EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT! INDUSTRY IN CRISIS?
TRIAD NEWSPAPERS STRUGGLE AND SURVIVE
On Stratford Road every morning from six o’clock until noon, Donald Daniels sits on top of two crates beside a stack of newspapers. He smiles to the drivers and waves to most cars that pass; and he’s constantly rising up from the crates, paper in hand, and limping to car windows. “Good mornin’ darlin’, tell your husband I said hello,” he calls to a young woman in a silver car. She won’t buy a newspaper today, but she and her husband do several times a week, always from Daniels, he says. The newspaper hawker wears a black snowsuit and an orange vest loaded with issues of the Winston-Salem Journal. In seven years on the job, he has collected dozens of regular customers. Sometimes they will pull over the median and chat with Daniels until traffic piles up behind them. Hands reach out with exact change, or with one or two dollars, saying, “Keep the change.” A few accept free newspapers from Daniels, which he might offer as a sample or a gift. “That man said a prayer for me, when my leg was hurt,” Daniels says, pointing after a minibus from the First Assembly of God, “so I said I would never charge him for the paper.” Five minutes later, he gives away another paper: “I’ve known them since high school. When they got married for a wedding present I told them they wouldn’t have to pay for a paper as long as I’m standing here.” Daniels sells — or gifts — over 150 newspapers a day. His sales are among the highest of the 20 or so newspapers hawkers stationed around Winston- Salem. Although several have worked more years than Daniels, he succeeds thanks to a good rapport with customers and a prime location. A constant fixture on Stratford Road, Daniels has watched his sales slowly grow. To repeat: In this time of beleaguered newspapers and devastating recession, the newspaper hawker reports steady or rising sales. Thereader may recognize in this a rare highlight in the recent history ofdaily newspapers. Nationwide circulation numbers have fallen fordecades, as have the dailies’ profits. The last decade was the worst.After surviving radio and TV, the daily paper was walloped by theinternet, which offered a faster, wider and cheaper source of news andinformation, along with a better and cheaper forum for theonce-profitable classified and personal ads. Newspapers scrambled toadapt, but the prevailing survival strategies have been consolidationand layoffs. What has ensued is a vicious cycle of shrinkingcirculation and budget cuts, to which there is no apparent end. Whydoes the newspaper hawker, however, continue to sell papers? Is therereason for optimism in Winston-Salem? Or, as some pessimists predict,will the Journal fail by year’s end? If the daily newspapers of the Triad are dying, the story is not found on the front page of the Winston-Salem Journal, the Greensboro News & Record or the High Point Enterprise. Thenewspapers give slight mention to their own affairs, such as layoffsand losses, except in editorials and staff blogs, which usually amountto a defense of changes. Moreover, journalists are reluctant to commentfor fear of compromising their newspaper or facing layoffs themselves.’
Case in point is the High Point Enterprise, which has undergone several rounds of layoffs since the newspaper’s purchase in 1999 by Kentuckyconglomerate Paxton Media Group. Recently, on Feb. 10, the newspapergave minimal coverage to the announcement of 38 layoffs and majorchanges in operations at the Enterprise. The article byeditor Tom Blount was placed toward the back of the newspaper, on 5D.It stated that the creative services, press room and mail roomdepartments at the newspapers would be eliminated and consolidated withservices at partner newspaper the Durham Herald-Sun. Thearticle continued with a statement by Publisher Mike Starn and closedwith a brief contextualization: “Consolidation of production efforts bynewspapers has become quite common during the latter years of the 20 thcentury and the early years of the 21 st century, as both equipment andpersonnel costs continue to rise.” Amazingly, the layoffs at the125year-old newspaper represent over half of the entire operation. Blount declined to comment. Several reporters at the Enterprise also declined to comment, alluding to concerns about job security. Job cuts at the Enterprise andother local daily newspapers are necessary because of their steadilydecreasing circulation, or so goes the conventional wisdom. Accordingto a September report by the Audit Bureau of Circulation, The Enterprise has a weekday circulation of 18,693, down 6.8 percent compared with the same period last year. The News & Record lost 6 percent of its weekday circulation, slipping to 77,587. The Winston-Salem Journal fell to 76,461, losing 5.2 percent of its weekday circulation. Profit and ad revenue data are not available for the Enterprise, which is part of a privately owned company. Nor are they available for the News & Record, which is owned by another private conglomerate, the Norfolk, Va.