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The past 10 years have been turbulent for every newspaper and, at some papers, management decisions with an eye on the bottom line have made it worse.

Numbers can’t tell the full story of Paxton Media Group’s impact on The Herald-Sun since it possibly overpaid for the newspaper. That deal was finalized 10 years ago this month.

The Herald-Sun story isn’t unlike many newspapers nationwide that have been on a downward spiral. It just seems to be a lot worse in Durham, where the newsroom is 79 percent smaller than in December 20041 and the circulation is about 58 percent lower.2

Within the first week of taking ownership from the Rollins family, Paxton showed the door to 81 employees, including me. Suddenly, longtime editor Bill Hawkins was laid off and Bob Ashley took over as editor.

Ashley, who left the paper for 13 months before returning in May 2012, declined a chance to comment for this piece via email about changes to the paper in the last 10 years, deferring to publisher Rick Bean. Ashley was glad to talk about running with a fellow runner, though, and was happy to write a column about changes in Durham in those 10 years. He didn’t want to comment on changes at the newspaper, though. Bean did not respond to email.

This week, the entire staff was out of the door of the Pickett Road offices (shown in top picture) as they move to the second floor and half of the third floor of the BB&T building (see below) across the street from Northgate Mall on Gregson Street. With all of the layoffs, the Pickett Road plant was just too big.

Yes, the newspaper is sharing the space of a small 3-floor building with a bank.

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The Herald-Sun’s Pickett Road plant still is for sale. I’m told that there was a buyer when it first was put up for sale. The buyer wanted to take immediate possession of the property. Since the newspaper had nowhere to go at that point, that didn’t work out.

There were good people on staff before and there are good people now. They just have to work much harder now to come close to the same level of coverage and Paxton doesn’t make that easy.

Some staff comparisons between before Paxton and now: The Chapel Hill Herald had a staff of 8 and now has 1 writer; sports had gone from 12 to 4 (4 of the 12 were copy editors/editors); photography has gone from 8 to 2; features from 9 to 2; and metro reporters from 14 to 9. There were 4 listed in the editorial department, but only Ashley is listed now.

Most significantly, there were 14 (counting part-time copy editors) on the news copy desk and now the desk doesn’t exist in Durham. In the summer of 2011, copy editing and designing shifted to a consolidated Paxton desk in Kentucky.

The News & Observer also went to an off-site desk, but at least its desk is in Charlotte. The Herald-Sun leaves copy to out-of-state desk people who, as has been shown, might confuse N.C. State and N.C. Central.

Another big difference: The N&O’s designers are much better. In the days when Bill Fuller was designing sports pages for The Herald-Sun in the early 2000s, the opposite was true.

Many of The H-S designs from the Kentucky desk would never have been acceptable years ago. Many times, there are front-page story packages that have more words in the caption than in the part of the story on the front. At times, the headline is deeper than the copy below it. Sometimes the main art is a similar size to the secondary art.

All of the above have to be frustrating for the folks in Durham who have little control over the designs.

Among the people who remain from the pre-Paxton days are Cliff Bellamy (now a features reporter) and Greg Childress (now a K-12 school reporter), who were associate editors of the editorial page before Paxton. Keith Upchurch was on the copy desk and now is a courts/public health/social services reporter. Ray Gronberg was assistant editor of The Chapel Hill Herald, but is now a government and transportation reporter. Bernard Thomas and Christine Nguyen are the only full-time photographers who remain.

The only member of the current 4-person sports staff remaining from pre-Paxton days is Joe Johnson. He was part time back then. Under Paxton, he became full time, later was laid off, then used frequently as a stringer before being rehired full time in December.

Mark Donovan was the news content editor pre-Paxton and is now metro editor after a stint as prep sports editor. He shared sports editor duties with Duke beat writer Steve Wiseman after Paxton laid off sports editor Jimmy DuPree in September 2013. Wiseman became sports editor when Donovan shifted back to news side in December.

It’s amazing how much this small sports staff covers.

New NCCU beat writer Brooke Pryor seems to cover a game nearly every night some weeks (many times outside of her beat). Johnson has been all over the place covering high school sports, and even takes pictures at some games. (Perhaps the newspaper can get heraldsun.com email addresses for both of them at some point. Online, Pryor’s Gmail address and Johnson’s Yahoo! address are listed and they both list [email protected] on their print-edition bylines.)

That department’s tough fight competing with The N&O was illustrated well in coverage of UNC’s Wednesday night win at N.C. State. The Herald-Sun sent only UNC beat reporter John McCann and he filed one story (given the early deadlines, he probably didn’t have time to file more than one.) The N&O sent 3 reporters and its sports columnist.

There are triumphs, though: Pryor’s story on UNC wrestling coach C.D. Mock challenging sexual-assault policies ran Wednesday to beat The N&O by a day. Although Mock appeared to criticize The H-S story in The N&O’s Thursday story.

The news staff also has some good people trying to do the best job they can within their constraints. Young public safety (crime) reporter Lauren Horsch is an excellent person to follow on Twitter for breaking crime news in Durham. She provided up-to-the-minute coverage of recent Durham protests.

The product that Paxton produces makes you question whether management cares about the print edition. If it does care, it doesn’t show.

While the sports changes mentioned above have been updated on its online staff directory for a few weeks, they still aren’t reflected in the masthead of the print edition 6 weeks later. Wiseman still isn’t listed as the sports editor and Donovan still is listed as preps editor.

Paxton inherited an aging, but decent plant on Pickett Road that included an on-site press. That allowed the newspaper to get 9 p.m. games into the final print edition and print a lot of late results.

One of the worst Paxton moves in its 10 years of ownership came last summer when it bought a press for another paper it owns, the High Point Enterprise, and decided to begin printing The Herald-Sun there. After getting no night sports in the print edition for a couple of months, deadlines got a little better. But 9 p.m. games and sometimes 8 p.m. events — even when they involve Duke or UNC — don’t make the next day’s print edition.

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The whole plan hasn’t exactly gone smoothly. It’s led to many print subscribers getting their papers late or not at all at times. Even last week, there were delays that led the above note being placed on its website.

Will things get better at The Herald-Sun? Its staff members are certainly trying their best. Hopefully there won’t be any more curious decisions or waves of layoffs to make their jobs even harder.

  1. In December 2004, there were 90 in the newsroom and there are now 19.
  2. Before Paxton took over, Sunday circulation was 56,363. Solid current circulation figures are hard to find, but NDX estimates The Herald-Sun’s projected circulation this year to be 23,698 on Sundays.
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