Straight Shooter

Ask anyone who knows him and they’ll tell you that Orage Quarles III is a stickler for the rules. Of course, his main job as president and publisher of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., is to inspire and implement McClatchy Co.’s vision for a great regional newspaper. And in just two years, he has accomplished much along those lines. Circulation is up. So is household penetration. The paper’s longtime reputation for quality remains intact, but now it is also known for its financial and managerial efficiencies. And it has become a national model for diversifying newspaper work forces.

Yet Quarles always has time to focus on the smaller things at the N&O. Its parking fees, for instance. Or its policy about smoking in front of the building (you can’t), or its dress code (no blue jeans and no shorts, casual Fridays or not). “He likes people to follow the rules,” says the paper’s executive editor, Anders Gyllenhaal, who notes that Quarles pays close attention to how employee-handbook policies are enforced. “It’s a source of some humor around here, but only to a point.”

There is one exception, Gyllenhaal adds: “The one rule he doesn’t respect is the speed limit.” Quarles sheepishly cops to the accusation with a laugh. “I’ve got a little lead in my foot,” he admits. This is, after all, a man who celebrated his 50th birthday a year ago by racing around the Charlotte Motor Speedway at 145 miles per hour.

But then, Quarles has been on the fast track for the past decade and a half. Since 1987, when Gannett Co. named him publisher of the Fort Collins Coloradoan, Quarles has hopscotched the nation, taking the helm of ever-larger papers. He became publisher of The Record in Stockton, Calif., then moved from Gannett to McClatchy to become president and publisher of, first, The Herald in Rock Hill, S.C., then The Modesto Bee in California; then, since January 2000, president and publisher of the N&O.

In a yearlong period remarkable for its staggering developments—the sudden plunge in classified ads during the winter of 2001 that signaled the start of the newspaper recession; the layoffs and buyouts that swept away employees from the newsrooms to the loading dock; and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that all at once delivered an unimagined journalistic challenge and economic body blow—Quarles demonstrated his own remarkable poise, purpose and persistence, making him Editor & Publisher magazine’s pick for Publisher of the Year 2002.

Under his watch in a very bad year for newspapers, the N&O increased its circulation for the fall reporting period by just less than 1 percent, to 162,869, and it will report a gain in the spring report, due out today. Readership and household penetration also in creased modestly while falling industrywide. While other papers were paring their news holes, the N&O redesigned its pages and increased space for editorial. The paper found new revenue by implementing measures suggested by the findings of the Readership Institute’s Impact Study.

Quarles adjusted to the rigors of this recession with cost cuts—but without laying off or buying out a single employee. And while other papers dropped summer internships this year, the N&O started a particularly innovative program with historically African American North Carolina Central University that will allow promising students to learn the editorial and business sides of the newspaper by working full time during summers and part time during the school year for their entire college career.

Quarles would deserve recognition just for what he managed to accomplish at the N&O. What makes his achievements there all the more extraordinary is that Quarles pulled them off while also serving as the newspaper industry’s head cheerleader. His term as chairman of the Newspaper Association of America, which ends after this week’s annual convention in New Orleans, not only took him away from the office on a punishing schedule of speeches and meetings, but also often put him in front of Wall Street and Main Street audiences convinced that the long-prophesied end of newspapers was finally at hand.

While he doesn’t exactly dismiss the recession, Quarles is clearly not rattled by it. Though he is only 51, he has more than 30 years of experience working in newspapers. He knows the ride can be bumpy: In 1974, he was laid off as an apprentice compositor when the San Bernardino County Sun folded the Evening Telegram. “About every 8 to 10 years, we go through something like this and it lasts for 12 to 18 months,” he says. “It comes back, it always comes back.”

When Quarles began his NAA chairmanship almost a year ago, he told association CEO John Sturm that the downturn would not last past his term. “And, you know, looking at the [economic] indications we’re getting now, I think he was right,” Sturm says.

