John Drescher

N&O publisher Quarles quiet but effective

Community leaders salute News and Observer publisher

VIDEO: The chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Raleigh's mayor and four other prominent Triangle citizens talk about Orage Quarles III, who retired last week as president and publisher of The News and Observer.
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VIDEO: The chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Raleigh's mayor and four other prominent Triangle citizens talk about Orage Quarles III, who retired last week as president and publisher of The News and Observer.

About two months ago, Raleigh businessman Smedes York read that Orage Quarles III was retiring after 16 years as president and publisher of The News & Observer.

York, a former mayor who’s active in civic affairs, wrote Quarles a note. You need to stay right here, York wrote.

Quarles, 65, retired Friday. York will get his wish: Quarles, who grew up in California and worked for several papers there, and his wife will remain in Raleigh. Quarles’ successor has not been named.

York and Quarles worked on several projects together, including a fund-raising campaign for the YMCA of the Triangle. “I’m always impressed with his demeanor,” York told me recently. “He’s soft spoken but at the same time very effective in getting things done.”

Quarles oversaw all aspects of The News and Observer Publishing Co. and represented The N&O in the community. He was involved in many nonprofit and philanthropic endeavors.

Among them was High Five, a partnership of five businesses and five local school systems — Wake, Durham, Johnston, Orange and Chapel Hill-Carrboro.

The five businesses (including The N&O) agreed to contribute $100,000 a year each for five years to improve the dropout rate and prepare students for college. From its start in 2004, the group agreed that it would get school systems together to share ideas and that High Five would dissolve after five years.

High Five was Quarles’ idea and he chaired the board for one of its five years.

Vann Langston was High Five’s executive director. He was a former Wake County teacher, principal and administrator. He says Quarles was an effective listener and collaborator.

“He was very attentive to having the organization have clear, measurable goals but he didn’t put his idea out there as the one everybody should do,” Langston said. “He led the group to do its best work. It was a wonderful example of leadership for all of our superintendents.”

Quarles demonstrated those same traits in running the business side of The N&O. He assembled his team, gathered information, asked good questions, prompted discussion and led the group toward a decision. If it couldn’t agree, he made the tough call.

Digital transition

The traditional newspaper business model, which was heavily dependent on print advertising, has been disrupted. Quarles led The N&O’s transformation into a digital media company. N&O digital readership is growing dramatically (it’s up 23 percent compared to last year); digital revenue, which was nearly non-existent 15 years ago, is now more than 20 percent of The N&O’s total revenue.

Quarles wanted to know what we were working on but never tried to steer the newsroom away from stories. He was proud of the paper’s watchdog reporting.

During Quarles’ tenure, The N&O doubled its community papers (including the Durham News and Clayton News-Star) from five to 10; launched Walter magazine; and added new digital products such as triangle.com and artsnownc.com. This month, The N&O will introduce Collegetown, a digital site aimed at students at N.C. Central, UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State and Duke.

Quarles was a great ally of the news staff. As executive editor, I reported to Quarles. He wanted to know what we were working on but never tried to steer the newsroom away from stories. He was proud of the paper’s watchdog reporting.

He was deeply involved in the community (he’s currently on the board of the N.C. Museum of History and the Dix Conservancy) but didn’t seek favorable stories about his causes. His discrete nature worked both ways; he was on a hospital board for 12 years but, to my disappointment, never told me much of anything that wasn’t publicly known.

Free speech

I think he was the best publisher in the country. His peers agreed he was top notch. He was named Publisher of the Year by the trade publication Editor & Publisher in 2002 and was chairman of the Newspaper Association of America from 2001 to 2002.

Quarles believes deeply in free speech and a robust debate. He is on the board of the Freedom Forum, which oversees the Newseum in Washington, D.C. In a farewell email to employees Friday afternoon, Quarles wrote: “A free press is what keeps our democracy in place. Never forget that we have the protection of the First Amendment that allows us to take on the tough issues.”

The Triangle is fortunate that Quarles is staying here. He’s going to take some time off before figuring out where to focus his energy. But I have no doubt he will remain involved in our civic life. Langston, the former educator, said it well: “It was a good day when Orage Quarles came to town.”

John Drescher: 919-829-4515, jdrescher@newsobserver.com, @john_drescher

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