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A conversation with the Observer’s new editor: ‘Readers expect us to be a watchdog’

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Sherry Chisenhall, who started this month as editor of The Charlotte Observer, discusses coverage with Ronnie Glassberg, an editor on the metro desk.
Sherry Chisenhall, who started this month as editor of The Charlotte Observer, discusses coverage with Ronnie Glassberg, an editor on the metro desk. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Sherry Chisenhall has held a variety of editing roles during her years at the Observer: copy editor, page designer, regional bureau reporter, night city editor, assistant sports editor and education editor.

This week she took on a new title: executive editor.

Chisenhall, 53, a native of Belleville, Ill., succeeds Rick Thames, who retired last month after 13 years leading the Observer’s newsroom. She becomes the 10th editor in the Observer’s 131-year history – and takes the role at a time of dramatic change for an industry whose readers now expect news around the clock, on their phones, tablets and desktops, as well as in the morning newspaper. It’s also a time when the Observer, like newsrooms everywhere, has seen revenue from print operations fall precipitously as readers’ habits change – and digital revenue, while growing, hasn’t yet closed the gap.

In an interview this week, Chisenhall said the Observer will remain committed to holding leaders accountable and digging for the truth, at a time when distinguishing facts from spin is crucial. She also said that while print readership has declined, the Observer’s reach is broader than ever, thanks to its digital presence.

She talked, too, about her impressions of Charlotte after a 16-year absence. She started at the Observer in 1986, and left in 2000 to become managing editor, and then editor, at the Wichita Eagle. That newsroom, like the Observer, is among the McClatchy company’s 30 news organizations. Last year she returned to the Observer as managing editor, before assuming the newsroom’s top post this week.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity:

On what Observer readers can expect under her leadership:

One of the most common questions I’m asked is, “What does the newspaper stand for?” Do we stand behind specific issues or viewpoints?

The news department doesn’t take sides on issues or policies. But we stand for openness and transparency – open public records, open meetings, an open justice system, open debate among those who lead, open decision-making. The Observer has long advocated and pushed for open leadership, for doing the people’s business in public. Readers can expect a resolute commitment to that mission, as well as our deep commitment to holding leaders and institutions accountable.

And they can expect us to focus harder than ever on digging for and reporting the truth. Facts are at a premium today, and separating truth from spin or outright falsehood is at the core of what we do.

On what she’s hearing from readers:

A little bit of everything. I’ve heard from long-time readers who say they couldn’t do without a print paper every morning. Long-time readers who have converted to digital-only readers on their phones, iPads and laptops. I’ve heard some harsh criticism that was delivered very thoughtfully. I’ve gotten a bit of blue language in some notes.

Everyone leads busy lives today, and feedback is a gift – people who take their time to write to me do us a great favor, whether they’re complimenting us or taking us to task.

It’s interesting to me how many people start their note with, “I know your readership has greatly declined…” But no, it hasn’t. Digital platforms long ago surpassed print as our dominant audience. People who measure us by print alone assume that our readership has dwindled. In fact, with the robust growth of digital readers year after year, our reach has never been so broad. I don’t mind whether people read us in print, on the web, on our apps or find our stories through Facebook or Twitter. I’m just grateful they’re making their way to us.

Anyone who wants to add their thoughts can send them to me at schisenhall@charlotteobserver.com.

On the Observer’s role in the community:

Readers expect us to be a watchdog for local leaders, agencies and institutions. It’s our core mission, and our community needs independent, engaged media. Sometimes readers or leaders don’t understand that this is our community, too, and we live here. We at times have to report difficult truths, but if this community is strong and successful, so are we, as individuals, families and a business.

On new “beat” assignments for many of the Observer’s reporters:

The changes we’ve recently made in the newsroom will position us to better focus on deeper journalism that drives straight to our core mission of accountability. In some cases, readers assumed that something not on a list of specific assignments means we won’t cover it. And that’s absolutely not the case. We do – and always have – covered hundreds of topics that aren’t in the title of a reporter’s main assignment. We cover what’s important to our community, our region and our state, regardless of whether it’s a formally assigned role in the newsroom.

In addition to broadening some reporters’ topic areas, we have three reporters joining our newsroom who will be fantastic additions to our staff. LaVendrick Smith is here already, part of our breaking news team. Anna Douglas, who reports on North Carolina for our company’s Washington bureau, will join our newsroom in early May, covering a wide range of deeper news stories. And Jane Wester joins us in late May as our new public safety reporter. LaVendrick is new to our region. Anna hails from down the road in Spartanburg so is no newcomer to the Carolinas. And for Jane, Charlotte is home.

On returning to the Charlotte area after 16 years away:

It’s been fascinating to me to see how much has changed, yet how much is exactly as it was when I left in 2000. Growth, obviously, is stunning, especially as I see how it’s made a mark on uptown, suburban regions and communities outside Mecklenburg. South End was amazing to me, seeing the change there. Yet shops and restaurants in other areas are still thriving right where I remember them. Despite all of the newcomers, what hasn’t changed a bit is the affection people have for this community where they live, and the sense of aspiration that prevails here.

On the proliferation of news sources on the Web – some credible, some not – and the role of the Observer in that environment:

For years we’ve had an important charge to cut through the noise of an increasingly crowded media landscape. It’s more important than it ever has been. The idea of “news literacy” – learning how to evaluate the independence and veracity of the places you read, see or hear news – has become vital for readers.

Our role in that is to be painstakingly accurate, to be transparent in sourcing our journalism, to be open to criticism and learn from it, to be balanced and fair. We also have to ask the hard questions, and often to write difficult stories. I think that, too, sets us aside from content that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

We have an extraordinary news staff at the Observer, committed to the community and committed to journalism that matters and that can’t be found elsewhere. I’m lucky to be working with a staff of people who are great at what they do, and who do excellent work in sometimes-difficult circumstances.

If we do those things right, we help readers separate reliable reporting from fictitious sites and social media frauds who traffic in untruths and rumors.

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