Since June 2006, North Carolina’s two leading newspapers, The Charlotte Observer and The Raleigh News & Observer, have been owned by The McClatchy Company. Two years later, after a companywide reduction of staff in McClatchy-owned newsrooms, Charlotte Observer Editor Rick Thames and Raleigh News & Observer Executive Editor John Drescher told their staffs that the two papers will have a far closer working relationship. Some departments would merge, they announced, including the papers’ capital bureaus and sports staffs. The person selected to head this new sports department is Gary Schwab, who for the past seven years had been The Charlotte Observer’s projects editor, where he oversaw that newspaper’s investigative reporting. Before assuming his new job, Schwab wrote this article for Nieman Reports about some of what he’d experienced as the two papers, once fierce rivals, had begun to work together to bring local investigative reporting to more readers in North Carolina. His words offer a valuable glimpse into one of the ways—in an era of diminishing resources—the work of investigative reporters at regional newspapers can be brought to ever-expanding audiences.
It was the most bizarre conversation I’ve had in 25 years at The Charlotte Observer. Here’s the long-term investigation we’re working on, I explained two years ago to Steve Riley of The Raleigh News & Observer. And Steve, in turn, shared with me his paper’s plans.
For the two of us, each the editor in charge of projects at North Carolina’s two largest daily newspapers, telling each other what we’re working on was like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox exchanging strategies for an upcoming three-game series in the midst of a heated pennant race. The two papers serve communities about 170 miles apart and don’t generally compete for readers, though we’ve competed against each other for decades, battling to be first and best in coverage of politics, ACC basketball, and important news investigations.
Then, in 2006, McClatchy Company bought Knight Ridder, Inc., and our newspapers were now considered to be part of the same team. In a time when newspapers are struggling for revenue and resources, the advantages in working together soon became clear.
“At first, it seemed really odd,” says News & Observer Executive Editor John Drescher, who formerly worked in Charlotte. “Faced with the thought of cooperating with The Charlotte Observer, a lot of the staff really recoiled. But I think our folks realized that the Observer isn’t the competitor anymore. Our competitors are everybody else …. We’re not going to lose this game to The Charlotte Observer. If we’re going to lose, it’s to some upstart Web site.”
After three years of being a line worker at the House of Raeford chicken processing plant, this 35-year-old woman’s hands are gnarled and swollen and always shaking. “My hands were good when I started,” she said. “Now I can’t do anything.” She was fired in February 2007. The reason: three unexcused absences. She disputes this, saying she called the plant several times to say she was seeing a doctor about her hands. “They fired me because they had no use for me,” she said. “My hands don’t work. I could no longer do the job.” March 2007. Photo by John D. Simmons/The Charlotte Observer.
In 2007, political editors divided coverage of John Edwards on the presidential campaign trail, and sports editors split up ACC basketball assignments. And we began to plan how to get the largest impact out of our best investigative work.
Riley shared with me what it was like for him to break the news to longtime News & Observer investigative reporter Pat Stith, known for his competitive spirit, that he was planning to tell our paper about his latest project.
Stith looked at him and said, “Riley, this has got to be a bunch of crap. We can’t tell the Observer.”
“Pat,” Riley replied, “look at it this way. If we tell them, they can’t go to work on it.”
Stith stroked his chin, then said, “Then go tell them everything.”
Though we’re still figuring out all of the logistics, our basic guidelines are these:
When one paper hears what the other is working on, it can’t go out and do its own two-day version of the story.
It’s good to do a local sidebar to make the investigative project even more relevant to your own paper’s readers.
We’ll play the other paper’s stories as prominently as we would have had we reported them ourselves.
If we both are working on the same project—well, we’ll figure that one out if it ever happens.
Expanding the Reach of Reporting
In February, we delivered a glimpse of the power of the new relationship. A Charlotte six-part series, “The Cruelest Cuts,” examined the human cost of bringing poultry to the dinner table and showed how one large North Carolina company masked the extent of workplace injuries behind factory walls. The Observer reported that House of Raeford Farms ignored, intimidated or fired workers who were hurt on the job and also found the company had broken the law by failing to record injuries on government safety logs.
Two weeks later, the state’s mental health director resigned days before The Raleigh News & Observer began a five-part series on the state’s failure to reform mental health services. The newspaper reported that the state had wasted at least $400 million in an ill-conceived and poorly executed plan to treat more mentally ill people in their own communities and fewer in the state’s four psychiatric hospitals.
The two newspapers have produced powerful work before. But this time, both series received prominent play in both newspapers. Combined, total circulation for the two reaches about 475,000 on Sunday—or more than a million readers. “In moments like these, we truly become a state newspaper,” says Charlotte Observer Editor Rick Thames.
Both series had strong online components, expanding the reach even more. Charlotte had 2.4 million unique online visitors in March. Raleigh had 1.7 million the same month.
Even as this happens, we are continuing to work out details of our relationship. We’d each like to get series packages sooner, since each newspaper works out its own display and production. Raleigh, for example, sometimes runs shorter versions of our stories and vice versa.
Though we share a healthy respect for each other’s reporting standards, there is sometimes disagreement. In our poultry series, Raleigh editors decided not to run some information we’d published and attributed to unnamed sources. In a Raleigh series on the Duke lacrosse case, we chose to not include some graphic detail of the rape investigation.
To be sure, there’s a valid argument to be made that having reporters from different papers competing as they pursue the same story will benefit readers. And that still happens on some stories. But we’ve also found the readers benefit when one paper handles an assignment for both; this arrangement frees other reporters’ time for other enterprise and watchdog work. Coordinating investigations and planning their rollout gives us even greater impact.
Reaction from legislators was swift when the two newspapers published both of these investigative reports in February. Lawmakers vowed reform in response to both of them, and the U.S. Senate and House committees have held hearings to focus on worker safety in response to our poultry series.
“Suddenly, the best journalism being done in the state has a bigger platform,” says Charlotte Managing Editor Cheryl Carpenter. “That’s good for readers. That’s good for justice.”
The House of Raeford chicken processing plant in West Columbia, South Carolina, has 150 workers packed into six evisceration lines where they pull skins, remove chicken tenders, and make cuts with razor sharp knives while birds move down the line to the next station for more processing. May 2007. Photo by John D. Simmons/The Charlotte Observer.
Gary Schwab has been projects editor at The Charlotte Observer since 2001. The story, "The Cruelest Cuts," which he writes about in this article, was recognized with an RFK Journalism Award in April 2009. Previously, he was executive sports editor at the newspaper for 14 years, and this summer was named to oversee the merged sports department of the Observer and The Raleigh News & Observer newspapers.