News & Observer publisher Orage Quarles III to retire

News & Observer publisher Orage Quarles III leads a panel of entrepreneurs during a ShopTalk breakfast focused on small business owners growing their business in Durham on August 5, 2014.
News & Observer publisher Orage Quarles III leads a panel of entrepreneurs during a ShopTalk breakfast focused on small business owners growing their business in Durham on August 5, 2014.

Orage Quarles III, who during 16 years as president and publisher of The News & Observer steered the newspaper through tumultuous times and led efforts to diversify its business, is retiring.

Under his leadership, The N&O doubled its roster of free community newspapers, launched Walter Magazine, and expanded its online presence. At the same time, the paper was hurt by the same economic forces that have diminished advertising revenue and triggered major reductions in personnel – including reporting staffs – at newspapers nationwide.

“It’s been a heck of a ride,” Quarles said Friday.

The N&O’s corporate parent, The McClatchy Co. of Sacramento, Calif., announced Friday that Quarles, 65, will retire June 3. A successor has not been named.

“I’ve been fortunate to work for the best publisher in the country,” said John Drescher, the paper’s executive editor.

Drescher called Quarles “a model of how a publisher should operate.” He always wants to know what stories reporters are working on, Drescher said, but he doesn’t try to influence how a story is reported or steer the newsroom away from stories.

“He appreciates and supports good journalism,” Drescher said. “Orage didn’t come up through the newsroom, but he has the soul of a journalist.”

What Orage made possible is really an era of big investigative projects.

James T. Hamilton, director of the journalism program at Stanford University

James T. Hamilton, director of the journalism program at Stanford University, said that under Quarles’ leadership The News & Observer tackled major issues that had broad impact.

“What Orage made possible is really an era of big investigative projects,” said Hamilton, who is a former director of the Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University.

Hamilton’s upcoming book on the economics of investigative journalism includes a chapter on Pat Stith, The N&O’s now-retired Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, who wrote a series of articles in four consecutive years that led to new state laws.

“That was an amazing record,” Hamilton said. “Four years in a row – four new state laws because of information that was discovered by The News & Observer.”

Challenging times

Quarles, whose career has spanned more than four decades, has been a force within the newspaper industry. He was named Publisher of the Year by trade publication Editor & Publisher in 2002 and was chairman of the Newspaper Association of America from 2001 to 2002. He is on the board of the Freedom Forum, which oversees the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and is a former board member of The Associated Press.

Quarles said he had been mulling retirement for a while and that he was pleased to be able to step down in the wake of several recent accomplishments, including the sale of the paper’s downtown Raleigh headquarters on South McDowell Street to a local group. As part of that deal, The N&O has agreed to a long-term lease of about 50,000 square feet of space at the site.

“The idea that we only have to move 200 yards, it’s a big relief,” said Quarles, who added that he wanted the paper to remain downtown.

“It’s been our home since 1907,” he said.

Quarles said he also was pleased to get the business off to a good start this year “to make sure my replacement has some runway to keep it going and get things done.”

“Financially, we’re ahead of where we felt we were going to be,” he said of the company’s first-quarter results. “And that is where you want to be.”

I am most proud of the co-workers who are still here. Everybody that’s here could have left during this extremely challenging time we have had.

Orage Quarles III

During Quarles’ tenure, however, the paper’s workforce has shrunk from a staff of about 1,200 full-time equivalents to 350 today. And, since the recession, revenue has been cut in half as many advertisers slashed or abandoned print advertising, and readers have moved online.

“It’s been really difficult,” Quarles said. “I knew that we were going to have a digital disruption. The industry knew that for a long time. But none of us knew how deep and wide it would be.

“I am most proud of the co-workers who are still here,” Quarles added. “Everybody that’s here could have left during this extremely challenging time we have had.”

Frank Daniels Jr., a former publisher of The N&O, said Quarles has done an outstanding job during trying times that have diminished the paper’s resources. The Daniels family sold The News & Observer Publishing Co., which included The N&O and other media properties, to the McClatchy chain in 1995.

“He has done a marvelous job of dealing with the expenses and a great job of making sure the money is there, the budget is there, to cover state (government) and investigative stuff,” Daniels said. “He has pushed hard on that, and I have been quite impressed with the job he has done.”

Quarles said he is proud that The N&O has doubled down on investigative reporting to best serve its readers even as the reporting staff has shrunk.

“When Joe Neff does a story on a state employee leader who within six months is in jail, only we can do that story,” Quarles said.

Quarles was referring to Dana Cope, the former head of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, who pleaded guilty to stealing more than $500,000 from the organization in November. The criminal probe of Cope was triggered by Neff’s reporting.

Diversifying operations

When Quarles arrived at The N&O in 2000, digital revenue was “probably zero,” he said.

Flash forward to today and it is “over 20 percent and growing,” Quarles said. That revenue comes not only from the online and mobile versions of The N&O but also from its digital offshoots, and ArtsNow.

The expansion from five to 10 free community papers produced by The N&O – publications such as the Midtown Raleigh News – under Quarles’ watch was driven by the need to “expand our footprint” to broaden the appeal to advertisers, Quarles said.

By delivering the community papers for free, the company can promise nearly blanket distribution – 85 percent of the households or more – to major advertisers who want to get their pre-printed circulars in customers’ hands.

Quarles said the launch of Walter Magazine has been a success in itself but also became a vehicle for sponsoring money-making events.

“We’re going to be here a long time,” Quarles said. “Now, will we be a seven-day-a-week printed product? I don’t know. But the printed paper will be here a long time.”

Quarles’ first job at a newspaper was a two-week internship as an apprentice compositor – a position that no longer exists – while he was a senior in high school.

“From the very beginning, when you saw people putting out a different product each and every day, you knew that was special,” he said.

After starting his career with Gannett, he joined McClatchy in 1993 and came to The N&O in 2000 after stints as a publisher in South Carolina and then The Modesto Bee in California.

“Orage represents the very best traits of McClatchy publishers,” said Pat Talamantes, McClatchy president and CEO. “He is entrepreneurial and focused. He exhibits class and grace in all situations. Orage will fight for his people, his community and his ideals.”

He was The N&O’s first black publisher.

“Every place I’ve gone I’ve been ‘the first,’ ” Quarles said in an interview when he joined The N&O.

Quarles became for many the face of The New & Observer in the community.

“When I think of Orage Quarles, I think of someone who is always kind to everyone,” said Chief Justice Mark Martin of the N.C. Supreme Court. “It did not matter their station in life. He tried to understand and empathize with everyone he interacted with, whether they were a CEO or someone who was having a rough patch and struggling.”

Quarles has served on a host of Triangle nonprofit boards and led local fundraising efforts. He is currently on the board of trustees for the N.C. Museum of History and the Dix Conservancy.

When he was on the UNC Rex Healthcare board, “Orage helped guide our health system during a time of great change and expansion,” Steve Burriss, the Rex president, said in a prepared statement. “His wise perspective and passion for helping patients were always invaluable.”

Quarles doesn’t have a detailed game plan for retirement.

“I’m going to clean the garage,” he said, adding that he also plans to spend time with his two grandchildren and “getting to know my wife all over again.” Quarles and his wife, Linda, have been married 43 years.

At the conclusion of a 30-minute interview in his corner office, he teared up as he talked of what “a real honor” it has been to lead The N&O.

“I can’t believe I got misty-eyed,” Quarles said. “Don’t you dare tell anybody. You’ll ruin my reputation.”

David Ranii: 919-829-4877, @dranii