DURHAM — There have been dramatic changes at The Herald-Sun since Mark Schultz left in 2005 to work for The News & Observer.

When he left his position as metro editor, there was a huge staff, the newsroom was on the second floor of a large building on Pickett Road and Paxton Media Group had just bought The Herald-Sun.

He’s back, now as managing editor — the top job in the newsroom that he assumed June 23 when Editor Bob Ashley retired — and the contrasts are stark. Last week, he discussed what transpired at the paper in those 12 years and looked to the future. The conference room he sat in was next to a much smaller newsroom on the second floor of the BB&T building near Northgate Mall.

The desks and the partitions are the same ones used in the Pickett Road building; there are just a lot fewer of them. It’s evidence not only of the overall downturn in the newspaper industry but of the ruin Paxton left.

“Paxton didn’t care anything about digital and, from what I can tell …,” Schultz said, pausing, possibly to choose his words carefully, “… they were not kind to this newspaper.

“This newspaper now is a rebuilding phase, and we shouldn’t have been because this paper has a tremendous tradition of serving this community. Not just Durham but Orange County, too,” Schultz said. “I worked for this paper when we had an Orange County paper seven days a week. We were a good paper because we were competing with The News & Observer. But when Paxton took it over, I don’t think they cared about that. We became overnight the largest paper in their chain and by the time they left we were probably one of the smallest.”

Schultz was the editor of The Durham News and the Chapel Hill News — two of The N&O’s community newspapers that no longer have editorial staffs — when The McClatchy Company bought The Herald-Sun in December.

“I’m not privy to the decisions they made. I don’t have the numbers to know why they made the decisions they made, so I can’t say that,” Schultz said of Paxton’s actions.

The Herald-Sun originally hired Schultz in 1988 as Chapel Hill Herald bureau chief and UNC reporter. He joined The N&O in 2005 as Orange County editor for N&O and editor of the Chapel Hill News and, after downsizing, also became editor of The Durham News in 2009.

The most obvious Herald-Sun shift under McClatchy is a heavy push toward digital, which got minimal attention under Paxton. Even before Paxton, The Herald-Sun was one of the last newspapers of any size to put stories on its website when it finally made that change in fall 2000. That was six years after The N&O first put content on the internet.

Finding ‘franchise issues’ and owning them

Under Schultz, there is a broader philosophical shift on how to best use a depleted staff.

It’s one that he dealt with as editor of those N&O community papers: He went from leading eight Durham County reporters and seven Orange County reporters to one each (before both editors and reporters were eliminated earlier this year). Schultz said that having one reporter in each county just forced him to change focus.

“We were doing a tremendous job and that was because each day it forces you to say, ‘what’s the best thing I can do? What’s the most important story I can do?’ We decided that we had to identify those franchise issues. We called them franchise issues because you have to own them,” he said.

In Durham, the issues were deemed to be poverty and policing. A few weeks after the Durham News began to focus on those issues, Mayor Bill Bell announced a poverty initiative. Jim Wise, who also is a former Herald-Sun reporter and is now retired, won a North Carolina Press Association award for his poverty series.

“In Orange County, we said we had to own growth and development and Tammy Grubb covered the heck out of what was going on and you saw with the last election with the mayor getting voted out, council members being voted out that it had reached the degree that enough voters said we don’t like the direction,” Schultz said. “We had been giving the community information that became the most important information of the election.

“By identifying the stories that were most important, we were able to maximize our resources and make a difference, and that’s what we have to do here now,” Schultz said.

He contrasts that to the Herald-Sun’s philosophy under Paxton.

“I don’t want to criticize the way things were done before,” he said. “The way things were done before worked for the job that they were being asked to do. They had a big news hole so people went around each day [to the reporters] and said, ‘what do you have for me today?’

“That’s the wrong question to ask,” Schultz said. “It’s not about ‘I can give you two
15-inch stories by 6 o’clock.’ That worked because you had a news hole, and you had to fill it seven days a week. But that produced stories that nobody cared to read. I’m overgeneralizing, but we know that nobody was reading those stories. I couldn’t get through half of them and I was reading them because I was working for the competitor.”

Ray Gronberg still is on The Herald-Sun staff and, for years, Schultz said his investigative work on the Durham city hall beat was the only reason he read the paper.

“There wasn’t anything else I didn’t know or hadn’t passed on because it wasn’t worth covering in the first place given the resources we had when you had to make choices,” Schultz said.

Schultz says that, in the Paxton era, it was apparent that time wasn’t spent on creating and framing stories before they were written.

“That didn’t happen. That has totally changed. There’s a conversation with the reporters about what they’re working on,” he said. “I’m genuinely interested in what they’re working on. I have experience, so that I can help guide them to who to talk to ask about the different perspectives because there are more than two sides to a lot of stories. There are lots of sides and I can help point them in the right direction.”

In 2004, The Herald-Sun had 38 news editors or reporters, a 13-person sports staff, a 13-person copy desk, a three-person art staff, a four-person editorial staff and an
eight-person photography staff. Today, on the news staff of Schultz and Managing Editor Mark Donovan are nine reporters, an online producer, a calendar editor, two sports writers and two photographers. There is no art or editorial-page staff.

Three current staff writers who were at The Herald-Sun when Paxton bought the newspaper were in managerial positions then: Gronberg (Chapel Hill Herald assistant editor), Grubb (night metro editor) and Greg Childress (associate editor of the editorial pages).

The copy-desk duties have shifted to McClatchy News Desk East in Charlotte, with Schultz (during the week) and Donovan (on weekends) outlining to that desk which stories should run and where.

