From the Editor

Drescher: N&O celebrates 119th birthday

Executive EditorAugust 11, 2013 

Josephus Daniels, who published his first edition of The News & Observer 119 years ago today, was an innovator. He helped invent the modern newspaper with its sports coverage, comics and sections devoted to news and commentary.

Daniels died in 1948, but his creative spirit lives on at The N&O. The print paper is still important, but we also report the news digitally through newsobserver.com, triangle.com, Facebook, Twitter, tablets (such as the iPad) and our digital replica edition (an electronic newspaper that looks like the print paper).

To mark our birthday, we designed today’s front page to reflect the appearance of that first edition. But we’ve added some photographs. As one newsroom wag said, we’ve learned a bit about newspaper design in the last 100 years. In that first edition, the only news pictures were portraits of the state Supreme Court justices that ran on an inside page.

Daniels’ first N&O published brief reports from across the state in the “Murphy to Manteo” feature that ran for decades and now appears Sunday on Page 2B. We’ve collected some of those briefs from August 1894 and republished them in the left column of this page.

Daniels was born in 1862 and grew up in Eastern North Carolina. He wanted to be a newsman almost from birth. He bought his first newspaper, the Wilson Advance, when he was 18 years old and more than doubled the weekly’s circulation within five years. By the time he was 21, he owned three papers in Eastern North Carolina.

But Daniels had long set his heart on owning the top paper in the state capital. When he had the chance to buy the leading Raleigh paper out of bankruptcy in 1894, when he was 32, he assembled investors, bought part of the paper and took control.

In the late 1800s, newspapers in midsized cities struggled financially. Two Raleigh papers – the Observer and the News – were merged in 1881 to create the News and Observer. The paper was known as the News-Observer-Chronicle before Daniels took over. We mark today as our birthday because the paper has been continuously operated as The News & Observer since Aug. 12, 1894.

For many papers of that era, getting government printing contracts was the difference between profit or loss.

Daniels saw a different model. He thought newspapers packed with news could attract enough readers and advertisers to turn a profit.

He was right. When he first took control of The N&O, Daniels relied on the state printing contract to keep The N&O in the black.

But within a decade, The N&O received no government printing revenues and was highly profitable, said Lee Craig, an economic historian at N.C. State University who has written a fine new biography, “Josephus Daniels: His Life & Times.”

Eight pages, one nickel

Craig estimates within Daniels’ first 10 years of operating The N&O, he had about $5,000 a year in profits at a time when per capita income in North Carolina was less than $300 a year. About 40 percent of Daniels’ revenue was from advertising and about 60 percent from subscriptions.

When Daniels took over The N&O, Raleigh had about 15,000 residents. Eventually, The N&O had more subscribers than Raleigh had residents – a rare achievement that the paper announced every day for years on its front page.

“He wanted his readers to say, ‘I can’t go out the door in the morning unless I know what the news is,’ ” Craig told me. The daily N&O then had eight pages and cost 5 cents (more than $1 in today’s currency when adjusted for inflation).

After establishing his newspaper as a leading force in North Carolina, Daniels turned to politics. He was President Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of the Navy and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ambassador to Mexico.

For about 35 years, until he became ambassador in 1933, Daniels was the most powerful man in the state, Craig wrote. “Governors came and went, but Daniels and his flagship newspaper, the Raleigh News and Observer, stayed,” Craig wrote.

A businessman first

Daniels was a hard worker, a good businessman and an able politician.

He also was a white supremacist. He played a leading role in ensuring that black people were excluded from the state’s civic life. Daniels was a Democrat and one of the architects of racist campaigns in 1898 and 1900 that helped Democrats regain control of state government from a coalition of Republicans and populists.

Daniels’ views on race never changed, although he later admitted his tactics were “cruel.” Times change, and ironies emerge. Daniels’ modern counterpart is N&O Publisher Orage Quarles III, an African-American. While Daniels is remembered by some for his involvement in politics, Craig said Daniels “was first and foremost a successful entrepreneur and capitalist. Daniels was a businessman first. He used his business success to leverage his political career.”

Daniels’ spirit of innovation endures at The N&O. We want to give you the news how – and when – you want to receive it. Our website and mobile traffic grows by the day. We’ve launched a tablet edition and will present an improved version soon. As a newsman, Daniels was driven by breaking stories and offering the most complete report in the Raleigh area. Those same news instincts drive us today.

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

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