The Interview: Rick Thames

A little less than two years ago, Rick Thames came home to edit The Charlotte Observer. He grew up in Laurinburg and attended Pfeiffer College (now university). His wife, Debbie, grew up here (they have three kids). From 1989 to 1996, he held a variety of jobs at the Observer before leaving for the Wichita Eagle.

Thames inherited a paper whose reputation was slipping under the belt-tightening regime of Knight Ridder. Since taking over, he has worked to make the paper more aggressive while enduring a shrinking news hole and, eventually, months of ownership uncertainty. In early March, the Observer, along with thirty-one other Knight Ridder papers, was sold to the McClatchy Company, pending United States Justice Department approval. We talked in his office (and again by phone two weeks later) not long after the sale was announced.

Interview by Richard Thurmond 

Why did you get into journalism?
It was really by accident. I had actually been in music [but] when I got to college, I looked around and considered my options in music, and decided that I was probably not going to end up on Broadway. Someone said, ‘Well, you should look at journalism, because journalism applies to a lot of your interests.’ I liked to write; I was very interested in current affairs, fascinated by how the world worked. I really fell in love with just the concept of journalism. It’s something that I think is vital for a free and open society.

What sort of music?  
(Laughs) Voice, believe it or not. I was a baritone, and sang at all my friends’ weddings, and high school choirs and college concert choir, and so on. I took a little piano, too, and played a little guitar, but mostly it was voice.  

Do you still sing?  
As little as possible.  

In the shower?  
(Laughs) Yeah, in the shower, and you know, next to my wife at church, but that’s pretty much it.  

Let’s talk about the paper and the sale. The three months before the McClatchy deal—what was that like for you personally, to come in here and try to lead the newsroom?
We’ve really lived with that for more like six months, and the good news is that we were needed, and that while we might be distracted, our readers were not. When you print a newspaper, you’re judged every day, and so I think that to the extent we could, we kept it only as a distraction, and tried not to be hindered by it. And I think our staff did an amazingly good job of that.

Have you had talks with McClatchy about the future of the Observer?
Very little. Because we’re in this stage right now where the sale has to be approved by the Justice Department, both companies are very restricted in the communication they can have with one another. I do know that McClatchy—as does Knight Ridder—McClatchy really cares about quality newspapers. Whether McClatchy will see a different way to address some of the issues that we have addressed up to this point, I can’t tell you.

A lot of the talk leading up to the sale was about operating margins, despite the fact that—as you pointed out in a column—newspaper company profit margins are almost twice that of the average Fortune 500 company. But do you think it’s reasonable for newspapers to continue with a 20 percent profit margin?
I have no idea. But I do know this: I believe that Wall Street, in second guessing newspaper companies, has badly miscalculated. Newspaper companies in these communities, like The Charlotte Observer, hold this very valuable place as a sort of forum for a community. Or some people would say a convener of the community. And I believe very firmly that the sense of community and the sense of the publications that newspapers produce—the general news and information, and opportunity for people to hear one another—I believe that they are inextricably hitched. And I think that eventually, Wall Street will understand this and realize the value that these companies have, and the role that they play in their communities.

The pressure to maintain profit margins—as costs rise and reporters are spread more thinly because they’re working on different platforms—isn’t that going to affect the overall quality of journalism?
I don’t think so. I think it’s possible still to deliver the quality of journalism that people expect. Ultimately the public will make that decision. They’ll determine that based on whether they still find what the Observer is doing to be worth their time. To this point I feel very good about the quality of journalism that we’re producing. I believe that good newspapers have to be thriving businesses. And you need a thriving business as a foundation. I accept that shareholders deserve a return that’s worthy of their investment. We all do. Anyone with a 401(k) understands that. I also think that the readers and the advertisers who support the newspaper expect a quality product, too, and if you don’t deliver that, the plan comes apart. Really, the two must go hand in hand.

