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Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Death of a Newspaper: What happened to the News & Record?

Margaret Moffett is a journalist's journalist, and I would say that even if I had not known her for quite many years now.  She has brought her enormous talent to bear wherever she has gone, whether it was at The Reidsville Review (when we first met) or at the Greensboro News & Record, where she was reporter and editor of a number of sections.  She has earned my respect many times over.

So when her essay "Below the Fold" was published a few weeks ago, about the decline of what was at one time North Carolina's third largest newspaper, I was more than intrigued.  Having watched the fall from grace of the News & Record during the past decade or so, I wanted to see what a firsthand witness to what transpired had to say about it.

To be brief: it was heartbreaking to read.

Moffett chronicles a series of horrible management decisions on top of what was already a drop in readership typical of the industry as online news grew.  In reading "Below the Fold" I got the sense that the News & Record's fate was an avoidable one, had its leadership not been so eager to grow too big, too fast.

From Moffett's article:

The News & Record used to be a great paper—maybe not every day, but on a lot of them. 

From 1965 to 2013, the newspaper’s owner was Landmark Communications in Norfolk, Virginia, whose papers included The Virginian-Pilot, Roanoke Times in southwest Virginia, and dozens of smaller ones. (It also created The Weather Channel.) 

Landmark, which sold the last of its media holdings in 2021, was in the business of making money—though it’s unclear how much, because the company was privately held. But controlling owner Frank Batten Sr. believed in local journalism, at least enough to keep editors reasonably happy with their resources. 

The News & Record was where staff received a runner-up nod for the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1979 Klan/Nazi shootings, when white nationalists killed five people at a local “Death to the Klan” rally organized by the Communist Workers Party.

 It was where, in 1985, people lined up along East Market Street to buy Jerry Bledsoe’s latest installment of a series chronicling murders involving three prominent local families, which later became the book Bitter Blood.

It was where Jim Schlosser, propelled by innate curiosity and boundless enthusiasm, delighted readers for 41 years with articles about things he found interesting: an old building the history of Greensboro’s PGA golf tournament, urban foxes.

And it was where I reported and edited, to significantly less acclaim, from 1995 until 2018.

There were a lot of solid writers at the News & Record at the zenith of its glory.  It was the journal of record for that region of North Carolina, and beyond.  It was also where I first discovered the joys of writing for publication: first as letters to the editor, and then a few larger pieces.  I was always thrilled to see a new essay in print, knowing that it was being read by thousands upon thousands of people throughout central North Carolina.

Good Lord... what happened to all of that?

Now, this is just me talking.  Nobody else.  But I have some notions...

The biggest of them is this: the News & Record has gradually abandoned whatever principle it had of being objective and has instead turned full-bore liberal.   It can be seen in everything from its editorials to its array of columnists, to its choice of stories.  In doing so it insulted the intelligence of a vast swath of its readership, who did not care for politicizing its daily news.

As I just said, its selection of op-ed writers has become severely lacking.  Leonard Pitts Jr. is the worst columnist I have ever seen (doesn't this guy see anything beyond the lens of alleged racism?).  Gone are the days when George Will and his kind were considered cutting edge conservatism.  Even Rosemary Roberts (may she rest in peace), as much as I loathed her leftism... she still had some of my grudging respect.  I like to think she had some for me too.

Its letters to the editor reflect the intellectual wasteland that is the modern day News & Record.  When the public input is far more boisterous at the now-online incarnation of The Rhinoceros Times, something has gone very wrong.

Does the News & Record even have a regular sports page any more?  The late Wilt Browning was always a pleasure to read (even if he was biased toward UNC in basketball).  What happened to that?

So much else that I could share aloud, about the fall of the News & Record.  But I will say this in closing: I believe it can still become a good newspaper once again.  It will require some serious revamping however.  And more than a little humility as a publication.  That region of North Carolina deserves to have a journal of record, not just for its present potential readership but for all of those still to come.  Many a time I've driven past the main branch of the public library in Greensboro, and wondered at all of the print copy it possesses of Greensboro newspapers, large and small, that are deposited within.  A printed News & Record and all it has to say about the people it serves should have an ongoing presence within those walls.

I hope it persists.  But as I said, it's going to take some effort.  And maybe more than a little clearing of conscience.


Jeff said...

Sad article. Kudos to Miss Moffett for writing this, it couldn't have been easy.

Communities need newspapers like the News & Record. They are the journalism that holds everyone especially elected officials accountable. When they are gone it only emboldens the bad guys.

Chris Knight said...

Re: communities needing newspapers. Agree 10,000%. They also are an immutable record of past goings-on that cannot be escaped from. It's too easy to change an article online so that it reflects more kindly on an elected official or a corporate executive. Once something is committed to print, there's no going back. Even a published retraction is part of that eternal record. Greensboro is a city that has seen better days and the current News & Record is reflecting that, if not being some catalyst of its own. The town deserves better. I think the newspaper can make a turnaround but as I said, it's going to take some doing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris, I'm one of your Reidsville readers. You may or may not be aware that the Reidsville Review stopped publication several years ago. Reidsville had enough news to fill six editions a week but now the entire county has one weekly covering everything and it's not doing a great job of that at all. I agree, a strong community deserves strong media covering it. It's part of the local sense of identity. Reidsville used to be more than it is now and the Review was part of that.

Chris Knight said...

I remember the day in the fall of 1994 when it was announced that American Tobacco Company had been sold. Was working at Libby Hill Seafood and you could SEE the look in the eyes of so many who came in that night, the "thousand yard stare". It was the look of a people who suddenly knew that life as they had known it was going to change. Reidsville made the classic mistake of a lot of small towns, putting all its eggs in one basket. In this case it was American Tobacco. That night was the crest for Reidsville. It all went down from there and almost thirty years later the town hasn't really recovered. You're right, the Review was part of Reidsville's identity. So were the papers in Eden and Madison/Mayodan/Stoneville. Rockingham County really was a collection of distinct communities then. It was a great time.