The Carolina Hurricanes are seeing one less familiar face when they hit the road these days: beat writer Chip Alexander.
The News & Observer has not sent a reporter to an away Hurricanes game since early February, according to assistant sports editor Steve Ruinsky. And they may not again this season.
It's not hard to see why. Difficult economic times coupled with the vast struggles of the newspaper industry make this discovery seem like a fulfilled expectation rather than a surprise. But why is it happening now?
First off, it's important to understand the situation at the News & Observer. The McClatchy Company, the media conglomerate that owns the N&O, has seen its stock — which was trading at more than $11 a share less than a year ago — tumble to the cost of about one weekday copy of the newspaper. The company's 2006 acquisition of the Knight Ridder media company has significantly contributed to McClatchy's more than $2 billion debt. And while many of McClatchy's newspapers turn an operating profit, the enormous debt, coupled with a nationwide drop in newspaper readership and an economic climate that has dried up advertising dollars, has placed tremendous pressure on the N&O's parent company.
The struggles have led to layoffs and cost-cutting. According to this N&O article from early February, the newspaper has eliminated 223 full-time positions — more than a quarter of the jobs at the N&O — and now has 613 full-timers, with more staff losses possible. The travel budget has also been reduced, which Ruinsky said contributed to the N&O stopping its road coverage of the team.
"It's a result of an overall cutback," Ruinsky said.
And don't expect it to get better. Ruinsky said the newspaper may not travel for Hurricanes games for the rest of the season, perhaps even if Carolina makes the playoffs.
The absence of bylines and game day preview stories pointed to a change in the newspaper's coverage of the team. But the N&O, which never publically announced it was abandoning covering the Hurricanes on the road, has been able to somewhat mask its absence from the team's away games because, according to Ruinsky, they had access to the team after road matches. The Hurricanes have been providing audio files to the media with many of their press release e-mails since early December.
Mike Sundheim, Hurricanes director of media relations, responded to an e-mail about the N&O's change in coverage with the following statement.
"It is not our place to comment on a business decision that the News & Observer has made. The News & Observer's hockey coverage has always been quite strong, especially in comparison with other American markets. We are doing everything in our power to help the News & Observer and all of our local media cover Hurricanes road games, whether or not they are physically on the road with the team."
While Ruinsky cited a tightened travel budget for the cuts in Hurricanes coverage, he did say the N&O plans to continue to travel to road games for the three major college programs in the Triangle — North Carolina State, North Carolina and Duke.
So a decision had to be made, and the Hurricanes — who play 41 games on the road in the regular season, slightly more than the combined away games of the three ACC basketball mainstays and in more distant and varied destinations — were the first to lose out.
This practice is not unheard of. The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post stopped covering the Panthers prior to this season, and the Los Angeles Times made waves by scrapping their road coverage of the Kings and Ducks, assigning just one reporter to cover both teams and deciding to "travel [to road games] selectively." For the Hurricanes, the News & Observer had been the one local media entity that traveled to cover all of the team's away games.
Ruinsky did say he didn't foresee the News & Observer taking drastic measures to cut expenses — some papers have floated the idea of no longer publishing daily while others, like Detroit's two daily newspapers, have cut back to less home delivery — and that the newspaper is committed to providing content on both the Web and in print.
For now, it means the Carolina players will be facing a sea of unfamiliar faces at the end of each road game. It could also open the door for some in the Canadian media to once again unfairly lump the franchise among the group of teams they deem unworthy of their national game, a charge that had faded away in the wake of Carolina's Stanley Cup victory in 2006.
Most importantly, it means that fans get less coverage of their team. And, like the economy, there seems to be no relief in the near future.