UPDATE: This seems to be about as good a time as any to provide links to recent stories about a likely merger between the two largest newspaper chains in the U.S, one of which owns several newspapers in North Carolina, including the Burlington Times-News. A deal combining GateHouse Media and Gannett is in the works and appears inevitable. This is a story published today in the Columbia Journalism Review posted today (July 22, 2019). This is a story posted last week on Nieman Lab written by media expert Ken Doctor. Expect bumpier times ahead. The TN will be replacing a reporter who just left, more details in the post.
Lately I have emerged as a popular figure at local gatherings around Alamance County. Well, popular probably isn’t the most accurate word. As one local elected leader to a county board told me the other day when he sought me for questioning, “I like you better now that you’re not editor of the newspaper.”
So let’s just say that these days people are coming to me with questions rather than chummy conversation. Usually they just allow me to cling to an available wall 10-feet away from all living, breathing human beings, which is my comfort zone. But one topic is dominating their thoughts lately and drawing them in my direction. The discussion usually begins with this question: “What the hell is going on at the newspaper?”
It’s not a bad question, a weird question or even one removed from sanity. I would call it a legitimate public concern mainly about the fate of local news. It’s a question some began asking several years ago about the newspaper here and those elsewhere as fewer pages were produced daily, staff cuts left stories once done as a matter of routine ignored, home delivery turned into something more like a lottery, advertisers moved elsewhere and print circulation tanked as readers shifted to other largely digital options for news or stopped reading news at all. Corporations swallowed up newspapers across the nation at bargain rates then began to remove all the parts that matter to a city or town — locally produced information, the heart of community journalism. Under the guise of a “digital transformation” companies ironically eliminated the staff members who created the content required to make the digital transformation happen. GateHouse Media’s purchase of the Burlington Times-News and the continued erosion caused by changing reader habits and corporate policies from pricing and home delivery to production and staff cuts led me to take a walk out the door in November of 2016 when the company offered a buyout incentive in the hopes that longtime employees would take the hint and leave on their own.
I took it and ran.
“In hindsight that looks like a genius move on your part,” a local elected leader told me this week at an Elon event. “Absolutely psychic. You were right to leave when you did.”
I know it and feel damned lucky. Because as I thought would happen, things would only get worse for the news business, my Times-News friends and news consumers in Alamance County. The cuts have continued, perhaps worsened. Meanwhile GateHouse is still picking up newspapers at rock bottom prices.
Several things occurred recently in succession that drew more questions and concerns from people in the community who pay attention to news and the future of the Burlington Times-News, where I was executive editor from 2007 to 2016. It followed back-to-back-to-back announcements. Two were published in the newspaper and one via Twitter. First, the person in the top job at the Times-News– the publisher — announced he is leaving to be the publisher at the newspaper in Greeneville, Tennessee. Paul Mauney took over as publisher from Steve Buckley, who retired, in 2008, a year after I accepted the top newsroom job. Paul is a solid community presence who enjoyed serving on local boards and committees. He is well plugged in to the Alamance County community and generally well liked. But he was also spread thin, waging a losing battle with corporate oversight and was tasked with being the publisher at three newspapers — Burlington, Lexington and Asheboro. I attended his going away function last week. His last day at the newspaper was Friday, June 7. Nice guy. I’m sorry to see him go.
Second, the executive editor who replaced me, Rich Jackson, announced he is leaving to become editor of the newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana. It’s a nice step up with more money. But it’s still a GateHouse paper and Rich will be overseeing 10 newspapers in all. I wish him well on his return to the Midwest, where his roots are. He arrived at the Times-News in March of 2017, almost four months after my departure. He did the best he could with the limited resources he still had available. When I arrived at the Times-News from Jacksonville, North Carolina in 2007, we had 28 full-time people in the newsroom and several part-time staff members. When I left there were 13 in the newsroom. As Rich leaves I believe the number is 10 — and just three reporters and one photographer. Rich departed this week. I was able to take him to Burlington Beer Works last week and talk about life over a couple of beers. I wish we had done so more often.
And third, reporter Kate Croxton said via Twitter that she is leaving after her wedding in July. The couple is moving to California. I never worked with Kate and don’t know her well, but she worked hard covering breaking news, the city of Burlington and nearly everything else that came up. She did a splendid job and will be missed. I have no idea if corporate will allow the Times-News to fill the position. The last time a reporter left, the job was never filled. Two reporters remain and both are exceptional writers and people. I hope for their sake some help is on the horizon. Update on July 22, 2019: Beth Pattman, an Elon grad and former Times-News intern will replace Kate on July 25. She has spent the past couple of years at the Lexington Dispatch where she covered courts and cops.
So the newsroom today is one big empty room with a bunch of vacant desks. The entire newspaper staff could easily fit in the old fish house located on the Worth Street side of the Times-News property. The last couple of times I visited the newsroom one person or two were there. On two occasions no one was there at around 10 a.m. on a weekday. Some days there is just one reporter on duty. Typically no one works a regular night shift and a reporter isn’t always available on weekends. There is only one photographer and no part-timer.
The announcements by Rich and Kate came on the same day. The following day I was approached by Burlington Mayor Ian Baltutis and others at the First Tuesday Coffee Talk at the Historic Depot downtown. A few people there had dozens of questions about the changes, the decline in the amount of local news and how newspapers proceed when so much institutional knowledge leaves the scene. I encountered the same situation at a few stops this week. One former newspaper employee from a few years ago walked up, offered a warm greeting then talked about how much “the newspaper sucks.”
A major issue is the loss of historical background and context. A few years ago when then managing editor Jay Ashley left, he took more than 60 years of historical information about Alamance County with him. When I left, it was almost 30 years. Editor emeritus Don Bolden passed away in August of 2018 removing 80-plus years of information about the community at the newspaper’s disposal.
“How do you replace all of that information and background — the knowledge of what’s been covered before and how it shapes things happening now,” I was asked.
You can’t really. Yes, reporters at newspapers the size of the Times-News come and go and have for years. It was the nature of the news business. Young reporters get experience at places like Burlington and move on to larger cities. But the decimation of news staffs today, where even the editors have limited knowledge about the communities they cover is almost unprecedented. The move to installing regional editors who oversee multiple newspapers mean they can never really be part of any of the communities they serve. And with limited reporting staffs, government bodies will be largely unwatched, without someone there to witness and record actions they take or money spent, or unspent.
The Times-News is going to push forward. My friends there are working as hard as they can despite ridiculously early deadlines and absurd production demands. The new publisher is my friend Todd Benz. Todd is among the best circulation directors I’ve ever known. The past couple of years he has worked as general manager at the Asheboro Courier-Tribune. He will be the publisher of that paper, too along with Lexington and Burlington. Todd will do his best to keep the lights on. Todd will be based in Burlington but will spend only part of his time here.
Scott Jenkins is the new editor, coming from the Lexington Dispatch and will oversee both newsrooms from a base in Burlington. It’s a demanding challenge to be the editor at two newspapers that have so little in common beyond location along an interstate highway. I haven’t met Scott but mutual friends tell me he’s a good guy, solid newspaper editor and dedicated. I look forward to meeting him.
But I don’t envy him one bit. And I worry about the future of community news here and elsewhere. People need that information whether they know it or not. According to a recent study by the University of North Carolina, around 1,300 communities nationwide have lost all news coverage. Some of those were once served by GateHouse entities. You can read about these news deserts here.