Following is the Public Editor column for Sunday, July 6, 2008:
For a time, a notice was posted in The News & Observer newsroom that said: "Change is good; you go first."
Last week, The N&O went first with some very noticeable changes to the newspaper. From the comments I got, some readers are still scratching their heads over how good change is.
The major changes: Combining the separate Business and City/State sections into a new Triangle & Co. section, and consolidating the Monday editorial and op-ed pages into a single opinion page. Also, the Monday front page was changed to a "look-ahead" page, focusing more on the upcoming news of the week instead of the past day's news (which, from Sunday, is usually pretty slow).
Below are some comments from readers. Some require explanation, some reflect misperceptions, so I'll respond where appropriate:
• "Where are the tragedians such as Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus when you need them. They ought to be here to write the tragedy of what The N&O has become .... The coup de grace was this morning. I opened the page to editorials and there were none." -- Assad Meymandi, Raleigh.
Meymandi and another reader were confused by the design of the Monday opinion page. There were two short editorials at the top of the page, but they looked different because of the design. There will normally be three editorials there, plus letters to the editor and a column elsewhere on the page.
• "You have taken what was a stellar -- though limited -- business section and sandwiched it between content ranging from Eve Carson's autopsy report to 'Your Best Puppy Shot' ... What a disappointment and a terrible reflection of the newspaper's priorities. Furthermore, Monday's editorial page has become so limited and so insignificant, it should be re-titled the 'Why Bother Page.' " -- Mark Mine, Chapel Hill.
• "Why put the want ads in 'Life, etc' section? Why not include them in the 'Triangle' section?" -- Doris Ward, Goldsboro.
The classified section needed to be combined with another section for production reasons. Those two sections had run together on the press previously and made a better fit for the new configuration.
• "I understand the streamlining of the newsroom made necessary by economics. It's not so bad, because there are so many other news sources available via the Web. However, when you start chopping the other things in the paper, you start eliminating reasons for people to subscribe." -- Gaines Weaver, Raleigh. He referred specifically to "sports, comics, syndicated political columns (liberal and conservative, alike) and puzzles."
The recent changes included no reduction in sports, comics and puzzles. Shrinking the Monday opinion pages did reduce the number of columns that day (by two). Some readers have protested the appearance of Charlotte Observer sports columnists in The N&O, saying their subject matter is not local enough.
• "I am profoundly dismayed by the changes in the Monday opinion pages and disturbed by the message it sends. We expect the N&O to be a voice in the community. I'm saddened that whoever made this decision values that voice so little." -- David Perry, Carrboro.
• "It's funny, in a very sad way, but as the editorial page is diminishing in size, content and importance, the N&O comic pages are increasing! That's a pretty sad commentary in these difficult times!" -- Richard Kiernan from Raleigh.
The opinion pages have shrunk on Monday, but there continue to be two full pages of opinion the other six days. Comics were increased in January, but not since.
I understand and appreciate the readers' concerns. They have a proprietary interest in The N&O, as though it is their newspaper, which in many ways it is. Change in something so personal is unsettling. Think how it is for people who work here.
Here's the message I've been trying to communicate back to the readers who have contacted me. First, give it a chance. The Monday front page, the combined local news and business section and the consolidated Monday opinion pages do look different, but you may find some improvements, as did reader Nancy Healy of Raleigh,
"I'm a loyal reader who doesn't like changes to my paper. I still grieve the Raleigh Times (closed in 1989). But, much to my surprise, I like Triangle & Co. The other changes have worked well too. Good job."
Second, be aware that the changes are being done out of sheer necessity, for a purpose. This is not a situation, as some readers still suspect, that The N&O or its parent company is trying to squeeze more profit out of the paper.
Virtually every newspaper in the country is cutting space and laying off people to adjust to reduced revenues that no longer support the expenses of putting out a paper at the level we were.
The Los Angeles Times last week announced cuts of 150 news jobs and a 15 percent reduction in the number of pages.
I'm persuaded that the goal at The N&O is to make the painful changes while still preserving the paper's core public service mission. So, look at the stories last week on the travels and big salary of Mary Easley. See the stories from the previous week about the Wake County official spending $160,000 on 50 trips to destinations like Disney World.
The readers said it best: "For all its warts, for all its problems, The N&O has done a masterful job of getting under the skin of state government, helping to correct problems and make life a bit better in the capital city," wrote Richard Kiernan. "The issues of the idiotic spending by the Wake County staff was fantastic, as is the ongoing highlighting of the governor and Mrs. governor's travels using our taxes. In my view, the N&O should be GROWING the traditional print paper, not shrinking it!"
And Charles Becker, of Raleigh: "I may be a bit upset about what's happening to the N&O but, big or small, thick or thin, it is my newspaper and I will remain a subscriber. I do reserve the right to complain occasionally though."