Ordinarily, having a publisher become NAA chairman is a great honor for a chain. And Quarles is the first African American to serve as chairman. But McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt confesses he was a bit nervous at first about having the publisher of the group’s third-largest paper occupied with association business in this, of all, years. “It actually ended up being a good year for him to be chairman,” Pruitt says from McClatchy’s Sacramento, Calif., headquarters. “Good because he has an excellent ability to inspire people and encourage them to look ahead to good times and expect improvements.”

As it happens, it was a good year for Quarles in Raleigh, too, Pruitt notes: “Admittedly, revenues were down and profits were down, but that comes with the kind of recession we had. Yet, despite that, the N&O had strong circulation growth, the news hole actually grew, and the quality of paper improved. They avoided morale-busting layoffs or buyouts and newsrooms cuts. At the same time, Orage screwed down expenses and did a very excellent job of operating efficiently and allocating resources to places that mattered most. That’s a very difficult thing to do, to get that balance.”

McClatchy, which has entrusted Quarles with three of its papers since it hired him away from Gannett in 1993, has come to expect that kind of performance from this publisher, Pruitt says. “Orage has a tremendous record of success across the board at all the newspaper jobs he’s had at McClatchy,” Pruitt says. “Everywhere he has gone, circulation has grown, diversity has increased, quality has increased and the economic [performance] has increased.”

Publisher of the Year may have seemed an unlikely future milestone when Quarles was born in Texas to parents who divorced soon after his birth. He was raised in Los Angeles by his mother and two doting aunts. Asked to describe his childhood, he says quickly, “Sports, sports and more sports.” Oh, and about his name: The family story has it that during the birth of Quarles’ grandfather in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the Creole midwife repeatedly fretted about the storm—”orage,” in French—that was raging outside.

Even as a child, however, Quarles was being shaped—and shaping himself—for exactly the leadership positions he would eventually assume. “I’ve always acted older than my age,” he says. He was a competitive child who played with older kids, getting knocked down easier but learning quicker. He was also involved with newspapers early, delivering two paper routes, the old Los Angeles Herald-Examiner on weekdays and the Los Angeles Times on Sundays.

Quarles developed another character in youth that would come to define his management style. “Orage is all about discipline,” says N&O managing editor Melanie Sill. He fervently believes in setting high standards and holding people accountable, his colleagues say. “As high as the expectations he has of employees may be, he holds himself to the highest expectations,” Sill adds.

In addition to his mother and aunts, another woman had an enormous impact on young Orage Quarles. Beverly Richardson was the No. 2 person in the human resources department when Quarles, still in high school, began working part time in the composing room of the San Bernardino County Sun. “She was committed to diversity back in the 1960s,” Quarles says. She advised Quarles as he moved out of the composing room into marketing and then began rising through the ranks of advertising. Her greatest lesson: “She taught me how to listen.”

Though in recent years Quarles has moved from newspaper to newspaper, it’s also important to remember he spent 18 years rising through the ranks of just one newspaper, the Sun. He was advertising director of the Sun in 1987 when Gannett hired him to become assistant to the publisher of the 20 or so papers in its Gannett West unit. After that quick training stint, he was appointed publisher of the Fort Collins Coloradoan the same year.

By this time, there were no accidents in Orage Quarles’ career. The discipline he learned as a child was serving him on his way up the ladder of the newspaper business. As he says in an interview in his N&O office looking out on a Raleigh park, “We’ve been on a plan for a long time, and all the moves were designed to get here some day—here being a metro paper.”

Part of the plan necessarily involved leaving Gannett, Quarles decided when he was at Stockton. “Gannett is just a wonderful place to be,” Quarles says. “But as I looked around, there were a lot of really talented people, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a long line. There are a lot of people ahead of me.’ But it was hard leaving Gannett after almost 24 years.” Even now, he reflects warmth toward his old chain when he recalls how, soon after his arrival at the N&O, an employee sneeringly referred to his long experience at Gannett “as if that was something, you know, bad.”

