Six years of looking at N.C. newspapers’ front pages

I’ve posted 280 Sunday samplers  — about five-and-a-half years worth — since January 2012. And newspaper front pages have changed significantly over that period, and not for the better.

I love newspapers, and being out of the business for more than six years hasn’t dimmed that love. Sunday sampler is my personal selection of the best stories from the front pages of Sunday’s North Carolina newspapers. I limit it to the front pages because that tends to be — in some cases, that should be past tense — the day newspapers publish their best work. Early on, I described my thinking this way:  “When I look at newspaper front pages, I’m seeking a surprise — something that tells me something I don’t know and that I want to know.”

So, yes, personal.

North Carolina has always had a strong culture of newspapers, thanks in part to the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill, of which I’m an adjunct. A few times a year, I can’t find anything on the front pages of the 20 or so newspapers I scan each Sunday at the Newseum. Today is one of them. So, I’ll post this, which I prepared a few weeks ago and never got around to finishing until now.

Some observations:

  • Local coverage in smaller community papers seems consistently strong. Or if it isn’t strong in terms of enterprise, it is at least abundant. I have worried about news deserts ever since my friend Penny Muse Abernathy at the university began studying the decline of newspapers’ reach, particularly in rural areas. Many of the smaller papers have front pages that cover vital community affairs with the traditional mix of government coverage of lifestyle features.

  • On the other hand, the state’s larger metro papers — Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Asheville — have reduced the number of stories on their front pages. When I started this blog, four stories on the front page was the routine. Now they often publish two stories with more dramatic displays, hoping to grab readers’ attention and focus. (There is research that supports this practice.) The upshot is that readers get less enterprise. What papers give us is as strong as ever, but there’s less of it. Speaking as a former editor I get it: Fewer reporters on staff translates to fewer enterprise stories. And while many newspapers are working hard to keep their investigative reporting muscle strong, it’s difficult. And it shows.

  • More wire stories — stories available to many newspapers, television stations and websites everywhere — are popping up on front pages of papers where they once didn’t. Another result of the decline in the number of reporters in the newsroom. And because the stories aren’t staff-produced, they tend to be everywhere — TV, websites, Twitter — on Friday or Saturday. Many readers may not be tuned to the news except on Sunday morning — but many others likely know a political fight is brewing over the Supreme Court nomination.

  • Fortunately, some newspapers are sharing content, and they are serving their readers when they do. Owned by the same company, the Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer are the prime example. Both front pages featured the Observer’s fish game story the Sunday I looked. The two McClatchy papers have teams that collaborate with each other, including reporters from both papers covering sports and government, and conducting investigations. That stretches their resources and helps them avoid duplicating coverage. And because McClatchy has a wire service, many of the state’s newspapers pick up Raleigh and Charlotte stories. Winston-Salem and Greensboro, both owned by BH Media, also routinely share content.
  • Further collaboration is an opportunity for struggling newspapers. Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post encourages newspapers to do just that: “What if journalists could consistently and powerfully get their act together in meaningful collaboration, truly realizing their own strength in numbers? So armed, they might do battle against the crushing tariffs that are jacking up newsprint prices; they might force the tech platforms to treat their editorial content with respect; they might even solve the urgent crisis in local news.”
  • More papers have added hard paywalls, which I understand — content has value. But hard paywalls limit random readers from seeing the news. My experience is that unless your content behind that paywall is so indispensable or compelling, it’s tough to get someone to pay for it. And perhaps for the readers of the High Point Enterprise, say, it is. But it isn’t for me.
  • There has been a major digital change since I started this column, and it’s a good one. A few newspapers are posting their big Sunday stories before Sunday. I first noticed it a year or two ago when the News & Observer published an entire series online before it made the print edition of the newspaper. Now, for Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville and Asheville, I will often see stories on their Sunday front pages and have to search their websites to find them because they’ve been published Thursday or Friday.

Journalists are not the enemy of the state, and it should offend every thinking American when they hear him say it. The journalists at North Carolina’s newspapers work hard in tough conditions and at low pay to bring news about their communities to the public. When you hear “fake news” it’s a smokescreen spoken by people who want to hide from something — usually the truth.

These papers and their journalists, despite their flaws, are doing democracy’s heavy lifting.

(All newspaper front pages are courtesy of Newseum.org.)

 

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