-based Landmark Communications. Specific financial figures are not available at the Journal, thoughthey are for the newspaper’s public parent company, Media General. Thecompany recently reported a net loss of $85.5 million during the fourthquarter of 2008 — a loss that was amplified by a one-time $83.1 millionwrite-down — compared with a profit of $9.6 million during the sameperiod in 2007. Advertising revenue in Media General’s metro markets,including Winston-Salem, was down 60 percent from last year foremployment classified advertising, and 50 percent for real estate adrevenue. In spite of budget cuts and newsroom layoffs at eachnewspaper, editors defend their ability to produce high-quality localcoverage. Consistently, their plans involve using technology and betternewsroom organization to increase efficiency. The News & Record and the Winston- Salem Journal were both recognized for general excellence at the 2008 North Carolina Press Association awards. The Greensboro newspaper won the top award for large-circulation newspapers in North Carolina,along with 10 awards for individual journalists. The Winston-Salemnewspaper was awarded second place for large-circulation newspapers, inaddition to 13 individual awards. The Enterprise won seven awards for individual journalists in a smaller circulation category. The NCPA award for the News & Record comesin the face of over 100 job cuts at the newspaper in the past twoyears. Recently, the newspaper eliminated 41 positions through buyouts,including seven people from the news and editorial departments. John Robinson, editor of the News & Record, saidhe told his news staff to make smarter choices about which stories theycover. He also demands that reporters work harder to keep pace with the24-hour output of the internet. For instance, since 2005 thenewspaper’s website, www.newsrecord.com, has hosted over a dozen blogs by journalists, including Robinson. “Thebest journalists don’t see a deadline every day; they see a deadlineevery minute,” Robinson said. Robinson has worked at the News & Record since 1985, when he started as an assistant city editor. The gray-haired editor speaks like a man bred in newsrooms. Heencourages me to ask hard questions about layoffs, and then respondswith fierce confidence. “People say get rid of the local page. Otherpeople complain there is no local news,” Robinson said. “Take thisarticle,” he added, picking up a recent issue from his desk andpointing to a column by Jeri Rowe about community events on TateStreet. “Some might call it fluff. Others might call it a great localstory.” Nearly any action taken by Robinson and the News & Record iscriticized roundly in letters and blogs. A familiar refrain, commentedby Doug Johnson in response to Robinson’s November post about buyouts,is “Keep doing the same old thing. You will get the same old result!”But the editor does not blanch in the face of criticism. He even argueswith commenters on his own blog. “There are three things every manthinks he can do better than anyone else,” Robinson says, straining toremember a quote by Mark Twain. “These are stoke a fire, make love to awoman and edit a newspaper.” Although several reporters at the News & Record declined to comment on their employer, those who did shared a common pride for the newspaper. (Admittedly,those who declined to comment may have been less positive.) Among thereporters I spoke with was Lex Alexander, an employee of the News & Record from 1987 to January 2009, when he accepted a voluntary buyout. The 22-year journalist has a ragged white beard. Currently unemployed, he posts daily on his blog, Blog on the Run: Reloaded, at www.blogontherun.wordpress.com.. Ironically, Alexander started the blog in 2002, around the time he was tasked by the News & Record to make recommendations for developing the newspaper’s web presence. ButAlexander expresses no resentment for his buyout and other layoffs.Regarding the newspaper’s response to his 2004 web recommendations, hesays: “They did as much as anyone could be expected to do under thecircumstances.” “Hard to believe that was four years ago,” headds. Alexander worked around the newsroom, working beats that rangedfrom crime to religion, then landing as regional editor. Hedescribes his favorite experience as working with reporters StanSwofford and Taft Wireback on investigative stories, like the extendedfeature on the twentieth anniversary of crack cocaine’s entry intoGreensboro, published in 2004, and an investigation into the shadyfinances of non-profit company Project Homestead in 2003. Alexanderrecounted another fond memory of the News & Record, manyyears ago, when during a heavy snowstorm in Greensboro, the newspapersent a photographer to the top of Mount Mitchell: “The caption said,‘Think it’s bad in Greensboro? Look at the snow up here!’” “With morepeople you could do more things,” Alexander says. “But people still dotheir jobs as well as they can. And they do a good job.” Twenty-fivemiles west in Forsyth County, the Winston-Salem Journal suffers and abides. TheMedia General newspaper has steadily eliminated positions for severalyears, including columnists with a local following, like music writerEd Bumgardner, NASCAR reporter Mike Mullhern, Outdoor Editor Dan Kiblerand YES! Weekly’s film critic Mark Burger. It has alsoeliminated the daily business section and other parts of the newspaper,like the Teen