Bill Horner III is editor and publisher of the Chatham News + Record, based in Siler City, North Carolina and covering Chatham County. He previously worked for The Sanford Herald for more than 30 years. In this interview, conducted by email, Horner discusses his work at the News + Record, his break from and return to the newsroom, and what he looks for in journalists entering the field.
Q. Describe your job at the Chatham News + Record. What is your typical day like?
A. Probably better to describe a typical workweek, given that our production schedule, as a weekly, has such an unusual crescendo to it.
I’m publisher and editor, but the bulk of my early workweek is devoted to the news product. We go to press on Tuesday night, so I use Wednesday and Thursday as catch-up time and to focus on ongoing project work and to-dos. Friday’s a wind-down day and a time to catch up on email, which is a never-ending task.
I start kicking off the production week on Saturday morning by processing copy that I have in hand. My personal production cycle then starts in earnest with three to five hours of work on Sunday, editing and processing on new stories in-hand and submitted copy. Monday is a long day — reporters’ stories are in and it’s usually reading, processing, editing, etc., until 9:30 or 10 p.m.
If Monday is a marathon, Tuesday’s a full sprint – from when I wake up (usually around 5:30) until I approve the final page, typically around 5:30 p.m.
I usually go to bed pretty early on Tuesdays.
I do admin work, planning, have meetings, etc., on Wednesdays and Thursdays. With COVID, I am typically in the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We do our newsroom budget/planning sessions by Zoom at 9:30 on Mondays and Thursdays.
I miss — very badly — sitting down with reporters face to face and going over story ideas and editing.
Q. How do editing and headline writing work at the News + Record?
A. Hmmm. Not as well as I’d like.
I do the first reads on everything; reporters write their own heds (we have talked about them writing multiple heds, but it hasn’t come to fruition). I’ll tweak heds and sometimes add a “label” hed (we used to call them “kicker headlines”) or subheds. I do first reads when stories come in and ideally do a second read afterward — same day, next day, whenever works. I make notes in stories, ask questions, make suggestions.
I struggle with the volume — in a typical issue, we’ll have 125 to 140 “elements” (a story with two photos counts as three elements, for example) and I usually “touch” 90% of them, at least, and usually two to four times. Multiple that by three minutes per touch, and you get about 18 hours of editing right there — that’s my Sunday and Monday.
We don’t have another dedicated copy editor, so Tuesday mornings everyone else chips in and reads as much copy as they can. That’s a huge help.
Good copy editing is crucial. We need good ledes, good flow, compelling storytelling and heds that draw attention. But we also need spell-checking (easy) and thoughtful, careful read-thrus (not easy). I think it’s a weak point for us, but I still would stand up our product against any community or small daily out there.
Q. In 2016, you left the Sanford Herald after nearly 31 years to take a sabbatical. How did you use that time, and what brought you back to the newsroom in 2018?
A. My intention was to take a year or two off and take advantage of travel opportunities and figure out what to do with the proverbial “next chapter.”
I told friends, and even wrote at the time, that I was only retiring from newspapering — that I would go back to work at some point, but not in the newspaper industry.
I loved working at a newspaper and am passionate about this industry, but newspapering changed and the focus within our company (we sold our family newspaper to Paxton Media Group in 1998) had changed even more after the recession. We became fully budget-focused, instead of product-focused; the culture became less and less about being a great newspaper and more and more about making a number. We were all about the shareholders and turned our backs on the stakeholders. We were all cutting and cutting and reducing staff, and even though we won a lot of awards in Sanford, it was harder and harder to be proud of my product with such a small staff and constantly moving goalposts.
I can’t blame PMG; we were all up against a wall, but I feel like we made too many sacrifices in the product. I’d been there 31 years full-time, and fortunately my wife, Lee Ann, and I were in a position to walk away and take a break.
Lee Ann and I did a lot during those two and a half years. We sold the home we’d built in 2002 and built another, and we traveled a lot. We made three mission trips to Ukraine (and a fourth last year; we didn’t go this year because of COVID) and three others for pleasure, including an amazing week in Scotland with our younger son, who was invited to be present at an international music educators’ conference in Glasgow. I rode my road bike just about every day, woke up early and journaled, read a lot, and never felt the need for a nap because, when you’re stress-free, you sleep very well.
I kept up with the industry, reading the trades. It was depressing.
And then I saw some of our great national newspapers turn to clickbait journalism and lose any sense of editorial credibility. I saw my former newspaper give the chairman of our county’s Republican Party — a man who created fake online accounts so he could troll us and attack us online and on social media platforms — a weekly column on the editorial page. (A few of his columns appeared to the untrained, unfamiliar eye, as editorials – the way they were placed.)