In 1993, he moved from a chain that then owned more than 90 dailies to one that at the time owned just nine. But the paper McClatchy hired him to publish, The Herald in Rock Hill, S.C., was right where he wanted to be, in the South. That, too, was part of the plan: “I always wanted to live in the South. I’ve always been fascinated with it and I thought it would be good for [my daughters]. The problem is, I never told my wife.”

Terry Linda Quarles, as it turned out, loved Rock Hill—but soon the plan had the family moving again. In 1996, McClatchy decided to install its first true publisher at The Modesto Bee, which had always been run by a general manager. Being publisher of one of the Bees had always been a goal for Quarles—but it was also an important stepping stone. “From Rock Hill to Raleigh is a hell of a leap,” he says. “So I went to Modesto.”

McClatchy bought the N&O from the Daniels family four years before Quarles arrived, but in some ways he is really the first outsider to run it. Frank Daniels even continued as its publisher for a little while after the purchase.

“I think people expected a lot of changes from Orage—and we’ve had a lot of changes,” says deputy managing editor Will Sutton. The changes were as sweeping as redesigning and trimming page width (the N&O went with a 49-inch web, slightly narrower than the 50-inch width that has become the new broadsheet-newspaper standard) to as minor as having reporters submit odometer readings to be compensated for mileage.

If Quarles’ first year as publisher had a theme, it was getting all N&O departments and employees working together with uniform practices toward a common goal. That hasn’t been easy—employees are scattered among five buildings around downtown. At every paper he’s run, Quarles has always convened annual all-employee luncheon meetings. Raleigh won’t have its first one of those until later in May, simply because there hadn’t been a space at the newspaper big enough to hold one.

The physical setup encouraged, if not exactly fiefdoms, a certain variation from department to department. “We had policies, but departments interpreted the handbook in different ways. For instance, we had five different parking policies,” Quarles says. “I said, no. One price fits all. We’re all in this together, people, so let’s level the playing field.”

His first important hire was to bring Jackie Stark in from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to reorganize the human relations department. “H.R. didn’t have a very good reputation,” Stark recalls. “We did a lot of things by department, but we didn’t do a lot of things as a company. What’s great is that [Quarles] buys into the idea that happy employees make a better organization and a more productive organization, and that leads to better financial performance.”

Quarles also buys into the idea that clothes make the man. A sharp dresser, Quarles didn’t immediately impose a dress code. “But then one day I saw someone wearing a pair of Daisy Dukes, and I said, boy, that’s it,” he recalls, referring to the cutoff denim short-shorts popularized by a character on the old Dukes of Hazzard TV show. “I mean, we are in a capital city. The governor walks through here, senators walk through here. We’re a first-class organization and we should look like it.”

Though almost everyone who talked about Quarles mentioned the dress code, it was Gyllenhaal who pointed out that the paper had one long before the publisher arrived. “We said no blue jeans, no shorts, but we had trouble getting it to stick,” he says. “I’d put a message out, and Melanie [Sill] would, but Orage has an ability to enforce it in ways that others have not. I think that speaks to his starch.”

It’s a character trait, Gyllenhaal adds, that has been especially useful in the last few weeks as the N&O fights with the governor over access to budget documents and with the local stadium authority over access to contracts. “His principles have been very much on display when it comes to the whole gamut of First Amendment and fundamental newspaper issues,” the editor says.

For all his love of rules and decorum, Quarles in person is quick to listen and laugh. Even seated, he moves like a recently retired pro athlete. Hang around the N&O for even a short time, and an obvious pattern emerges of people constantly in motion, ducking into each other’s offices, meeting and dispersing quickly. Quarles’ own office—though quieter than most—is clearly not off limits for these informal meets: An editor wanders in with a fast update on a document, executives’ heads poke in with inscrutable reminders.

