More slaughter on South Tryon

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The Observer is going through another round of bloodletting. Already stripped to what some of its employees refer to as “skeleton crew” dimensions, the daily paper announced this morning that it will get rid of 20 more positions “through a combination of buyouts, layoffs and frozen job openings.” The cannings, the O says, are all in the interest of reducing costs in a lousy economy. The newsroom, i.e., the department whose work is the only reason people read the paper to begin with, will see some hiring freezes, but no layoffs. All full-time staff, however, will be subject to weeklong furloughs in the fourth quarter.

The paper’s press release notes that ad revenue actually improved in the first half of the year, but apparently not enough to keep management from chopping more heads. The Observer’s problems are part of a nationwide trend for dailies (if one can call a headlong slide into oblivion a “trend”). Readership is up, due to an increase in online readers, but a corresponding rise in ad dollars ain’t happenin,' due to the fact that the money side of the business has been unable to figure out how to make money from online presence.

This paper, and this writer, have had problems with the Observer in the past, even to the point of meeting in court, but there is no pleasure derived from the daily’s current woes. No city can function well without a strong editorial presence keeping an eye on what’s going on, and, well, we all know the state of TV news. We may have occasional problems with how well the Observer does that job, but there’s no denying it did it more efficiently and thoroughly when it was flush with money.

Management at the O, as at nearly all American dailies, is trying to do the impossible: attract more readers while also gutting the paper. I know something about making adjustments in a newspaper’s content for financial reasons, and I think the O has coped about as well as they could within the current catastrophe befalling their industry. But more cuts aren’t going to make the paper any better – and that’s what would bring in more readers and revenue. It’s a hell of a spot to be in, so here’s wishing that some ad-slinger somewhere will have a brainstorm and come up with a solution to increasing online advertising. Otherwise, journalism itself, and our democracy, are going to be in seriously deep shit.

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