I survey my peers, who are intelligent, active, and educated, and frankly it’s amazing how few of them read a newspaper. They don’t consider it an essential part of their lives.
If you think about it, generally, in American society, life is pretty good. I mean, you turn on the tap water and it’s clean. The air seems to be clean enough to breathe. Yes, there’s the irritation of increasing taxes, or so on, but life is pretty good in this country. I think that to the extent that people sense that they need to stay up on the news, they do stay up on the news. If there’s something happening in their neighborhood, in their backyard, then they snap to it and they plug in. But then when the crisis is removed, they might tend to move back into their own world, which is a more insular world. I do think that to the extent that newspapers are struggling through building new readership, some of it is related to the lack of sense of community that people have. You don’t necessarily know your neighbors anymore. Your community isn’t necessarily geographic anymore; you may have a community of friends across the country. That’s proved to be a challenge.

Does it say anything that the community is growing at a rapid rate, but people who are choosing to subscribe to the newspaper, that number is going down?
Sure it does. But what’s happening, and what people are missing is that, overall, our readership is growing. It’s true actually of the printed paper, because of the pass-along experience [at homes], and offices, and places like that. But it’s also true about our Web site. We are reaching more people than we have ever reached with our journalism—and that’s often missed. We are reaching people not only in Charlotte, but we’re reaching people around the world. We had 1,400 readers from China in November.

You’re probably not going to sell many classified ads from the Chinese readers.
Right, but the point is we’re actually reaching more people than we’ve ever reached. And that number, through technology, is going to grow. So it’s really a question of, how interested are people in news? If they continue to be interested in news about their community—as long as there’s a sense of community—I think that we’re in great shape.

What percent of your time, in an average day, is spent on Web site-related activities, as opposed to the printed paper?
Considering that the Web site still is fed through the printed paper quite a bit—a lot of what’s on the Web site is also in the paper, and begins in the paper—I would say probably the Web site now is taking up about one-fourth of that time that I spend on content-related matters. And it’s growing. Readers are choosing where they want their news, and I tell my news room that we will go where our readers are; and increasingly, more of them are getting their news online.

If a reporter now is expected to put the story on the Web during the day, and then write the story for the print version—how do they determine when they’re writing for the Web site, and when they’re writing for the paper?
This is evolving and it’s fascinating to watch as it unfolds in the newsroom. What I’m finding is that reporters and photographers are now just making that more of their daily routine. It’s a bit more like being on deadline at any given time of the day. Clearly for the Web, our reports tend to be shorter—so it’s more breaking news, more shorter bits of information, but sometimes we’ll post a major story on the Web—a long and continuously revised story through the day. So sometimes that type of story overtakes the time that the reporter might otherwise need to do the next day’s story, and so we might pair up two reporters. But most of the time, the reporter manages it by just filing for the Web in a more succinct way—like the Associated Press, for example, they file constantly—and then doing something a little more stand back for the next day’s paper.

So, the fact that the output has increased that much, does that take time away from when the reporters might have been reporting?
We’re not finding that to be the case.

You’d think that if they’re spending more time writing, there has to be less time spent doing something—
Most of their reports, if you read their stories online, are fairly short. It’s not like it takes them a long time to write the four or five paragraphs that are going to end up on that story for that day. So far, we’re managing it pretty well. Now, over time, it will be important, I think, to watch and see what, if anything, we think we’re losing, and is what we’re losing—does it matter? Does it matter to our readers? Are they missing something as a result of moving across these platforms? And that was clearly a concern I had, and I think the staff had, too, going into this. But as it has progressed, we’ve become convinced that we’re actually doing a better job for readers now than we were before. For one thing, we’re getting them news faster. It makes us much more competitive now with broadcast and other online competitors. For another, it seems that we are still satisfying most of our readers’ needs in the daily newspaper, too.

