As The McClatchy Company’s reinvention initiative continues to roll out at The News & Observer, changes are ongoing.
Reporters met with editors in recent days to discuss how the initiative relates to their job and what changes may be coming for their roles. Others are finding out that they have lost their jobs.
The most prominent change, revealed in this story, is the departure after 24 years of columnist Barry Saunders, 59. According to multiple sources, the move wasn’t his decision. Saunders didn’t respond to a voicemail message.
But during an appearance Saturday night on WRAL-TV’s public-affairs program “On the Record,” he confirmed that he was forced out.
“I can tell you that that decision was made above my pay grade,” Saunders said on the show, which was taped Friday. “I was told that they were saying goodbye. Remember the old Manhattans song, ‘we called you here today for a bit of bad news’? I was just told my services were no longer needed there.”
Saunders had been booked for the show before news of his departure became public. The better part of the show focused on the cycle of hunger and poverty.
During the interview, which WRAL anchor David Crabtree conducted, he emphasized that he is far from the first journalist to meet this fate.
“I thought I had the best job and over the years or the decades I’ve been there, I’ve seen scores of really terrific journalists kicked out the door,” Saunders said. “So, at no point did I ever think I was immune to the fickle finger of fate tapping me on the shoulder and saying get out of here.
“I’ve been noticing over the years, the economic interplay with what’s going on with newspapers in general,” he said. “Hard decisions have to be made and, as I said, I’ve seen wonderful journalists kicked out with less ceremony than I had.”
Saunders said that he is taking the turn of events in stride.
“Not bruised,” he said. “As you know, I’m known as Mr. Sunshine because of my positive outlook. But, what I’d like to concentrate more on what were the 24 wonderful years at The News & Observer doing the absolute best job in the world.”
When asked what is next for him, his first response was humorous.
“I heard Gladys Knight is looking for another pip, so I’ve been in my basement working on my moves and don’t be surprised if you see me on stage,” he said. “I love writing and, whatever I do, I hope that it will be helping somebody.’
John Drescher, the executive editor of The N&O, would not address the reason for his departure.
“As a writer, Barry has a distinctive voice, which is exactly what a columnist should have. He also was a valued colleague. We’re going to miss him, and we wish him the best,” Drescher said via email.
The glowing Saunders story put on the N&O’s website late Tuesday afternoon and in Thursday’s print edition was vague. It didn’t address his future, the reason for his departure, if this was a retirement, a timetable for his departure or include any quotes from him. He apparently was given the option to be quoted in the story but declined.
In an online comment under that story, Bruce Lightner wrote about a conversation with Saunders. According to the post, Saunders told him that he was “not leaving the Triangle but that he would be redirecting his writing skills in another area.”
His last N&O column, on the plight of the poor seeking housing in Raleigh, went on the website July 10 and appeared at the bottom of page 3A of the July 13 print edition. Saunders, who won numerous North Carolina Press Association awards, came to The N&O in 1993 from the Post-Tribune in Gary, Ind.
In addition to Saunders, two other longtime staffers are leaving.
Business reporter David Ranii is retiring after more than 24 years at the newspaper.
“I was offered a buyout last week and, having recently turned 65, I decided it was the right offer at the right time. Now my plan is to come up with a plan,” said Ranii via email. He started at the newspaper in March 1993 and his last day is Wednesday.
Teresa Leonard, who started at the newspaper in May 1987, is losing her job. She wrote the Past Times column and is director of news research.
Reporter/online producer Charles Duncan is leaving after six months to become senior editor, the No. 2 newsroom job, at The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., another McClatchy paper. His last day is July 30.
“This is an exciting opportunity to work with a great team of smart, ambitious reporters and a fantastic executive editor,” Duncan said via email. “Myrtle Beach is a great news town — I am excited to tackle this new role.”
Aolani Donegan, who has been a social media strategist for nearly three years, is taking a social media job with Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Thursday was her last day at The N&O.
Weekend editions may return at North State Journal in fall
In May, the North State Journal discontinued its weekend print edition and has only published a print edition on Wednesdays since then.
Neal Robbins, the publisher of the newspaper, says that a weekend edition that would come out on Fridays could return this fall. When a weekend edition was last published, it was on Saturdays.
Robbins said that the reason weekend editions were discontinued was that the deadlines didn’t mesh with readers’ expectations.
“We had to close out too early on Friday to get solid Saturday delivery,” Robbins said via text message. “We started with Sunday and then switched to Saturday to move to a more nimble news cycle. But Saturday didn’t improve the content, it just moved the deadlines up.”
Robbins says that there is a new version of the website is coming and a syndication deal that he hopes to finalize in the next week.
On Wednesday, NSJ lost its opinion editor when Drew Elliot was named the head of communications for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Ray Nothstine will serve as the acting opinion editor.
Frank Hill, who has experience on Capitol Hill and as a chief of staff in the House and the Senate, will be a guest opinion columnist in the NSJ the next six weeks. Hill and Nothstine will write the editorials.
NOTE: Story updated after Saunders’ appearance Saturday night on WRAL.