From the Editor

Drescher: The wall between news and editorials

Executive EditorDecember 21, 2012 

Ned Barnett, a veteran writer and editor, is The News & Observer’s new editorial-page editor.

That’s a polite way of saying: You can send your comments about the editorial pages to him.

As executive editor, I supervise news, business, sports, features, the online report and the visual journalists (photographers and a graphic artist) who work across the newsroom.

I am not involved with the editorial pages. Barnett, who recently took over for the retired Steve Ford, reports to Publisher Orage Quarles III, as do I. As publisher, Quarles oversees all aspects of The News & Observer Publishing Co., including advertising, circulation and production.

Many metropolitan newspapers are structured this way, with a top newsroom editor and an editorial-page editor reporting separately to a publisher. We think it’s wise to keep news and commentary separate.

Reporters should report the news independently, free of pressure and entanglements from various community institutions, including their own editorial page. And the person who directs the news coverage (in this case, that’s me) shouldn’t be opinionated on partisan issues, as an editorial-page editor should be.

Barnett doesn’t tell me what to do, and I don’t tell him what to do. The news staff and the editorial-page staff are on different floors of the building and operate separately. In five years as executive editor, I never suggested an editorial to Ford. Not once.

Barnett writes editorials and supervises two editorial writers (Jim Jenkins and Burgetta Eplin Wheeler). Some people call them the editorial board. Quarles is a member of that board. I am not and don’t participate in their discussions, such as which candidates should be endorsed on the editorial page.

Commentary is an important part of what newspapers do. This region is blessed with an unusually high number of intelligent, talented people. The smartest public-policy debates in this community occur in The N&O’s letters column and on its op-ed page, where people with different ideas and philosophies state their case, often with great effectiveness.

I am grateful for the diversity of opinion on our editorial pages. But our job in the newsroom is to generate reporting on this region that keeps people informed.

Business model changing

This is a challenging era for newsrooms. Our business model is changing. Historically, about 80 percent of newspaper revenues came from advertising. But companies aren’t advertising nearly as much as they used to. Newspapers are seeking new sources of revenue so their newsrooms can continue to report the news.

This year, for the first time in its modern history, The New York Times will get more revenue from its readers than from advertisers. Led by the example set by The Times, many U.S. papers, including The N&O, are beginning to charge to read content online.

This corrects a mistake made by newspaper publishers in the mid-1990s when the Internet emerged into widespread public use. Most newspapers, including this one, put all of their content online for free. Not surprisingly, many readers dropped the print paper, which they had to pay for, and read us online for free.

About 2 million people read newsobserver.com each month. We’re glad to have them as readers. But giving away your content is not a sustainable business model. It doesn’t make sense – it never did – for some to read our content for free while other readers pay for it.

Trying new things

We are experimenting with new ways to pay for journalism. Last month we launched Shop Talk, two pages of coverage about small business that run Tuesdays in the Triangle & Co. section. The coverage is sponsored by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, which gets an exclusive advertising strip at the bottom of the pages. The content is determined by the newsroom staff.

I’d like to add more new content and have some ideas I hope will come to fruition in 2013. I’ll spend my time overseeing the newsroom and trying to generate new features. I’ll leave the commentary pages to Ned Barnett, an able and fine chap.

Barnett, 56, has worked at The N&O for 18 years. He’s a strong writer (and former sports columnist) and a gifted editor who oversaw our local news coverage as metro editor in the 1990s.

If you have thoughts about an editorial, a question about why your letter was not published, or an opinion about whether Mallard Fillmore should run on the editorial page, Barnett is your guy. He’s at nbarnett@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4512. He would be glad to hear from you.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @john_drescher

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