News & Observer’s Managing Editor on adding staff, investing in print

By Erica Perel

This week, Raleigh’s News & Observer announced a new investment in its print product: 14 additional pages in “reimagined” Wednesday and Sunday print editions, powered by a larger newsroom, including six new jobs announced in August. The new hires bring the N&O’s newsroom count to 72, a staff size not seen since about 2016. Last year, the N&O’s parent company, McClatchy, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was sold to a new owner, Chatham Asset Management, LLC, and industry observers have been watching closely for changes in the company’s direction. Managing Editor Sharif Durhams spoke with CISLM Director Erica Beshears Perel about the upcoming changes and the decision to invest in more journalists and larger print editions. The conversation is lightly edited for length and clarity.

This is part of our News Makers series, in which CISLM Director Erica Perel interviews innovators who are changing the local news field. Read more from this series on our blog.

(Note from Erica: Full disclosure, I’ve been friends with Sharif since our days working together for The Daily Tar Heel, and I’m thrilled he’s back in Raleigh and leading big change.)

Erica Perel: Back in the summer, you announced a series of job openings at the News & Observer. And then this week, you unveiled a preview of what they could expect to see from the larger staff. Tell me: What are the big changes that are coming to the print and digital N&O starting this week?

Sharif Durhams: We are reimagining our print product, and the stories that we can do as a newsroom. We want to make sure that we can provide more enterprise stories and stories that delve deeper into questions that people have in our area.

For instance, this week, we are starting a housing series that’s going to examine the changes in one block in Raleigh, and how they’re reflective of the way that development and growth are pushing out certain people in neighborhoods all across the Triangle. But this is just the first piece of a series that we’re going to be doing examining these issues. The exciting part is that we’re going to be looking at issues in this way every Sunday and Wednesday. We’re reorienting our newsroom to make these papers special. And not only with what we’re calling cover stories, but with a lot of additional reporting that is designed to make the print product more exciting.

Perel: One of the things you said in your announcement is that you had talked to a lot of readers and listened to them and asked them what they wanted. And the answer was that they wanted more, like more coverage. I thought that was really interesting because for the last 10 years or so in journalism, making an investment in one area often means cutting in another area. It sounds like this is a different approach?

Durhams: Exactly, we are hoping that we’re able to make the experience more pleasurable for all of our readers on all platforms. We’ve put a lot of resources into making our digital products better and reorienting our newsrooms to provide breaking news as quickly as possible and add that context incredibly fast. We haven’t added those resources for print readers.

What we’re trying to do is twofold: One is to add special things for all of our subscribers, and that includes our print subscribers. And also help show those print readers that there are even more things that we can provide on our website that augment those stories. But the nice thing is that the result is going to be more for everyone. And more in-depth reporting, for those who do want to just stick with print.

Perel: When it came time to hire these new positions, how did you decide which areas of coverage to invest in?

Durhams: We knew that if we were going to try to do even more special coverage every week that we would need more experienced enterprise reporters. So we’re adding an enterprise reporter to our team. We also learned from the pandemic that people really need clear and direct answers that we can provide through reporting. You know, often our reporting will delve into a topic and you can come out of the other end kind of going, ‘OK, so now I have more information. But I don’t have any direct answers to the questions that I have.’ We’re creating a desk in the newsroom with an editor and two reporters who are focused on figuring out what those direct answers are — for instance, in the story that readers will see Sunday, we looked directly at explaining the changes in neighborhoods that are going on, not only for the main story but for a story that focuses on, ‘OK, so what is gentrification? And what does it look like in our region?’ and explaining that more directly.

We’re going to have a lot of what we describe as utility stories, stories that help you navigate your life in this region, and we’re taking one of our best reporters, Brooke Cain, who really understands how to do this. We put her in an editing role, and she’ll have two reporters that she’ll be directing in this kind of coverage.

… And the stories won’t just be takes off of the news. They will also just be the questions people are asking about neighborhoods, asking about navigating life in our area.

Perel: So tell me about why Wednesday and Sunday, why are those the days that y’all are planning to improve?