Quarles also doesn’t see H.R. as just a place for rule making. He used the department to create a program called Leadership Class that identifies 25 best-and-brightest employees, who spend eight months learning operations in all departments of the newspaper. They aren’t promised promotions, but they know they can be on a leadership track. “Do that program every year and in four or five years, you’ve got 20 percent of the work force that you know is prepared to take leadership roles,” Quarles explains. Among more prosaic efforts, H.R. also last month began offering Spanish lessons in recognition of North Carolina’s rapidly growing Latino population. One hundred employees signed up, Stark says.

Quarles got his biggest H.R. boost, however, from Sacramento, when McClatchy’s Pruitt traveled to Raleigh to announce that the chain would try not to lay off or buy out any employees. “Our CEO made it so much easier for us,” Quarles says. In one sense, of course, it’s harder to find expenses to cut here, there and everywhere than it is to simply lop jobs. Quarles says he would rather cut the expenses: “You sleep easier.”

The impact on employees has worked in the N&O’s favor by helping keep staffers around, says Sutton: “If someone were on the boundary of wondering whether they were in a good place or a bad place, this convinced them that, yeah, I’m at a good place.”

A good, but demanding, place, Quarles’ colleagues say. “He doesn’t like being surprised by things,” Sill says. Quarles, they say over and over, wants to get things done quickly. “He’s impatient,” Gyllenhaal says. “From an editor’s point of view, though, Orage is what you’d hope for in a publisher: He’s smart and quick and demanding, but reasonable. He listens—most of the time.”

When he doesn’t listen, he often turns out to be right. He got a lot of head scratching when he suggested something called “Kids Day,” in which copies of the N&O would be hawked for a dollar with the proceeds going to a local children’s hospital. The paper set a goal of 50,000 copies and some staffers privately hoped for the best. But when the paper totaled up its results from the Feb. 26 event, it had sold 73,000 papers. Only later did it occur to doubters that Quarles knew Kids Day would work because he had already tried it successfully at The Modesto Bee.

“He brings the kind of tools that can only come from experience,” Sutton says. “I mean, how many guys 51 years old have been publisher at five papers?”

In the last year, Quarles preached diversity to the industry and practiced it at the N&O. He instituted the internships at North Carolina Central University and revitalized the paper’s diversity committee. This month, an analysis of results from the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ census of minority journalists in daily-newspaper newsrooms examined the progress individual papers had made since 1992 in reaching so-called “par ity” between the proportion of minorities in the newsroom and the proportion of minority residents in their circulation areas. The N&O, ranked 70th in circulation among U.S. dailies, was the fifth-highest among the 200 biggest papers in gaining parity. “We learned the painful lesson that you don’t bring in people just because of their color,” he says. “You have to hire on talent, because you don’t want to hire someone and then have to say, ‘Well, it didn’t work out.'”

The publisher practices his own kind of diversity out in the community, as well: The youthful jock is a big booster of the arts and even sits on the board of directors of the local ballet. “He understands the real value of the arts in the community, which is really something other business people in the community have trouble understanding sometimes,” says Laura Raynor, director of external affairs for the Carolina Ballet. Quarles and his wife are very visible in the Raleigh arts scene, adds Eleanor Jordan, executive director of United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake Counties: “I think he not only lends his name to endeavors, but also really makes an effort to make a per sonal commitment to organizations.”

“I always tell people, get involved with people of different backgrounds, get involved in something you usually wouldn’t get involved in,” Quarles says. He extends that to the friendships he’s made around the country. In Modesto, for instance, Quarles became fast friends with the Gallos, including Ernest, the media-averse patriarch of the wine-making family.

What’s ahead for Orage Quarles III? Whatever it is, one thing is certain: He will be going there quickly, and carefully. Notes the publisher who acknowledges driving with a lead foot, “I always drive with safety in mind.” n

Chicago-based Mark Fitzgerald is editor at large for Editor & Publisher.