Charlotte Observer taps new editor amid media industry turbulence

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(Updated at 11:45 a.m. March 17)

If you want to run The Charlotte Observer, your train ticket may need to get punched in Wichita, Kansas.

The state’s biggest newspaper this week said Managing Editor Sherry Chisenhall, 53, would succeed Rick Thames, 62, as editor on April 1. Thames was a  senior Observer editor who did a stint in Wichita before returning to the paper’s top journalism job in 2004.

Chisenhall made the same trek, working at the Observer, moving to key jobs at the Wichita Eagle, then returning to the Queen City last year, prepping to take over the local paper’s reins.

The power and prestige of running a big newspaper has ebbed over the last decade. In the ’90s and ’00s, editors Rich Oppel, Doug Clifton and Jenny Buckner oversaw news staffs that peaked at nearly 300. Costly investigative reports and widespread travel were standard practice. Annual revenue topping $100 million was a constant goal.

Oppel, Buckner and their predecessors, including Jim Batten, David Lawrence and Pete McKnight, played key roles in building Charlotte into its prosperous status, backed for many years by Rolfe Neill, the paper’s legendary publisher. Derided for its liberal bent, the paper has consistently shined a light on the region’s trouble spots and stood up for the disadvantaged, helping spur reforms and progress.

Revenue of its parent company, Sacramento-based McClatchy, has declined by 25% since 2011 as ads from once-loyal department stores, car dealers and real-estate agencies have dried up, along with classified advertising. Impressive gains in digital ads and website readership haven’t stemmed the slide in print. Higher circulation prices and slacker customer service have hurt circulation.

By the time Thames returned to Charlotte, the Observer employed fewer than 250 journalists. The current count is fewer than 60.

Under Thames, the Observer produced outstanding reports on dozens of important topics including the subprime mortgage and foreclosure crisis, the region’s unusually expensive medical costs and prison-system injustice.

Chisenhall will continue that tradition, minus a lot of veterans who helped make it one of the nation’s most-respected regional papers.

This week, four award-winning Observer journalists told colleagues they are leaving: medical writer Karen Garloch, columnist Mark Washburn, sportswriter David Scott and photographer Todd Sumlin. They will be replaced by staffers skilled in juggling writing, photography and video and attuned to readers’ demand for shorter stories on subjects that attract Internet readers. Detailed reporting on environmental issues or municipal finance often can’t spark as much interest as the latest new brewpub or 10 best places to meet singles.

“It’s true I’m leaving at the end of March after 18 years with The Observer and I can say honestly I’ve never worked anywhere better,” Washburn says. “They sent me to two Super Bowls, two tours of Iraq, to New York City one freezing night with only the clothes on my back to find passengers from the Miracle on the Hudson flight (and I did, in the lounge at LaGuardia!) and so many more adventures than I can count. I’ll miss the place every day.”

Chisenhall’s hiring surprised some who expected Editorial Page Editor Taylor Batten to get the job, given his decades of experience, high community visibility and legacy as the son of the late Jim Batten, a revered editor who later became CEO of the Observer’s longtime owner, Knight-Ridder Inc.“The paper is in good hands,” Batten told me this week.

Newspapers still matter. If they didn’t, former Gov. Pat McCrory wouldn’t have spent so much time complaining about dogged reporting by “the McClatchy papers” — the Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer — during last year’s re-election bid. The governor forgot that he would have received double the pressure and coverage back when the N&O and Observer were separately owned, bitter rivals, hustling for every scoop.

Good luck to Ms. Chisenhall as she continues the newspaper’s legacy.

(The author worked for the Charlotte News and Charlotte Observer in the ‘80s and ‘90s.)

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