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The successes and failures of local print media

Some niche pubs are prospering, but many local papers are troubled

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As a chronicler of Charlotte's history, Tom Hanchett pays ample attention to print media. Newspapers, he believes, are "probably the most important source for understanding a city's history." And these days, he worries, those are sources that may be drying up.

"[The number] of newspapers that can afford to pay a stable of smart, careful, curious journalists to do really high-quality, fresh reporting is decreasing," said Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South. "A society that doesn't have them is poorer; a society that doesn't have them is weaker."

It's certainly not an unwarranted concern: Mirroring national trends, several local print media sources -- the mainstream daily, a political weekly and a certain alternative weekly -- have been shrinking, shutting down and, ahem, filing for bankruptcy protection in recent weeks.

Creative Loafing's Tampa-based parent company has filed to renegotiate the terms of its debts, but publisher Carolyn Butler has said the filing will not affect day-to-day operations and that the Charlotte edition is doing well financially. Staffing and budgets are tight; CEO Ben Eason, saying the paper's future is online, has directed more focus to the Web and wants CL's papers to employ more "content aggregation" from other media sources.

The Rhinoceros Times, a weekly with considerable cache among conservatives, ended its print edition and is now online only.

And The Charlotte Observer has bled staff due to buyouts and cutbacks. In the third, most recent buyouts, several reporters and editors have left. Publisher Ann Caulkins said she hopes to add positions once the economy improves, but the paper will never have as many staffers as before. "The model for the online business is just very different," she said. "The advertising rates are less and are more competitive than on the print side."

She said the paper is trying to keep cuts to areas readers won't notice. "It really is our goal to continue the mission of what we do," she said, citing as examples recent banking coverage and United Way stories.

For the arts community, decline of stalwarts like the Observer is troubling. Wanda Hubicki, a Charlotte Folk Society board member, said it's increasingly difficult to get coverage in the daily. "It's an uphill battle," Hubicki said.

What will step in to meet the need? Hubicki said the Folk Society relies more heavily on e-mail lists and has started a blog. The proliferation of increasingly ambitious and well-funded blogs has opened endless opportunities, nationally. Charlotte's blogging culture overall, however, remains relatively nascent compared to similarly-sized cities.

But all is not dire, Hanchett said. Despite his concern about the decline of well-staffed media, the number of niche publications has increased dramatically since he came here in 1981.

Many of the city's smaller publications seem to be faring well. Richard Thurmond, editor of Charlotte magazine, said the monthly 40,000-circulation glossy has seen modest growth in subscriptions and newsstand sales. "... [D]uring tough economic times, the regional magazines tend to hold up pretty well, probably because we come out less often, and I think magazines are generally viewed as a little more of an escape," Thurmond said.

Jeannie Falknor, publisher of the Charlotte Business Journal, said circulation has grown for six years straight. The Business Journal charges for access to many of its articles. Anecdotal evidence suggests people are willing to pay for content, she said: "Because we're a niche publication, we have advantages, some strengths, that others perhaps have not."

Charlotte Weekly recently bought The Huntersville Herald (now renamed the Herald Weekly) and The Mountain Island Monitor. It also started the Matthews-Mint Hill Weekly. The resulting company, Carolina Weekly Newspaper Group, has a circulation of 125,000 -- up from Charlotte Weekly's 64,000, said chief executive officer Alain Lillie. The newspaper's model of 100 percent locally reported community news, entertainment and sports is financially successful despite a drop in real estate advertising, he said. "I think it's naïve to say we won't [expand the Web site] ... But the free community model is working for us."

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