Monday, November 01, 2010

The once and future Charlotte Observer

Walker Lundy has written a wonderful - if bittersweet can be called wonderful - piece for Charlotte Magazine on the wrenching times at the Observer.

The vacant desks at the Observer today sit like tombstones for the departed staffers and monuments to better times in the news business. It is the same in hundreds of newspaper and television newsrooms across the country. The impact is painfully clear: The Charlotte Observer is no longer the paper it was and likely never will be again.

The 124-year-old Observer has been the scourge of crooked Carolina politicians and winner of dozens of national awards, including three Pulitzer Prizes and a share of a fourth, and a finalist in 2008. But today, with 100 fewer journalists chasing the news, readers are learning less about how Charlotte works—and when it doesn’t. Because information is the lifeblood of a democracy, a healthy, aggressive paper can be among a city’s most important institutions, whether or not readers always like what it publishes. A newspaper is a combination blabbermouth and conscience for a community. No one else can play those roles as effectively.

For all the hue and cry over the cuts, this story is not just about that. It’s also about a newspaper that is scrambling to reinvent itself. Even as its staff shrinks, the Observer is experimenting with new ways of news gathering and reporting, exploring previously unthinkable collaborations, and trying to work with the Internet instead of fight against it. It’s too early to know if any of the new strategies are long-term solutions, but at least the paper isn’t going down without a fight. ...
Of course, much the same thing could be said of many McClatchy papers, including The State here in Columbia, where you could fire a shotgun in the newsroom these days and have trouble hitting anyone.

Having said that, however, the paper did a wonderful piece of journalism this weekend looking at how state budget cuts are starting to affect health and safety issues such as restaurant inspections, truck inspections and forest fire protection.

With any luck - and call me skeptical - it will start a long-term conversation about what exactly the functions of government should be.

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