The Herald-Sun was one of the last newspapers of any size to put its content on the internet and, under the ownership of the Paxton Media Group, it hasn’t forged an extensive digital presence.
That’s one of many things about to change at the newspaper.
At 12:01 a.m. Monday, The McClatchy Company, which has owned The News & Observer since 1995, takes ownership of The Herald-Sun after closing the deal Wednesday. Sara Glines, the N&O’s president and publisher, will oversee Herald-Sun operations.
Most newspapers haven’t figured out how to monetize digital content effectively enough to counteract the loss of print revenue. But it’s obviously where newspapers must shift their focus. That’s about to happen at The Herald-Sun, where online content hasn’t been much more than stories and photos.
“In general, I think The Herald-Sun will have more of a digital focus, which will include more video,” said John Drescher, the executive editor of The News & Observer. “That’s a real point of emphasis for us. I think it hasn’t been a big point of emphasis for them. That’s where the audience is now. You have to move to where that audience is. Different newspaper companies have different philosophies, but ours certainly is to move very aggressively in the digital direction.”
Under the ownership of the Rollins family, The Herald-Sun didn’t put stories on its website until fall 2000. By contrast, The N&O began putting content on the internet — either on NandO.net or a Gopher site — in March 1994.
Much like with the print-edition designs, a makeover to conform to McClatchy’s style will change the look of The Herald-Sun’s website. The timetable for both is unclear.
“They’ll have access to all of the content that McClatchy produces for their digital sites,” he said. “You’ll see more of an emphasis on video. In October and November, we had 925,000 video views. A pretty good number considering a few years ago we had very little.”
Drescher said that he doesn’t know what will happen to the hard paywall that The Herald-Sun put up in September 2015. It only allows subscribers to access stories.
“We definitely consider the Triangle our market, kind of our home base,” Drescher said. “I think this is a really good opportunity for both organizations to get better.”
As excited as staff members in Raleigh and Durham may be about the acquisition, many probably have an unsettled feeling while wondering if their jobs are safe.
“Even without this deal, I can’t speak to that,” Drescher said. “The nature of our business now is that — I’ve told people for a long time — I can’t guarantee anybody’s job, including my own. It’s just the nature of the business right now.”
There are beats the two newspapers duplicate, including Orange County reporters, Durham reporters and sports writers on the UNC and Duke beats. In sports, the only writing position duplicated between The Charlotte Observer and The N&O is columnist. How will the decision-makers deal with these duplications?
“Too soon to tell. I don’t know exactly how that’s going to play out. I think, eventually, the company is not going to send two reporters to the game with basically the same mission,” said Drescher, suggesting one would write a game story and the other would write a sidebar, for example. “Generally speaking, when it comes to our relationship with the Charlotte Observer and other McClatchy papers, it’s been about avoiding duplication in hopes that you can expand your reach.”
The Herald-Sun‘s Orange County reporter, Anna Johnson, just started there earlier this month after coming over from The Times-News of Burlington.
Drescher was one of three N&O representatives (in addition to a McClatchy human resources person) who delivered the news to Herald-Sun employees.
“When we saw them Wednesday afternoon, of course they were, I think, mostly stunned. They didn’t see it coming. But I hope that they will feel good about this,” said Drescher, adding that Bob Ashley will remain the Herald-Sun’s editor.
“Our plan is for Bob to have the same duties,” Drescher said. “When the Herald-Sun was sold [to Paxton], they made immediate changes and that’s not our strategy here. I really want to work with Bob to work through these issues that we have in terms of Chapel Hill News, Chapel Hill Herald, Durham News as well as issues of journalism related to possible duplication.”
The Durham News and the Chapel Hill News are twice-weekly N&O community publications and the Chapel Hill Herald is a weekly Herald-Sun publication.
“The Herald-Sun has some strengths and they still do a good job of in covering Durham,” Drescher said. “They’ve got good journalists there. I’ve known Bob for a long time, think highly of Bob. We really want him and his team to have a voice in the changes as we move forward.”
It’s clear that Glines will be on top of the organizational chart for both newspapers but it hasn’t been determined if Ashley will report directly to her.
“There still are organizational things to work out,” Drescher said.
The deal came together so quickly that any major changes won’t happen right away. As reported here, the goal is to have the major operational changes made within 90 days. But, as of Monday, each newspaper will have access to not only the content of the other but to the list of stories each are planning.
“I think readers from both news organizations will benefit in terms of news,” Drescher said. “They’ll have access to all of our coverage of state government and politics and we’ll have access to all of their coverage of Durham news, including local government and politics and courts.”
The sharing will be done via email until the CCI Newsgate system McClatchy newspapers use is installed on the Herald-Sun’s computers and the employees are trained to use it. That will allow both immediate access to all stories written at both newspapers just as The N&O has access to the Charlotte Observer’s stories. Escenic, the digital-publishing platform, is likely to be installed at the same time.
“I don’t know exactly how long that will take. But as far as I’m concerned, the sooner, the better,” Drescher said. “That’s one really significant change that’s going to benefit readers of both organizations.”