Monday, April 10, 2017

The Late, Great Citizen-Times

These days “The Voice of the Mountains” is neither.

By Roger McCredie
The first paper in Asheville
The Highland Messenger, 1840
It was the paper of John Parris and Bob Terrell.  Of Nancy Marlowe and Susan Reinhardt.  And latterly of Tony Kiss, Barbara Blake and Bob Berghaus.  O. Henry and F. Scott Fitzgerald used to hang out in its newsroom.  Young Thomas Wolfe trudged Asheville’s predawn streets delivering copies from a bag filled by his brother Ben, who worked in circulation.
The paper found its way each morning into battered mailboxes at the ends of dirt driveways from Morganton to Murphy. Each morning it appeared in racks on small-town sidewalks, on the shelves of general stores, and in little local libraries where readers who didn’t have a spare nickel for their own copies could at least read one second-hand.  Each morning the Asheville Citizen-Times fed news and features and sports to information-hungry Western North Carolina, the state’s redheaded stepchild.  It was, for many years, “The Voice of the Mountains,” just as its masthead claimed.
For many years.
The House Gannett Built
These days the Voice of the Mountains is a very small cog in the wheel-within-a-wheel marketing/media giant, Gannett Company.  Its physical version is printed at the foot of the hills, in Asheville’s smaller but richer neighbor, Greenville, S.C., which is Gannett’s regional headquarters. The members of its dwindling staff have Greenville telephone numbers.  And the paper is run by middle-management Gannett soldiers whose rate of turnover resembles a Sunday morning at IHOP, some of whom actually do their administrating from Greenville.
Gannett acquired the Citizen-Times, formerly a part of Multimedia, Inc., in 1996, and the first publisher under the new regime was Virgil Smith.  In accordance with The Way Things Used To Be, Smith’s ten-year tenure was marked by his close personal involvement with his adopted city.  He was not only the paper’s public face but its direct link to his readers.  He is presently a trustee emeritus of UNCA.
But after Smith came the deluge.  In rapid succession Jeffrey Greene, Randy Hammer and Dave Neill occupied Smith’s chair.  The chair of the present publisher, Tom Claybaugh, is located in Greenville, and from it Claybaugh publishes both the Citizen-Times and the Greenville News.
The “Newsroom of the Future”
As with executive management, so with editorial oversight.  Larry Pope, who saw in the Gannett transition as News Director (the term “Editor” seemed to have disappeared) was followed in rapid succession by Bob Gabordi, Phil Fernandez, Susan Ihne, Josh Awtry, Katie Wadington.
Ihne filed a $15 million harassment lawsuit against her boss, Hammer, which was settled out of court.  Awtry swept in from New Belium’s headquarters, Ft. Collins, Colorado, announcing the “Newsroom of the Future,” (see below) but was moved first up, to Regional Vice President, and then out, to Gannett headquarters in Virginia.  Katie Wadington is currently the editorial honcho; she appeared on the scene last year.
There’s a rumor, in fact, that Wadington, an AC-T staffer since 2005, was promoted specifically to preside over the paper’s 2016 round of firings, in which several key Citizen-Times reporters and editors, some with decades of service, bit the dust.  Among them were editorial page editor Jim Buchanan; Kiss, the AC-T’s iconic “Beer Guy; Berghaus, the sports editor; and longtime where-and-when writer Dale Neal.
That was the latest in a string of Asheville staff purges that started in 2007 and continued into 2008.

Most of those let go early on were in support services, but in 2013 the corporate axe felled a senior photographer, two editors, and popular feature writer Jason Sandford. Then, in 2014,  there were more key layoffs,  even as Awtry grandly announced the coming of “the newsroom of the future” and said the paper would be creating as many as 30 new positions to staff it. “What I want more than anything is a room full of people who love their job,” Awtry said back then. “ I want a room full of people who have some passion for this … “
But The Newsroom of The Future hasn’t happened.
“Never mind all that; what happened to my paper?”
Many Citizen-Times readers these days say they don’t much know and don’t much care about what’s happening up the line; they just know their newspaper is much smaller and much thinner, but costs much more ($1.50 daily, $2.00 on Sunday).  It also costs to read the AC-T online; browsers get a couple of free passes, then are “paywalled” as a pop-up informs them they can access content for $19.95 a year.
That’s not much bang for the buck,” one reader said.
Apparently others share that opinion. The hard-copy Citizen-Times has suffered a whopping 42% decline in its Sunday readership and a 36% drop in daily circulation since 2008.  This decline far outstrips the national rate of attrition, which, according to Pew Research, is about 9% for that period, and which experts say is due almost entirely to the combined impact of cable news and the Internet.

Market watchers say much of the difference may lie with a parent company whose management style seems akin to Attila the Hun’s, and which places little to no value on local news.  (Since the late 90’s, the paper, has closed its regional news bureaus in WNC and Raleigh and presently operates with a crew of only 11 reporters at home.)  But homefolks are abandoning the AC-T because of a lack of meaningful content – “It’s nothing but filler and propaganda and some ads,” one said – and because they’re put off by the paper’s naked partisanship.
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