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Paper Tiger 

The Observer's flame burns lower and lower

These days, wherever I go it seems that people ask me the same thing: "What happened to the Charlotte Observer?" You can tell by their faces that they're genuinely concerned about Charlotte's daily paper, or what's left of it. Until recently, people in our newsroom regularly laughed about what was happening to the Observer. We're not laughing anymore. You want to beat a competitor, not watch it shrivel up into a shadow of what it once was. After all, every city deserves a great daily paper. We used to have one. Five years ago, when I started reporting in Charlotte for The Leader newspaper, scooping the Observer's bustling political staff was a big deal. Through no small effort on my part, I managed to pull it off, if I was lucky, about once a month. At the time, the daily's coverage of Charlotte's civic scene -- and just about everything else -- was so tight and so thorough, I was largely forced to make my living doing in-depth research into the thorny issues those at the Observer glossed over to avoid offending anyone.

Those days are gone, and I miss them. Over the last year in particular, the paper has become thinner and thinner, about the size and weight I'd expect to find in a city like Lincolnton or Hickory. The local section is thin enough to give you a paper cut and not worth the risk. Some days, more than half of it is consumed by the obituaries. Stories from surrounding cities I couldn't locate on a map often fill a third to half of what's left of the local section, which likely saves the paper the cost of printing the county-specific editions it once put out. What little local news the paper prints is largely fluff surrounding an obligatory local government story that leaves you with more questions than it answers.

Stories the paper buys from the Associated Press dominate the front page. By the time I read the AP stories buried further back in the paper's "A" section, I've often already read them in another paper the day before.

Don't misunderstand. There's no shortage of talent at the Observer. If he were turned loose, Jim Morrill is capable of Pulitzer-quality material. With a little coaching from Morrill, sometimes-government reporter Scott Dodd could do it, too. As for the rest of the best, they left years ago and Charlotte's media culture has never been the same since. In fact, given what little real news the paper puts out and the tiny space it's crammed into, I often wonder what the folks in the paper's newsroom do all day.

Without the Observer fully in the game, there's more than enough news to go around and the old sense of urgency that once drove this city's reporters is almost gone. I remember working weekends to rush a major story to print if we'd gotten a whiff of an Observer reporter on our tail. Now we often hold those stories an extra week, if not longer, to fine-tune them and polish them up. When I object, more out of habit than anything else, to holding the story, my editor often asks me, "Who else is going to do this story?" I never have an answer.

Don't think this is just a competition-bashing column, because it's not. The implications of this situation are staggering. With the exception of the rare FBI public corruption investigation -- and FBI agents say they are often tipped off by good reporting -- Charlotte's public sector is going largely unpoliced. Two or even three good reporters can't do it alone; the task is simply too vast. Worse yet, embarrassing the Observer into covering important stories that have been broken by other media with less reach has become damn near impossible, as those who run the paper no longer have any shame. The fact that the Observer no longer recovers from being scooped by breaking some news of its own in an unfolding story hasn't gone unnoticed by government bureaucrats. They've learned that when the Observer goes AWOL on a story broken by another media outlet, they can simply hunker down and ignore it and it will eventually go away.

Given the above, how are visitors to the Queen City supposed to take us seriously after reading the Observer? A world-class city needs a world-class paper, not some shallow, rinky-dink imitation. The people of this city don't care about trailer park murders in east Shelby or squabbles among board members of North Carolina towns they never knew existed. They're not stupid and they're starving for news from the kind of paper that takes more than 10 minutes to read, the kind that hasn't been pared down and pre-sanitized so as not to offend anyone.

The Observer has the staff to do it. It's time they were allowed to do their jobs again.

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