The Observer primarily serves Charlotte and Mecklenburg County and the surrounding counties of Iredell, Cabarrus, Union, Lancaster, York, Gaston, Catawba, and Lincoln. It publishes local sections for each of these outlying counties and for specific neighborhoods within Mecklenburg. The newspaper's circulation covers over 40 counties in North and South Carolina. Home delivery service in outlying counties has declined in recent years, with delivery times growing later as the paper has outsourced circulation services outside the primary Charlotte area.
Circulation at The Charlotte Observer has been declining for many years. The most recent period (May 2011) showed that Charlotte Observer circulation totaled 155,497 daily and 212,318 Sunday.
In addition to its main bureau in Charlotte, the paper operates six regional bureaus in Hickory, Gastonia, Concord, Monroe, and Cornelius, and Fort Mill, South Carolina. It has offices in the state capitals of North and South Carolina: Raleigh and Columbia, respectively. The Observer also has an office in Washington, D.C.
The Observer employs approximately 700 employees, down from over 1,200 at its peak, mostly in its downtown Charlotte office. This includes a staff of about 60 editors and designers that makeup the McClatchy Southeast Publishing Center, which is responsible for the production of The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer (Raleigh) and the (Rock Hill) Herald.
The paper was founded in 1886. It was purchased by Knight Newspapers in 1955. Knight merged with Ridder Publications to form Knight Ridder in 1974. The Observer eventually became the fourth-largest newspaper in the Knight Ridder chain (behind The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, Detroit Free Press and Miami Herald). In 1959, The Observer purchased The Charlotte News, Charlotte's afternoon newspaper. All operations were merged except editorial content, which was fused in 1983. The Observer ended circulation of the afternoon News in 1985.
The paper has won five Pulitzer Prizes.
McClatchy purchased most of Knight Ridder's newspapers, including The Observer, in 2006. This made The Observer a sister publication of the state's second-largest paper, The News and Observer of Raleigh; and of The Herald of Rock Hill, the primary newspaper for the South Carolina side of the metro area. As of spring 2008, it is the fifth-largest newspaper in the McClatchy chain (behind The Kansas City Star, Miami Herald, Sacramento Bee and Fort Worth Star-Telegram). McClatchy's share value has been in decline since the purchase. The stock has lost over 95% of its value, far worse than many remaining newspaper companies.
- 1968 – Editorial cartooning, Eugene Payne
- 1981 – Meritorious public service, staff; "For Brown Lung: A Case of Deadly Neglect, a hard-hitting look at the terrible health consequences workers suffered from cotton dust produced in the region's textile mills."
- 1988 – Editorial cartooning, Doug Marlette (shared with the Atlanta Constitution)
- 1988 – Meritorious public service, staff; "For its investigation into the misuse of funds by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and their PTL ministries."
- 2014 – Editorial cartooning, Kevin Siers
The Charlotte Observer prices are: daily, $1.25 and Sunday/Thanksgiving Day, $3.00 Price is higher outside Mecklenburg and adjacent counties or states.