Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Duke lacrosse: Ashley’s ashes

A number of bloggers ( e.g. Liestoppers, KC Johnson, Johnsville and JinC) have called attention to the sharp decline in the accuracy and completeness of the Durham Herald Sun's reporting and analyses of matters relating to the Duke Hoax. They've also called attention to a series of Editor Bob Ashley’s editorials and columns concerning the hoax. Ashley, though, doesn’t call it a hoax. He's more: "Brodhead and Nifong are great; when's the trial?"

It occurred to me you might be interested in learning a little bit more about the Herald Sun, Ashley’s editorship and how the paper’s been doing recently. So I put this post together.

Three years ago, The Durham Herald Sun was a respected community newspaper owned by a local family. Then in late 2004, the H-S was sold to a privately held The Paxton Media Group, based in Paducah, Ky.

Paxton sent Ashley to Durham to run the H-S. On Ashley’s first day, scores of long-time H-S employees were summarily fired and escorted by security guards from the H-S building. They weren’t given reasons for their firings, other than they were no longer needed. They weren’t even allowed to return to their desks to say good-bye to friends and colleagues, some of whom they’d worked with for more than 20 years. Ashley explained that was because of "security reasons."

I called Ashley in mid January 2005, to complain about his treatment of the employees as well as what I saw as a significant drop in the paper’s quality after he took over. I said I was on the verge of doing what thousands of readers had already done: cancel my subscription.

Ashley asked me not to. Give him a chance, he said. Sure, there had been some initial “bumps.” But if I just gave him a chance, I’d see what he would do.

Ashley said in a year the H-S under his editorship would be a much better paper than it had ever been.

I gave him a chance; and watched the paper decline. When my subscription was up, I didn’t renew. I’ve since re-subscribed but mainly to have access to the H-S’s archives.

OK, that’s me. What about other people in Durham? How do they feel?

When Ashley first took over, the H-S had a weekday circulation of about 54 thousand. My best guess is that the H-S weekday circulation is now about 35 thousand or so, and continuing to decline. The decline is occurring in a fast-growing region with a strong and expanding economy.

It isn’t just readers who are abandoning what many people now call “Ashley’s H-S.”

Advertisers are abandoning it, too.

The information below illustrates that. For each of the five weekdays beginning Monday, Sept. 11, I counted the total number of pages in the H-S’s “A” section. Then I estimated the total number of those pages taken up by advertising.

I estimated the ad “pages” because ads were in various sizes from a few inches high and one column wide to a full page. I tried to make my ad “pages” estimates on the generous side. I suspect if Editor Bob Ashley himself were to check the amount of advertising in those “A” sections, he’d find my ad “pages” estimates might be a little high.

Here's what I found for each of the 5 days' "A" section

Sept. 11 -- 6 pages of which .75 was advertising.

Sept.12 -- 8 pages of which 2.25 were advertising.

Sept. 13 -- 8 pages of which 1.75 were advertising.

Sept. 14 -- 8 pages of which 1.50 were advertising.

Sept. 15 -- 8 pages of which 3.00 were advertising.
When a newspaper’s circulation is declining as its region grows and its weekday “A” section advertising averages less than two full pages a day, that paper’s headed for “a crash and burn,” even if its editor was once “Duke of Paducah.”

Ashley’s ashes!

I’ll be saying more soon about the demise of a once fine newspaper.


Anonymous said...

John: Another excellent analysis. If you have time to do a little reporting, call the top Paxton executive in Paducah and ask that person a few intelligent questions about Ashley's performance in the Nifong abuse of power case.

Anonymous said...

Are papers part of a system that magazines must enroll in - the one where they report their paid subscribers and sold copies (broken down) but can't report as sold papers that were well not sold and destroyed?

The magazine industry does this because ad revenue is a function of subscribers/buyers. I would imagine that the newspaper industry does the same. You could get an accurate estimation that way. You could also compare it to the N&O in order to verify that it is not do to a real trend away from papers to free internet news cites etc.

If the company is publicly traded you should be able to see how it has been doing in general. I don't know how large a part H-S is of it but if they run the H-S as poorly as they do then the rest of the company should be in a similar shape.

JWM said...

Anon. "John:Another excellent ..

Thanks for the nice words.

As for calling Paxton: It's a private company and hasn't been very responsive to my calls.

See also the comment below.

Anon: "John, Are papers part of ""

See comment above.

Yes, there is an auditing org for newspapers: Audit Bureau of Circulations.

I couldn't find anything on the H-S at ABC.

You hit the nail on the public/private ownership matter.

Paxton owns some small circu (20/30K) papers but I'm told by folks in the newspaper business that Paxton's "real money" comes from about 100 free ad circulars is distributes.

I hope some of this helps.

Thank you both for commenting.


krddurham said...


Although the Rollins family no longer has ownership of the Herald Sun, I’m sure that they’re sad to see the Paxton Media Group destroy what it took their family 100+ years to build. As a resident of Durham, I have witnessed the decline in the quality of the HS’s reporting. In my opinion, the decline is a byproduct of the Paxton overhaul.

I have a couple of questions that you may be able to answer for me...

What’s the difference between a publisher and editor of a newspaper? Which one’s the “top dog?” Who ordered the “housecleaning” of the HS…Ashley, Moser or Paxton?

Thanks…and keep up the good work!


Anonymous said...

John, amount of ads only tells part of the story. If they've experienced a 5% decline in ad space in spite of let's say a 30% discount in ad rates, that would be an even stronger signal. But they probably won't tell you whether they've lowered their rates or not.

straightarro said...

You are far more tolerant than I, John. I would have known all I needed when he had security remove fired employees.

I have had some experience with people of that stripe. I have never met one I would drink with.

straightarrow said...

Sheesh, it's getting bad, can't let anything sit around at all. Somebody done stole my "w".