Archive for March, 2009

Setting the record straight, sort of

Monday, March 30th, 2009

News & Observer publisher Orage Quarles offered an “open letter to readers” in the Sunday paper, in which he sought to allay fears that the N&O is a failing enterprise. Setting aside the notion that denials, especially strongly worded ones, sometimes instead carry the unmistakable odor of confirmation, it’s worth pondering what Quarles had to say — and what he left unsaid.

The highlights:

… it’s time to set the record straight: First and foremost, The N&O is a profitable enterprise that is not about to go out of business. In fact, more people depend on us now than ever in our history.

I believe both statements are true. There’s a “but” which should be attached to both, however. The N&O’s profitability is lower, and probably much lower, than it has been in recent years, with recovery to former levels unlikely. And whatever growth in readership the N&O can claim has come almost exclusively in the form of online readership — which produces no direct revenue and a relative pittance in advertising dollars.

We’re not letting up on our public service mission, either. Newspapers play a fundamental role in maintaining and strengthening our democracy, and at The N&O, we take our watchdog role seriously.

Slate’s media writer, Jack Shafer, debunked that “essential to democracy” claim just three days ago. And while I’d agree that the N&O does an exemplary job of keeping an eye on politicians, its pursuit of bread-and-butter local news has dropped off considerably.

We’re maintaining our commitment to our readers, our advertisers and our community …We have had to make some very difficult decisions. The changes to the paper’s sections and layout have been painful, but they pale in comparison to eliminating the jobs of our employees.

Boy, talk about ignoring the elephant in the room: The words “McClatchy” and “debt” appear nowhere in Quarles’ message to readers. He glides easily from the trumpeting of profitability to regret for the cutbacks, without acknowledging the corporate debt that has hamstrung the N&O and every other McClatchy paper.

Meanwhile, you can count on The N&O to be in your driveway tomorrow morning, and every morning for a long time to come. We didn’t get our Old Reliable nickname by accident, you know.

This last paragraph is perhaps the most revealing of all. At a moment when everyone agrees that the newspaper industry’s biggest handicap is its failure to smartly adapt to the digital age, Quarles promises only that the N&O will still “be in your driveway.” In fact, online readers can’t even find Quarles’ remarks on the N&O’s site — which is why I couldn’t link to them here.

He doesn’t seem to realize that, in fact, the driveway is a graveyard. It’s where newspapers eventually will die, not thrive, as technology pushes relentlessly forward.