Page, for which this reporter wrote from 2002-2003. The Journal recentlyaddressed the plight of their newspaper and the news industry in a Feb.8 editorial: “The Crisis Facing American Newspapers: Throughenlightened public policy print journalism will evolve, survive.”According to the article, a third of the daily newspapers in America could be bankrupt by the summer. In a companion editorial by Journal Executive Editor Carl Crothers, however, Crothers said the Winston- Salem Journal was not on the verge of bankruptcy. In an interview with YES! Weekly, Crothers acknowledged erosion in the newsroom, but he insisted that the quality of the Winston-Salem Journal remainshigh “It’s the same story everywhere. The decline in newspaper revenueshas forced newspapers to cut reporting staff,” Crothers said. “But todo that surgically is difficult. We try to protect basic news reportersthat are out covering news that breaks every day. We try and do withoutspecialty writers.” “How that translates is to less analysison important issues. That’s the main downside of what’s been going on,”he said. Since coming to the Winston- Salem Journal in 1996,Crothers has launched a series of long-term news projects. Theseresulted in significant investigative articles, like one that aided inthe exoneration of Darryl Hunt, and controversial articles on eugenicsand infant mortality. Although the Journal cannotafford as much money for long-term projects, they will continue toinvestigate compelling stories, according to Crothers. “A lotof people don’t realize the cost of the things we do. And they arethings that no one else does or can do,” Crothers said. Similar to theatmosphere at the News & Record, there is a feeling of defensive pride at the Winston-Salem Journal. Before letting me in to take photos of the Journal printingpress, production manager Frank Clayton spoke for a few minutes inpraise of the newspaper. Clayton has worked here for more than 35years. Community Marketing Manager Ben Flynt has been thereeven longer, 41 years. In Flynt’s opinion the newspaper is as good asit’s ever been. “Every night 100,000 issues are printed and distributedin four hours, so the next morning everyone wakes up and reads the samething. They can make their own opinions, find their own truth, but theystart from the same thing. That’s a miracle, every day,” Flynt said.Wayne King, a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University, warnedof the danger in a decline of print newspapers. “Nobody elsecovers news, only papers. Not TV, not radio. They reproduce news, notcover it,” King said. King described a deleterious trend in journalism,in which newspapers can profit without being very good. One reason isthat certain businesses, like grocery stores, department stores and cardealers, keep newspapers afloat as a medium for their advertisements.Another reason, he said, quoting circus showman PT Barnum, is: “Nobodyever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the Americanpeople.” The danger, he says, is if local newspapers stopreporting local news. “If the local paper doesn’t cover it, the APdoesn’t know about it. If a newspaper folds in a small town, the townessentially disappears from the news,” King said. In the Triad, dailynewspapers continue to cover local news, despite severe financiallimitations. Newsrooms are not the loud and joyous nexuses of news andopinion that they once were, but they remain a vibrant and necessarycenter of the community. As for the lack of noise, it has a lot to dowith the jettison of typewriters and telephones. A lot of the output at a modern newspaper takes place online — although it remainsto be seen whether newspapers can build a profitable business modelaround the web. But for hundreds of local employees and thousands ofreaders, the daily newspaper is still a point of value and pride. Atthe intersection of North Glenn Avenue and Old Walkertown Road, way outin the rural suburbs of Winston- Salem, the daily newspaper is stillalive. Newspaper hawker Turhan Hughes spreads out stacks of the Winston-Salem Journal arounda 16-foot concrete island in the middle of the road. A rock sits on topof each pile. “I do it that way so if someone tries to run up and stealthe newspapers, they can only get one pile,” Hughes says. Hughes wearsa camouflage scarf and a camouflage bucket hat, which hide most of hisround and smiling face. An orange newspaper vest stretches over hisbulky blue jacket. White earbuds hang from around his neck. Like hisfriend Daniels, Hughes walks with a limp, due to a car wreck many yearsago. Hughes has worked as a newspaper hawker since 1993 at this samespot. “I’m like a roll of toilet paper,” Hughes says. “Do you ever goto the toilet, and you get there, and then you realize there’s notoilet paper? You’re upset! That’s what people think if they drive byand I’m not here.” Hughes sells close to 100 newspapers a day, up from20 a day when he first started. But he always saves the last newspaper. “If I come home without the Sunday paper, my wife won’t let me in the door,” Hughes says.
The Winston-Salem Journal press room, where the daily miracle of the newspaper comes together, fights obsolescence in an increasingly digital media universe. (photos by Gus Lubin)