Quarles Led ‘N&O’, Industry Through Tough Year

By: Mark Fitzgerald

When Orage Quarles III gathered his daughters the other day to tell them some big news during a telephone conference call, the two young women knew exactly what to expect: “Oh, no, Daddy,” they said, almost in unison. “We’re not moving again, are we?”

It was an understandable reaction from the Quarles sisters. In less than 15 years, their father has taken them north, then west, then south, then west again, and, finally, east and south as he was successively named publisher of the Fort Collins Coloradoan; The Record in Stockton, Calif.; The Herald in Rock Hill, S.C.; The Modesto (Calif.) Bee; and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., where he has served, since January 2000, as president and publisher.

This time, though, Quarles had different news for his family: He is E&P‘s Publisher of the Year.

In a year remarkable for staggering developments — the sudden plunge in classified ads that signaled the start of the newspaper recession; the layoffs and buyouts that swept away employees, from the newsroom to the loading dock; and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that delivered both an unimagined journalistic challenge and an economic body blow — Orage Quarles III demonstrated his own remarkable poise, purpose, and persistence.

Under his watch, The News & Observer boosted its weekday circulation for the fall reporting period by almost 1%, to 162,869, and will report another gain in the spring report due out this week. While other papers pared their news holes, the N&O redesigned its pages and increased space for editorial. The paper found new revenue in implementing measures suggested by the findings of the Readership Institute’s “Impact Study.”

Quarles adjusted to the rigors of the 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 an innovative program with historically black North Carolina Central University in Durham 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 careers.

He would deserve recognition for what he managed to accomplish just at The News & Observer during these trying times. What makes his achievements at the McClatchy Co. paper in Raleigh all the more extraordinary is that Quarles pulled them off while also serving as the newspaper industry’s top cheerleader. His term as chairman of the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), 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 approaching.

Quarles doesn’t dismiss the recession, but he’s clearly not rattled by it. Though he is only 51 years old, Quarles has more than 30 years’ work experience in newspapers. He knows the ride can be bumpy: In 1974, he was laid off as an apprentice compositor when the San Bernardino (Calif.) County Sun folded the Evening Telegram.

“About every eight 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 exactly a year ago, he told association CEO and President John F. 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 as NAA chairman is a great honor for a chain. On top of that, Quarles is the first African American to serve in that post. But Gary B. Pruitt, McClatchy’s chairman, CEO, and president, 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, “because I think 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. “Admittedly, revenues were down and profits were down,” Pruitt reports, “but that comes with the kind of recession we had. They avoided morale-busting layoffs. Yet, 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.”

But then, McClatchy, which has entrusted Quarles with three of its papers since it hired him away from Gannett Co. Inc. in 1993, has come to expect that kind of performance from this publisher. “Everywhere he has gone, circulation has grown, diversity has increased, quality has increased,” Pruitt says, “and the economic [performance] has increased.”

Adds N&O Deputy Managing Editor Will Sutton: “He brings the kind of tools that can only come from experience. I mean, how many guys 51 years old have been publisher at five papers?”

The developing ‘storm’

“Publisher of the Year” may have seemed an unlikely future milestone when Quarles was born in Houston 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 helping out 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 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 but learning quickly. 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 trait in youth that would come to define his management style. “Orage is all about discipline,” says N&O Managing Editor Melanie Sill. “He likes people to follow the rules,” adds Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal, who notes that Quarles pays very close attention to enforcement of the newspaper’s policies on parking, smoking, and dress. “It’s a source of some humor around here — but only to a point.”

Quarles 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 says.

Picking Quarles

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, Quarles says, “is she taught me how to listen.”

Though in recent years Quarles has made frequent appearances on the E&P “NewsPeople” pages as he moved from newspaper to newspaper, it’s important to remember he spent 18 years rising in the ranks of just one newspaper, the San Bernardino County Sun. He was advertising director of the Sun in 1987 when Gannett tapped 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 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 this month 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 towards 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 a group that at the time held just nine. But the paper McClatchy hired him to publish, The Herald in Rock Hill, S.C., was 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 the girls. 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 McClatchy’s three Bees had been a goal for Quarles — but it was also an important steppingstone. “From Rock Hill to Raleigh is a hell of a leap,” he says, “so I went to Modesto.”

Taking ‘N&O’ for an answer

McClatchy bought The News & Observer from the Daniels family five years before Quarles arrived, but in some ways he is really the first outsider to run it. Frank A. Daniels Jr. 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 M.E. Sutton. The changes were as major as redesigning the newspaper and trimming its web width to 49 inches and as minor as requiring reporters to 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 at the N&O, where employees are scattered in 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 next month, 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.'”

Quarles also buys into the idea that clothes make the man. A sharp dresser himself, 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 of the cut-off 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 to E&P about Quarles mentioned the dress code, it was Executive Editor 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. “Orage has an ability to enforce it in ways that others have not. I think that speaks to his starch.”

That’s a character trait, Gyllenhaal adds, that has been especially useful in the last few weeks as the N&O has fought with Gov. Michael F. Easley 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.

Despite his reputation as a stickler for rules and decorum, Quarles in person is quick to laugh and listen. 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 office, meeting, and dispersing quickly. Quarles’ own office — though quieter than most — is clearly not off-limits for these informal meets, as editors wander in with fast updates, and executives’ heads poke in to issue inscrutable reminders.

Building leadership

Quarles’ first important hire was to bring Jackie Stark in from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to reorganize the human-resources department. “HR 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 a better financial performance.”

But Quarles doesn’t see HR as just a place for rule-making. He used the department to create a program called Leadership Class that identifies 25 of the best-and-brightest employees, who spend eight months learning operations in every department 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% of the work force that you know is prepared to take leadership roles,” Quarles says. On a more prosaic level, HR last month also began offering Spanish lessons in recognition of North Carolina’s rapidly growing Latino population. A hundred employees signed up, Stark says.

Quarles got his biggest HR boost, however, from Sacramento, when McClatchy CEO Pruitt traveled to Raleigh to announce that the chain would try not to lay off or buy out any employees. Says Deputy M.E. Sutton: “If someone were on the boundary of wondering whether they were in a good place or a bad place, well, 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,” M.E. Sill says. Quarles, associates say over and over, wants to get things done quickly. “He’s impatient,” Executive Editor 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 toted 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.

On the fast track

In the last year, Quarles preached diversity to the industry and practiced it at the N&O.

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 “parity” 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 in gaining on parity among the 200 biggest papers.

Quarles clearly wants to be as careful in nurturing the careers of minority newspaper employees as he has been with his own career. “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 on the board of directors of the ballet. “He understands the real value of the arts in the community, which is really something other businesspeople in the community have trouble understanding sometimes,” says Laura Raynor, director of external affairs for the Carolina Ballet.

“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. The publisher who is impatient at work is also, among his staff, famous for his impatience on the road.

“The one rule he doesn’t respect is the speed limit,” Gyllenhaal says. Quarles, who raced around the Charlotte Motor Speedway at 145 mph for a 50th birthday gift, admits sheepishly: “I’ve got a little lead in my foot — but I always drive with safety in mind.”

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