RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – A Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter’s decision to retire at The News & Observer is the latest shock delivered to the dying ecosystem of newspapers in general.

The deadline to accept the latest round of buyouts and early retirements at The N&O – the second this year – passed at midweek, and Editor John Drescher told The Skinny late Wednesday that those applications will be reviewed to see who stays, who goes.

Pat Stith, who along with Joby Warrick ripped apart North Carolina’s “Boss Hog” industry to win a Pulitzer in 1996, decided to step aside at age 66. And his decision devastated a newsroom that has seen bloodletting reach catastrophic proportions as the McClatchy Newspaper chain slowly implodes under crushing debt and declining revenues.

“You can’t replace a Pat Stith,” one N&O reporter told me.

Buyouts were basically offered to EVERYONE in The N&O newsroom. If not enough people take the offer, more layoffs will be made. The paper already has implemented a broad range of cost-cuts, and more are in the works. Look for more sections to disappear – or be folded into a paper that is shrinking faster than worms caught on a sidewalk by the noonday sun.

The N&O is making cutbacks in the newsroom that are drilling into muscle. Actually, Drescher captured the loss of Stith best with his comment that the 37-year N&O veteran is the “soul of this paper.”

What does a newspaper do when it loses its soul? Well, there are some other very talented reporters still onboard. Let’s hope they stay. Communities NEED newspapers just as they need dynamic TV stations that report on local issues from a local perspective.

Speaking of local, the dividing lines between The N&O and The Charlotte Observer – once tenacious competitors, now shotgun marriage partners under McClatchy ownership – continue to dissipate. Soon, the sports and features sections will be nearly identical. How long before the contagion spreads to business?

As McClatchy puts its newsrooms through the cost-cutting blender, its executives are forgetting local, local, local.

The new mantra: Save, baby, save.

Or: Cut, baby, cut.

Pat Stith is leaving an N&O that in the near future he will barely recognize. His loss is incalculable.

By the way, I worked with Stith for seven years as an editor and reporter at The N&O, and I quite proudly was assigned to write an in-depth profile about him for Spectator magazine shortly after he won his Pulitzer. Good luck, Pat, in your new life.

A lot of politicians, business executives and bureaucrats will be glad that it’s not you to whom they have to return a call.

We all lose as a result.