This is an old question by now, but is it a question of when, or if, the printed paper just goes away?
It’s conceivable to me that when the generation now under forty gets older, you’ll see less and less use of a printed newspaper, because increasingly people will become accustomed to receiving their news either with what is now a laptop, or whatever the next phase of technology will be—now you can get news on your telephone. But I don’t think it’s any time soon. The habit is strong, and the convenience for many people is preferable. Even I find that it’s easy to walk around with a newspaper and sit down most anywhere and read it. It still hasn’t reached that point in technology where you’ve got something that substitutes for that.

There are people who criticize the Observer for not being aggressive enough on local stories. How would you characterize the Observer’s aggressiveness?
My experience is that the Observer is being very aggressive on many fronts, and I think that’s something that readers expect. They want us to be aggressive in a way that’s also fair. Aggressiveness just for the sake of being aggressive isn’t what they’re looking for. They want us to help them, because newspapers serve this role of giving a voice to the voiceless. The newspaper sometimes is the court of last resort, when other institutions have failed to respond to what people need done, and they will turn to us. That’s an important role the press plays, and they should play it responsibly. And I think the Observer does a good job of that. I think that we do a fair number of investigations, and generally, I believe, people walk away believing that we were justified in looking at those things, and that we were fair in how we looked at them, and that’s how I want to be judged.

On the other hand, some people have been surprised at the ferocity of the coverage of Jim Black, that you’re making an example of him.
Jim Black is in a very powerful position. He’s a House Speaker. He is the highest ranking legislator from our region. He has wielded enormous influence in the Democrat Party in the state, and continues to be a tremendous influence on politics in the state. In that role, a person, I think, should expect to see some scrutiny, and I think it’s been clear for me in reading our own stories, that the issue is larger than Jim Black. And I think that while Jim Black is in a prominent role, he’s also in a place where he can do something about the way political contributions are handled in this state. I don’t think we’ve been unfair to him. I think that comes with the role he plays. I think we’ve noted in other stories that he is not the first House Speaker to have questions raised about these topics, but I don’t think that means we shouldn’t report on it. I think we’ve been fair to Jim Black, and we’ve certainly given him every opportunity to explain his actions, and we have aired his explanations along the way.

You’re also a big proponent of open government. What are you thoughts on the school board and their private interviews of superintendent candidates?
I had to chuckle at them coming up with a solution of walking through security to be alone [the board conducted the interviews at the airport]. I think that it’s reasonable to believe that initial conversations with sixty-one candidates can be held in confidence. But I do believe that as soon as candidates are serious enough to make a trip and have a face-to-face conversation with a public body for a job like this, it’s time to let it be known who they are. It’s very important when you’re working in the public sector that you be as transparent as possible. It gives citizens confidence that the process is working well. And if they want that confidence—and I think the school board does—they will make this process as open as possible.

I have come to think over the years that it is a natural tendency for people in power, with information, to want to withhold that information. I understand that makes the world less complicated for them—but it’s not right, and they need to be reminded that this is really the public’s business, and that information belongs to the public. Even if their intentions are good, and I think many times their intentions are good, they are misdirected.

Do you personally look at and evaluate stories before they go to print, in terms of liberal or conservative bias?
I look for bias, period. It’s not always about whether it’s a liberal or conservative viewpoint. It can be just excluding a point of view, or overlooking a view from one segment of society versus another segment of society. I think that’s not always conveniently categorized as liberal or conservative, although that’s the way we tend to talk about these issues. So yes, I look for any shade of phrasing, of framing of the story that would, to the average reader, take on a sense of bias.

The Observer is often accused of having a bias. Is that more so here than other places you’ve been?
No, I don’t think it’s more so.  I think that is something that newspapers must always work to… We should listen closely to our critics and understand what is making them think that, because it is certainly not our goal. And I’m talking about now beyond our editorial pages. In terms of our news pages, I think we should listen to our critics and try to learn from them. And that’s what I try to do.

This interview was edited for space and clarity.

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