Rick Thames is retiring as editor of The Charlotte Observer and will be succeeded by managing editor Sherry Chisenhall, publisher Ann Caulkins announced Wednesday.
Thames, editor since 2004, told newsroom staffers Wednesday afternoon that he was confident the Observer would continue its mission as “a vital force for truth” under Chisenhall’s leadership.
“There is no free society without a free and independent press,” Thames, 62, told the newsroom. “You are the very oxygen that our democracy desperately needs. Never, ever forget that.”
Under Thames’ leadership, the Observer has won national recognition for its journalism. Three of its projects were recognized as Pulitzer Prize finalists, including a 2007 investigation into foreclosures and the subprime mortgage business. Thames also led the Observer’s coverage of the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, the Panthers’ 2015-16 Super Bowl run, Charlotte’s extraordinary growth, and the protests that rocked the city last September.
Caulkins noted that Thames has led the newsroom during a time of significant change – for the Observer, and for the news business.
“Rick is an editor’s editor whose wisdom has won him the respect of his colleagues throughout our company,” she said. “And he’s led The Observer with a steady hand through some unsteady times: our sale from Knight Ridder to McClatchy, the economic downturn and the transition into leading digital companies, and our move from Tryon Street to the NASCAR tower.”
His successor is an Observer veteran. Chisenhall, 53, first joined the Observer in 1986 and served in a variety of capacities: copy editor, page designer, regional bureau reporter, night city editor, assistant sports editor and education editor. In 2000 she left for Kansas to take a job as managing editor of The Wichita Eagle, where Thames was then editor. She led that newsroom as editor from 2004 until 2016, when she returned to Charlotte as managing editor of the Observer.
In announcing Chisenhall’s appointment as executive editor and vice president for news, publisher Caulkins said Chisenhall “has impressed us all with her passion for public service journalism and her commitment to the digital future.”
Thames told Observer staffers Wednesday he recruited Chisenhall to return to Charlotte “because I believed that she could be my successor. And she has proven that she is more than ready.”
Chisenhall grew up in East St. Louis and Troy, Ill. She graduated from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, with degrees in journalism and political science.
She will move into her new role after Thames’ departure on March 31.
As for his next chapter, Thames said: “This isn’t goodbye. I’m also a fan of Charlotte, and a fan of the Carolinas. … So at some point – if I get the opportunity – I hope to get behind still another mission that is out to make this a better world.”