Ann Caulkins: The Publisher

The Charlotte Observer still determines what’s news in this town. But the economy and the Internet are conspiring against it. It’s up to Ann Caulkins to make it work

The Charlotte Observer finds itself in a conundrum. The paper combined with its website is the most influential source of news and information in the city. Electronic media outlets regularly follow up on stories that the Observer breaks, and publisher Ann Caulkins will tell you all day long about the number of combined print and online readers it has (a touch over 900,000 per week).

At the same time, many of those readers don’t pay a dime to get their news fix, and advertisers across the city no longer consider the Observer a necessary place to pitch their goods and services. National advertisers are slipping away, classified ads are almost dead, and digital ads are much cheaper than print. All of which is making it increasingly difficult for the Observer to maintain its position of influence. And all of which makes Ann Caulkins’s job very, very difficult.

Caulkins, forty-nine, was installed as publisher in 2006, when newspapers were already declining but the economy was not. Since then, she’s had to balance a gradual bloodletting of staff while trying to solve the digital transition and maintain journalistic standards.
And she’s loving it.

“We’re a hybrid company. We’re print and online. … The editorial news staff, they do online first. That’s their culture.”

“Having to manage a downsizing of your organization is a very difficult thing to go through,” she says. “Having said that, I think I’m the right person at the right time, and I take that responsibility very seriously—to make the best decisions with our resources so that we can continue the mission, and that’s to safeguard our community with the news that we bring.”

Yes, she has the talking points down. But if Caulkins, who also co-chaired the Center City 2020 Vision Plan and is incoming chair at Levine Museum of the New South, has a defining trait, it’s optimism. “I’m having a blast brainstorming, working with people, then seeing the direct progress from it,” she says enthusiastically. “I like change; I like rapid change,” she says. “Being fluid and flexible fits me very well. My husband tells me I would have not have liked being a newspaper publisher twenty years ago.”

She insists that the Observer, which remains profitable, has a future and that it has successfully adapted to the digital age, at least on the content side. “We want to be here for a long time. We’re a hybrid company. We’re print and online. … The editorial news staff, they do online first. That’s their culture.”

Her challenge, she says, is to change the culture at the Observer, which employs around 500 people in the Charlotte area. “We must show our advertisers that we still have all the eyeballs. … We have to do a really strong job of changing our culture here to the online advertising world.”

Despite another round of layoffs and unpaid furloughs early this fall, Caulkins feels like she has achieved solidarity with the newsroom, which is a challenge for a publisher even in good times. “I feel a connection with almost every person in that newsroom. I feel like I know them pretty well and they know me. I also think that they see me approving expenses for investigative journalism or to send our reporter to Haiti twice. … We’re all in this together and trying to do the best work that we can.”

Categories: Feature, The Buzz