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Paper tiger 

The downward spiral of the daily news

I owe a lot to the Charlotte Observer.

For years I've paid my mortgage by writing stories the Observer won't run. Not the stories its reporters can't write or the stories they don't know about, but the stories the paper won't run.

I'm not the only non-Observer reporter writing these stories. It's gotten to the point where political reporters around town can actually identify which stories the Observer won't cover. No matter how scintillating the story is, if it casts the wrong light on the community or gores a sacred cow -- and there are so many sacred cows -- it won't make it into the daily paper.

Even if it doesn't offend the Observer's sensibilities, a local piece might not run because the paper has to cover a developing story in Sawmills, NC, so they can sell a few papers there. Never mind that the local section already has as much news from places I've never heard of or never been to as it does about what is actually going on here.

The local stories the Observer now passes over aren't crummy bottom-of-the-barrel rejects, either. Take the cover piece I wrote recently about the death of Zachary Montognese, the 19-year-old kid who was murdered, execution-style, by a drug addict he tried to help. His distraught family actually had to fight to get his killer a 15-year sentence -- up from the five-year plea bargain they say he was initially offered -- in a court system where sentences of 10 years or less for murder are common because overwhelmed prosecutors must plea bargain them down. The North Carolina Press Association thought the story was important enough to award it first place this year.

"Wow!" people might say. "Where did you get that story?"

I'd like to tell them I got it by using my fabulously well-honed reporting skills, but that's not true. I got that story because the family of the victim was repeatedly blown off by the Observer and finally gave up. I don't get all my stories from the Observer's waste bin, but every year I get more and more of them that way, and the Observer's rejects keep getting better and better.

Meanwhile, editor Rick Thames is filling valuable editorial space with long-winded explanations for why the paper is going to have to slash another five pages because circulation decline is killing the newspaper industry.

Well, I'm tired of the mealymouthed bandwagon that the Observer's administrators and much of the daily newspaper industry are on. They whine that the Internet is killing them. They blame their supposedly impending demise on everything from audience fragmentation to demographics. Some news organizations have even gone so far as to insinuate that their readers' intellectual curiosity isn't what it was a generation ago.

That's bull. People are starving for news. They fill my inbox all the time asking for more information on things I've written. The Rhinoceros Times may not have figured out a way to parlay its circulation success into more ad sales yet, but their readership numbers have shot through the roof.

The reason for this is simple. People -- not all of them, but many more than the mainstream media would like to admit -- are so desperate for nuts-and-bolts news that they are willing to slog through the Rhino's well-reported but bitterly written pieces on the day-to-day grind of local government, information you no longer get from the Observer.

I bring this up not to bash the Observer, but because I miss the way it was a decade ago, when it was a joy to read. Some of the same reporters are still at the Observer and there are many talented newcomers capable of much more than what you read in the paper on a daily basis.

Like the Observer, the big daily chains across the country want you to believe their problems are due to a 40-year trend of circulation decline that is beyond their control, which preceded any of the modern changes they've made to editorial content. What they don't want you to know is that much of that decline is really attributable to the demise of the afternoon edition of papers. When you break weekday morning circulation out on a chart, you see that while afternoon circulation plummeted over the last several decades, morning circulation continued to climb until the 1990s.

Why? Because of the Internet, sure, but the bigger problem is consolidation. Across the country, chains bought big papers and shut down their competitors in markets like this one. The lack of competition brought out the worst in the coverage, because in the past if you didn't cover something you found distasteful, your competition might. Then the corporate types started shrinking the space devoted to news, increasing the advertising and slashing staff. They turned local news across this nation into booster-oriented, corporate-style pabulum and then expressed shock when circulation declined.

The real problem is that people don't want to read dumbed-down pabulum in the paper, on the Web or anywhere else. Sure, the corporate types may be making a 20-percent profit in the short-term, but in the long-term they're killing their product.

Not to worry, though. As always, the market will eventually take care of it. In the meantime though, it's getting a lot harder to figure out what the heck is going on around here.

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