The three-month operational transition of The Herald-Sun from Paxton Media Group to The McClatchy Company concludes Sunday with terrific changes for readers who prefer digital news delivery. Much-improved page designs will be a positive for print-edition lovers but the earlier deadlines will leave many unhappy.

McClatchy acquired The Herald-Sun on Dec. 21 and took control of the newspaper Dec. 26.

Bob Ashley, the editor of The Herald-Sun, says that the process has gone well but that none of the previous transitions he’s been through were as complex.

“It used to be when you bought a newspaper, when Paxton bought The Herald-Sun, for example, the old owner handed over the keys to the new owner and the new owner unlocked the door and put out a paper the next day,” Ashley said. “But with the consolidation of a lots of functions in McClatchy and every other group in the company, it’s all complicated. You’ve got to reconfigure everything for a new publishing system, a new publishing site, a new printing site and it’s been a sprint to get there. But I feel good about where we are. Sunday at 7 o’clock or 7:30, we’ll know for sure whether we’ve made it through mostly unscathed.”

While digital clearly is the future for newspapers, even as they can’t quite figure out how to make up for the lost print revenue, the shifts have made print editions increasingly less relevant, appealing and essential. News holes are smaller, and new configurations have created oddities such as obituaries in the middle of the sports sections.

Consolidation of copy editing, design and printing has forced early deadlines that have reduced the popularity of print editions, even for readers who prefer to get their news that way. This is particularly true for sports fans, who are rarely able to read about the previous night’s games in their morning paper.

The Herald-Sun’s readers will get a heavy dose of that reality beginning with Monday’s print edition, which will be the first produced by McClatchy News Desk East in Charlotte and the first to be printed on McClatchy’s press in Garner.

This is the last week that the copy editing and design of The Herald-Sun is being done at the Paxton Media Group’s hub on Owensboro, Ky., and is being printed at the Paxton facility at the High Point Enterprise.

The Durham newspaper has enjoyed much better deadlines than its McClatchy partners at The News & Observer. While The Herald-Sun’s story deadline isn’t until 9:45 p.m. or sometimes 10 p.m., The N&O’s deadline for the last page of its first edition shifted to 7:30 p.m. with the Jan. 23 edition.

That more favorable deadline is about to change.

Beginning Sunday night, the deadline for the last Herald-Sun page moves to 6:55 p.m. because it will be printed in Garner before The N&O is printed. Raleigh’s deadline won’t change.

“As the News & Observer has already found in the last six or eight weeks, when you move your print time back into the early evening, you don’t have the same kind of night sports coverage or news coverage that you would have had before,” Ashley said. “Our belief, my belief, is that far more people will be attracted to the stronger website than will be repelled by whatever we lose on the print side.”

The advantage for final-edition N&O readers is that the newspaper can replate (or update) pages for later editions. But even with that advantage, the 7 p.m. Duke-UNC ACC Tournament semifinal didn’t make it to all editions delivered to Raleigh readers because changes are made on the fly.

The Herald-Sun, which will become the 11th newspaper produced at the Charlotte hub, will continue to only have one edition, though, and replates will be rare.

“Theoretically, we have the ability to replate,” Ashley said. ”But our press run is pretty short and the chances of making a significant amount of the run with something that we didn’t have when we started is pretty slim. I wouldn’t rule it out. We’ll certainly look at opportunities to do it.”

This isn’t the first time that Ashley has had to deal with deadlines shifting drastically earlier because of consolidation. It happened in August 2014 when Paxton moved The Herald-Sun’s printing from its on-site press to the High Point Enterprise. He expects the same backlash from readers that he got that summer.

“I had the script. I know what the calls are going to be. I practiced the response,” Ashley said. “There’s no question that there will be some disappointment out there. I think that’s an almost inevitable consequence of having to go significantly forward in putting our resources into the very important digital arena.”

The positive will be that the pages should be much cleaner and the designs more logically organized. Personnel in Durham provided suggested headlines to the Owensboro desk for local stories. But for wire stories without suggested headlines, basic headlines such as “Team beats team 5-2 on Tuesday” showed up too often.

There were times when the number of words in a caption were more than the number of words to a story before it jumped, which made for ugly packaging. Captions were usually copied and pasted and rarely played off of the content of stories. A caption on a story that ran Wednesday about Cam Newton’s upcoming surgery only described the play from a Jan. 1 game that was pictured.

