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These are the times that try (newspaper) men’s souls

by Ogi Overman

Long before I made a cottage industry out of Bush-bashing, one of the preferred targets of this column was the Greensboro News & Record. I never missed an opportunity to fire a shot across the bow of the daily gazette for any number of shortcomings, from typos in headlines, to its USA Today-cloned redesign, to its slicing and dicing of the newsroom, to its decision to take national news off of A-1 in favor of local crap. It all stemmed from an ill-fated decision early in the Pat Yack/Van King era to save a buck by eliminating the salary of revered sports columnist Wilt Browning, in my opinion one of the greatest sportswriters who ever lived. For the next six or seven years I gleefully took a shot at them every chance I got, always careful to direct my criticisms toward upper management and ownership, never toward my fellow ink-stained wretches who were doing the actual work.

All that changed, however, in 2004, not because the N&R got any better but because I found myself in the bull’s eye of ferocious criticism being hurled in my direction over the way I was administering a paper I’d co-founded, The Greater Greensboro Observer. Before the paper folded, in addition to the editor’s hat, I ended up wearing those of the publisher and sales manager, and the latter two were ill-fitting indeed. I’d finally risen to my proper level of incompetence according to the Peter Principle, and it was a lonely, uncomfortable place.

(If I made one good decision during that paper’s brief run, however, it was hiring Wilt Browning to write a weekly sports column. Touché.)

I say all that merely to let you know in advance that if you’re expecting an angry screed lambasting the local daily, you’ll be disappointed. Nope, I’m so over it by this stage of the game that any residual resentment has long since turned to nonchalance at best, pity at worst. These are tough times, dear reader, to be working for a daily newspaper, so what I am about to say is coming from a place of sympathy, not of malice.

The N&R is no better and no worse than any other metro daily that is caught in the downward spiral of declining readership and declining revenue – which is to say all of them. While local weeklies and specialty tabs such as this one seem to be surviving, thriving even, across the board, the publishing industry is tumbling down the slope of gradual deterioration that lately has become even more precipitous. Recently, for example, The New York Times laid off over a hundred souls in the newsroom alone, the giant McClatchy group just dumped a dozen of its 32 dailies, and Landmark, the N&R’s parent company, is apparently on the block for a cool $5 billion. (The asking price for its pride and joy, the Weather Channel, is said to be $1.5 billion.)

Layoffs, downsizing, early retirement inducements, not replacing positions of retirees and any cutbacks that draw blood but don’t stop the heart from beating are the new operating procedure. Getting by with less is the order of the day, and waiting for the other shoe to drop is merely part of the routine.

Morale surely must be at an all-time low, and if confirmation had been needed (it wasn’t), it came last Friday morning. As I walked out to get my paper, two questions were paramount: Did my property or the neighborhood suffer any damage from the previous evening’s tornadoes, hail storms and severe weather, and did the N&R push back the deadline to get the story in?

The answer on both counts was no. Nary a mention of the biggest weather event to hit the area since a tornado roared down Lee Street in the 1920s.

If I’d been listening for a death knell, I heard it that morning.

I hate to sound like an old fogey, but back in the day when Moses Crutchfield was running the newsroom and Slick Shepherd was running the paper, they’d have called back every reporter and photographer on staff and told them they’d be working some OT that evening, and called the pressroom and told them to grab a nap or a Thermos, because they were going to be there awhile. I thought maybe editor John Robinson, a fine man, might’ve explained in his Sunday column why deadlines precluded their getting the story in, but he didn’t.

Again, I don’t place blame on anybody for this. When you only have so many bodies, often there simply aren’t enough to go around, especially when there is breaking, deadline-crunching news. In this climate of lowered expectations, it’s enough to rationalize, “We’ll get it tomorrow.”

But, sadly, for some of these good souls, tomorrow never comes.

Ogi may be reached at ogiman100@yahoo.com, heard Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. on “The Dusty Dunn Show” on WGOS 1070 AM, and seen on “Triad Today” hosted by Jim Longworth on ABC 45 at 6:30 a.m. Fridays and on WMYV 48 at 10 p.m. Sundays.

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