Herald-Sun has ‘complete autonomy’

Schultz reports to John Drescher, the executive editor of The N&O, but says that, other than sports, “we have virtually complete autonomy.” The two remaining Herald-Sun sports writers, Steve Wiseman and Jonas Pope IV, report to Steve Ruinsky, the sports editor of The N&O, as part of a consolidated sports staff. Former Herald-Sun high school sports writer Joe Johnson is now reporting news on the real-time team.

With a Herald-Sun staff substantially smaller than when he left in 2005, Schultz emphasizes quality instead of quantity just as he did at the N&O’s community papers. He admits that this will mean more wire and N&O stories in the Herald-Sun.

“Instead of doing 10 stories a week, maybe they’ll do five and they’ll be five better stories,” said Schultz of his expectations for each reporter. “… Good ones, ones that I think are worth putting in because I’m picking them. The five stories that each reporter writes, or four or six or whatever it is, are going to be much better. We have really good people who can do tremendous stories.”

Schultz points to as an example Colin Warren-Hicks’ story last week. Some Republican N.C. congressmen say they won’t support Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield’s bill to rename a federal building in Durham after his late mentor because Butterfield didn’t support the naming of another federal building after the late Sen. Jesse Helms.

“It’s about Durham, it’s about politics … everything,” Schultz said. “That’s a really cool story that required time to report, and we broke that story.”

Two reporters join full circle return to Herald-Sun

Going full circle in a similar manner as Schultz of leaving The Herald-Sun, working at The N&O and returning after the McClatchy acquisition were Grubb and Durham County reporter Virginia Bridges, although with different paths.

Grubb was night metro editor when she left on her own just as Paxton was about to make mass layoffs in January 2005. She was a correspondent for the Chapel Hill News for a year, then worked as a chef at two restaurants before eventually becoming an N&O reporter in August 2012.

Bridges left in May 2005, five months after Paxton bought the paper, for an Alabama newspaper and was a freelance writer in Durham before joining The N&O in October 2012.

“Virginia has done some pretty terrific stories on crime in Durham that had tremendous readership because she had time to go into the neighborhoods and talk to the people who were affected and bring the human elements into the stories that previously we didn’t get to see often enough — the faces of people who are affected by violent crime,” Schultz said.

Probably only openly gay journalist leading an N.C. newsroom

Schultz minimizes the significance of likely being the first openly gay journalist to hold the top job at a mainstream North Carolina newspaper.

“I hadn’t thought about it,” said Schultz, who suggested that this is no more significant than the fact that he is “a vegetarian journalist.” “I think I thought about it back in the ’70s. I thought about it in the ’80s. I thought about it when Jon Ham and I clashed occasionally on an editorial or newsroom policy. That’s probably 20 years ago.”

Ham, who was managing editor and later director of digital publishing at The Herald-Sun, left for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank, in February 2005. His daughter, Mary Katharine Ham, is a conservative commentator who frequently appears on CNN.

“To the extent that it makes me more sensitive to marginalized groups or makes me more sensitive to smaller groups within a larger community, I think that’s a good thing,” Schultz said. “I think probably being gay had something to do with hiring gay columnists over the years. But I have always looked for people who have diverse experiences to bring to the paper.”

While at the Chapel Hill Herald in 1990, Schultz hired David Jones, who became the first openly gay columnist in North Carolina.

Sam Taylor wrote columns from Iraq for the Chapel Hill News when Schultz was editor. After transitioning as Vivian Taylor, she wrote columns about coming out as transgender, marking probably the state’s first transgender columnist. She had an op-ed piece in Sunday’s Herald-Sun contending that the LGBT community discriminates against transgender women.

Schultz also ran columns by civil-rights lawyer Ashley Osment, who wrote about her fight against ovarian cancer in the final months of her life before dying in 2010.

“Does being gay make me more aware, sensitive or committed to finding those kinds of perspectives? Maybe it does,” he said. “So maybe that’s how it affects my journalism, and that’s a good thing.”

Other changes at The Herald-Sun

The editorial page has changed since Schultz took over for Bob Ashley, who wrote many of the editorials and an op-ed column on Sundays. The paper now runs a combination of N&O editorials and wire editorials from other papers.

“I think we’re going to get to the place where we don’t have editorials every day because we don’t need an editorial page every day,” Schultz said. “We need to build up reader participation in this paper before having editorial pages seven days a week.”

Rather than writing a regular Sunday op-ed column, Schultz has run occasional Sunday columns that show reader feedback.

“I don’t think anybody cares what I have to say. That’s really not the point. I want it to be transparent about the work that we do,” Schultz said. “I’m going to explain how we make decisions and I’m going to explain when some readers think we made a mistake. Like some people took issue with some of the language, some of the word choices we used. I did a column and said here’s what some people said and here’s, in fact, what we did in response to what people are saying.”

In just a few months, The Herald-Sun has made great strides in nearly starting from scratch on digital efforts. With print deadlines so early, it’s even more essential for readers. It is publishing videos frequently, which never happened under Paxton.

“We’re a digital company,” Schultz said. “We’re about now putting our stories online and making them as complete as they can be, reaching out to people to help circulate the story for us. The future is not in the print paper. It hasn’t been.

“We’re learning how to use digital tools to track what people are reading,” he said. “We can look at a story and we can see where in a story people leave. So you can see that people start a story and halfway through you may be down to 60% and by the bottom you may be down to 33%. So you get a sense of how interested people are in a story.”

That’s just another tool Schultz can use to ensure that his staff’s stories are worth reading.

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