“I think the design both of the paper and the website are much more modern and will allow for a much stronger presentation of the news,” Ashley said. “Frankly, we’ve had a fairly conservative approach to design and I think it represented some of my news personality. I think readers are going to see a stronger and more effective and eye-catching presentation going forward. We could have done that before and we didn’t. But this has jolted me out of my conservative approach, in a good way.”

The Herald-Sun’s website converted to the McClatchy template late Tuesday afternoon. The Herald-Sun’s content, which has been free to anybody since mid-January, will be subject to a metered paywall.

“Essentially, it will allow a fair amount of access, as The N&O does, without paying, particularly if you come to a story through social media,” Ashley said.

Chapel Hill Herald to cease publication

This Sunday will mark the final editions of the weekly Chapel Hill Herald, which has gone to Herald-Sun readers in Orange County and parts of Chatham County, and The Durham Herald, which readers in Durham, Person and Granville counties received. Those respective groups, beginning next Wednesday, will get the Chapel Hill News and The Durham News, two of The N&O’s community newspapers, Wednesdays and Sundays.

The Chapel Hill Herald first published June 6, 1988, as part of the Durham Morning Herald, with a staff of of about 20 reporters as a 7-day-a-week publication. But the staff was cut over the years and the publication schedule eventually was reduced to Sunday-only.

The Durham Herald, a more recent addition, often included a lot of submitted community stories.

Mark Schultz was part of the Chapel Hill Herald staff early on and was its editor for many years. He’s now the editor of both the Chapel Hill News and The Durham News. CHN writer Tammy Grubb and TDN writer Virginia Bridges both are former Herald-Sun reporters.

Staffs working together

“The two formerly competitive staffs are working really well together,” Ashley said.

Although the staffs of The N&O and Herald-Sun are sharing all of their work, Ashley said that the Durham newsroom still has some autonomy.

“They’ve said publicly and privately, and everything I’ve seen and witnessed reinforces, that they want as I want: The Herald-Sun to continue to be a distinct presence, a different newspaper than The News & Observer,” he said of McClatchy and N&O management. “Anybody who reads both papers is seeing, and I think this is a plus for both papers, a growing amount of content. It’s deepened their Durham report on a given day and deepened our state report.”

Sharing stories and budgets between the two newspapers has been a challenge while both waited for the CCI computer system to be installed in Durham and for training to be completed.

“There’s still some fine-tuning to do, but I think we’ve gotten much, much better in the last three or four weeks of putting our resources in different places every day instead of having some people end up at the same meeting writing a story for both papers,” Ashley said. “There are still some things to work out. It will be cleaner once we’re on their system. It’s been a jury-rigged system for us to use their stories and for them to use our stories. Now that we’ll all be on CCI, that’s going to be easier and simpler.”

Ashley, who lamented that he’s had to learn more computer systems than he can count since starting at the Raleigh Times in 1972, expects CCI to be fully implemented in the newsroom by Friday.

There was quite a bit of trepidation in Durham when McClatchy took over about possible job cuts, but Ashley said that he doesn’t anticipate changes.

“It’s as stable as I can predict,” Ashley said. “This business is too dynamic. I feel as comfortable as I can possibly be in this environment that when we are through this transition this weekend that we will be pretty stable.”

In February, The Herald-Sun lost UNC beat writer John McCann, who is now the public relations coordinator for the Chatham County Schools, and photographer Kaitlin McKeown, now a videographer at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. At the North Carolina Press Association Awards this month, McCann won three awards and McKeown won one.

With Andrew Carter, The N&O’s UNC beat reporter, now handling the Carolina beat for The Herald-Sun, Ashley said that McCann’s position on the sports staff won’t be filled and that sports staff will remain at three.

Ashley expects to hire a photographer to replace McKeown soon, however.

Orange County once a competitive print market

It’s amazing to contrast the print competition that once existed in Orange County to its current state.

The competition didn’t really pick up until 1985 when The N&O added weekly sections called The Durham Observer and The Chapel Hill Observer. Soon after came The Chapel Hill Herald in 1988, and the competition heated up.

Before The N&O bought the Chapel Hill News from Ottaway Newspapers Inc. in 1993, the CHN competed against the Chapel Hill Herald and The N&O had a large Chapel Hill bureau. Added to that, you had The Daily Tar Heel and alt-weeklies The Spectator and The Independent. In addition, The Village Advocate competed for classified-ad dollars.

Now, all of that print competition in Chapel Hill, and throughout the Triangle — aside from student publications — is mostly down to the consolidated staffs of The Herald-Sun and The N&O and alt-weekly Indy Week.