N&O and The Herald-Sun.
The initiative began at the Charlotte Observer in March, and later at The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C. It was previously started at some West Coast newspapers, but Charlotte was the first large newspaper in the chain to start implementation.
“That’s in some ways to our benefit. We can kind of learn from what they did,” said John Drescher, the executive editor of The N&O. “It’s basically just part of an effort to be more digitally oriented. It’s trying to give a real focus and trying to think about your digital audience so you’re thinking in different ways, video for example, than you would with a print audience.”
According to a PowerPoint presentation shown to McClatchy’s shareholders at their annual meeting last month, the newsroom reinvention goals are: “realigning news flow across platforms, adding resources in breaking news, enhancing video story-telling capabilities, expanding social media efforts” and “reallocating resources from print to digital.” Broadly, the chain wants to grow “digital audiences by producing journalism that resonates and drives our public mission.”
Those changes will be more drastic at The Herald-Sun because Paxton, which sold the newspaper to McClatchy in December, put little emphasis on digital.
The Herald-Sun announced last month that editor Bob Ashley will retire June 23 and Mark Schultz — who has been editor of the Chapel Hill News and The Durham News — will replace him to lead the newsroom, with the title of managing editor. Schultz will report to Drescher, who said that the retirement was Ashley’s idea.
“A lot of American newsrooms have said they are digital first, including us, but weren’t really. It’s understandable when you still are producing a print paper. That’s why we created the print team,” he said of a concept that Charlotte hasn’t tried. “We’re going to make a major leap forward this year on digital.”
Deborah Jackson leads The N&O’s four-person print team, which has been in place for a month. It allows editors who assign stories and work with reporters to focus on digital content while the print team decides which stories run in the print edition, how they are played and on which page each story will be placed.
“I think it’s made a big difference already,” Drescher said. “I think it’s working and it’s doing what we wanted it to do. The editors are able to break away from the requirements of a print cycle and able to focus more on digital. I think it’s going to be a good move for us.”
Jackson, the night Metro editor, worked at The Herald-Sun for nine years before joining The N&O in 1999. Also on the team are Scott Bolejack, the former editor of four of The N&O’s 10 community newspapers, Michael White and Sam Newkirk. Filling in temporarily for Bolejack is Dawn Harris.
“It used to be your Metro editor would come and think about which stories were going to go which pages, how you were going to fill the pages,” Drescher said. “And that’s not really what we want our Metro editor or any of our other editors thinking about. We want them thinking about how they will reach a digital audience.”
In the next two months, there will be more changes related to the initiative, including re-evaluating beats throughout the newsrooms in Durham and Raleigh.
“I’ve been here almost 15 years and we haven’t done a real thorough look at our beat structure since I’ve been here,” Drescher said. “I’m hopeful that when we review this, we’ll be able to create some new beats.”
This column appeared in the Charlotte Observer in March after the process was completed there.
“We’re going to go through a process just as they did, and we’ve done a lot of this brainstorming of what we should be covering and what we can let go of,” Drescher said. “So we’ve been working on that for several months and we’re not quite there on making final decisions but we will in the next couple of months.”
In addition to re-evaluating all beats, there is at least one duplication between the staffs in Durham and Raleigh to be sorted out: Duke sports, the beat last season for sports editor Steve Wiseman at The Herald-Sun and Jessika Morgan at The N&O. Drescher said that no decisions have been made regarding that beat. Will The Herald-Sun’s photographers shoot most Duke games for both newspapers or will an N&O photographer still shoot Blue Devils games?
“As we review beat structures, I think we need to not only review the people but also the beats and there’s different ways to structure things depending on what your goals are,” Drescher said. “We know we’ve got good sports reporters on both staffs and we now have to figure a way to make them the strongest team possible.
“I think we need to do some creative thinking about how to get the enterprise that we want to get. In this era for sports, it has to be less about game coverage and more about exclusive enterprise and so you want to have a structure that helps you get exclusive enterprise and that’s what we’re thinking about,” he said.
Because of the longstanding dedication of the Herald-Sun’s sports department to extensively cover N.C. Central and the Durham Bulls, The N&O now runs more NCCU and Bulls stories. They’re all reported by Durham writers.
Many more stories about NCCU have appeared in The N&O than those about St. Augustine’s or Shaw since December. There are significantly fewer stories about the Carolina Mudcats than Bulls stories. An argument to justify that inequity could be that it’s an NCAA Division I HBCU vs. NCAA Division II HBCUs and a Triple-A team vs. a Class A team. But will those coverage decisions change?
Another part of the initiative will be the use of checklists that reporters are supposed to go through before they write a story. The Charlotte Observer was the first McClatchy newspaper to use them.
“We will be getting training on how to use those, and that’s upcoming in the next couple of months,” Drescher said.
Above the story and below are images of the checklists that Seattle Times reporter Mike Rosenberg tweeted last month. The checklists, on their face, seem to be basic Journalism 101, forcing reporters to think about whether the story will have enough impact to actually write. But there is much more to this part of the initiative than just the actual checklists, thus the need for training.
It emphasizes storytelling, figuring out a distribution plan for the story and the right headline. Reporters are challenged to re-evaluate if the story that has always been written over the years really should be written now since there may no longer be an audience for it.
Coming Wednesday: Why are the print deadlines at The N&O and The Herald-Sun so early and what happened to The N&O’s community newspapers?