Durhams: We have a large print readership on those days. And that seems to be the case across the industry. And those are the readers we’re targeting by trying to say that we’re going to provide more resources and information for them. And I think the idea is to give as much as we can in certain spots and see if we can create a reader habit.

Perel: What’s going to happen the other days?

Durhams: So we’re kind of starting with this step. We’ll have to examine the results. And it’s unclear to me personally, whether we’re going to continue to add pages to other papers.

Perel: But for now, the other days of the week would feel similar to what people are getting now?

Durhams: Yes, they would. … The other thing that I’ll say is, since we’re adding staff, this should improve other days of the print paper. Because, we’re not taking our foot off the pedal, we’re still going to be doing stories and enterprise and investigative reporting that we’ve been doing before. So it’s going to be more for everyone in that sense.

Perel: Medill’s Local News Lab published a story this week about newspapers cutting print days. I thought that was an interesting juxtaposition.

Durhams: We know that there’s a print audience out there that deserves even better coverage. And so we’re lucky to have this opportunity to provide it. And you know, hundreds of people gave feedback before our announcement of this. And I’ve spent a lot of last couple of days responding to readers who are excited about what they’re going to see. And I asked all of them to give additional feedback once they see the first stories that we do.

Perel: So you came back to Raleigh last year as the hometown favorite who had been working in national newsrooms and would be bringing those experiences back to the N&O. What has surprised you about your transition back to North Carolina and Raleigh and the News & Observer?

Durhams: The enthusiasm for experimenting with our work is the same, and that is pleasantly surprising. Just the loyalty that people have to the News & Observer, the Herald-Sun and local media in general. Despite what you hear, people are still incredibly attached to local media and are rooting for us. And so that’s wonderful.

And I just love the spirit of our newsroom in the sense that there are reporters who understand that they have been doing amazing work, but that it hasn’t been targeted toward some of the audiences that deserve amazing journalism. And that doesn’t mean that we’re going to solve that problem tomorrow. But I’m excited that they want to attack that challenge.

Perel: So what is something that you’re most proud of coverage-wise, in the time you’ve been back?

Durhams: During the intersection of Black History Month and the beginning of talk about critical race theory, we did a Sunday cover on the 10 things that you should know about Black history in North Carolina, but you don’t know. And just essentially applying journalism to a challenge in the way that we teach about diversity and race in our schools was exciting. It was a different approach. It wasn’t taking a political position on the issue, but just talking about the history of the place where we live and work. It grounded people who haven’t lived here their whole lives. It gave us a bit of sense of place. And I think that’s something that local media can do that organizations can’t.

I guess one other thing I would mention is our coverage of the (Andrew Brown Jr.) shooting in Elizabeth City made me proud. The way that our reporters dove in and found nuanced ways to cover what was happening there in a way that distinguished itself from national media, and in a way that wasn’t only negative, was something that made me proud. We still have work to do there.

Perel: North Carolina’s news ecosystem is very different from the highly competitive one that you left in the ‘00s. There’s the NC News Collaborative. There’s the Media Equity project. There’s a lot of ways that the state’s journalists are working together on things. Has anything in particular struck you about the news ecosystem here in North Carolina these days?

Durhams: I appreciate the creativity. Organizations cropping up that are not only filling gaps, but are serving needs that haven’t been served before. I believe it’s going to take a lot of different kinds of news organizations to serve to serve the state appropriately. And mainstream organizations like ours can be a part of that, and we need to partner with organizations that have deep roots in particular communities. It will serve all of us better if we do that.

Perel: Do you have any thoughts on what you’re hoping to learn from this big experiment y’all are doing here that would be applicable to other media professionals in our region?

Durhams: As an industry, we divested from newsrooms, and we’ve seen the result. I’m hoping that a year from now we will have a sense of whether investing more in news floats all boats. You know, we’re lucky we have a company that is both more than 100 years old, and also one year old. So it’s exciting that the experiment we’re trying is, let’s hire more reporters, let’s find ways to use philanthropic funding in the areas where we don’t know how to immediately gain new audience. And let’s experiment in all of those areas, and see whether we can find the audience to sustain the journalism that we all want to do.