I watched The Herald ultimately dwindle from an average of 24 pages, six days a week, to eight pages, five days a week, in a very short time. I was happy to be on the outside looking in; I got calls a few times a week asking me “what’s wrong?” at The Herald and asking me to buy the newspaper back. Occasionally, people still called me or stopped me on the street, thinking I was still there, to complain about something.
I kept very busy; I backed into a few very light freelancing gigs (including writing pieces for a mayoral candidate in a major N.C. town — amazing guy, but he lost the election) and actually still do some work for a corporate client in the D.C. area.
Then the Chatham thing came up. The opportunity to partner with Kirk Bradley — a good friend of mine and truly one of the three smartest people I’ve ever met in my life — and Chris Ehrenfeld, a friend of Kirk’s I’d not met before, was just too good to pass up. I’ve admired Kirk for years. He has a Midas touch, and both he and Chris love print; they wanted to make a go of it in Chatham and asked me to partner with them and lead the operation.
For me, it was a second chance … a chance to do newspapering right, to create a product that I would love to read and to be engaged in a community again — something I really missed after retiring in Sanford. I had incredibly supportive partners who said, “Do what you need to do to create a great newspaper.”
I never, ever once got bored during my sabbatical. But the chance to work with Kirk and Chris and the chance to create something special in Chatham was just too attractive a draw.
Q. You have several recent graduates of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media on your staff. What skills and qualities do you look for in journalists who are starting their careers?
A. In short, lots of real-world experience, a compelling body of work and a desire to do great work. And a love of newspapering and reporting. A hunger. Great references from people I know in the school helps, too.
I pinch myself thinking about my staff now. When we acquired the News + Record in late 2018, we had a small news staff — but collectively, it had more than 100 years of experience, and all of it in Chatham County. For a variety of reasons, though — another topic, and a long discussion there — the chemistry never felt right to me. We never seemed to row in the same direction, and not everyone bought into the vision Kirk and Chris and I had.
We won 19 awards from the N.C. Press Association contest that first year, including Best Community Coverage. Everywhere I went, people in Chatham told me how much they liked what we were doing.
But at the same time, I had one reporter come into my office and point to that week’s edition and say, “You’re KILLING this newspaper” — looking at a story we’d done that addressed the racial divide within the county. It was frustrating – I thought we were doing good work, we were getting great community feedback (for the most part), but the staff wasn’t energized and even a few (a few … not many) longtime readers complained, wanting the “old” paper back.
We soldiered on. We started gaining new subscribers (our paid base is up more than 30%). Anytime we had turnover, we lost experience but got better. Back in August of this year, we hit that 100% staff turnover number; now I have a staff full of rookies, none of whom have any local market ties. And we’re doing some of our best work.
I couldn’t be happier with our team and the way we work together. I’ve never, ever been this happy in a newsroom. Most of their parents are younger than me, but working with them makes me feel young, too — not old.
I’ve hired a lot of reporters over the years and been extremely fortunate in having some phenomenal ones; Will Doran, a UNC grad we hired in Sanford, comes to mind. He’s at the N&O now and destined for great things. My son Zach worked for us and won lots of awards before taking a job in communications with the local health department (which I encouraged); he had the same instincts and drive Will does.
What the best all have in common is an instinct that I don’t think — whether you’re in the Hussman School or in the William Allen White School at the University of Kansas, from where I graduated — can be taught. That’s a knack for finding stories and telling them in a compelling way, and a mindset that’s teachable and coachable (with just a little bit of course correction here and there). These kinds of reporters have that capability even before they set foot on a college campus.
There’s an old “M*A*S*H” episode I remember very well. Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, portrayed brilliantly by David Ogden Stiers, is trying to console a despondent soldier who’s been seriously injured and, as a result, lost the use of one hand. The soldier was a trained classical pianist, so he’s lost the ability to pursue his passion and the profession he hoped he’d have once the Korean War was over.
Major Winchester takes up his case and, after great difficulty, is able to find some classical piano sheet music written to be played with just one hand. He shares it with the soldier. The line I recall so vividly is Major Winchester encouraging the injured soldier to use his gift, to take advantage of his one good hand and create magic.
“I can play the notes,” Winchester explains to the soldier in a monologue about gifts. “But I can’t make the music.”
Plenty of news-ed graduates are well-trained, understand ledes, know AP style and all that. But they don’t make music. I read way too many stories in newspapers nowadays and think, “What was this reporter thinking? Who edited this?”
But reading a great story is such a pleasure and such a treat for me as a newspaper reader. The value we have the potential to bring to readers is really immeasurable, but it requires journalists who can make music.
I’m looking for the “it” those kinds of reporters have. They instinctively understand perspective and flow and transitions and great storytelling, and the training and experience they gain in their college work hones and sharpens it.
Chapel Fowler and Hannah McClellan and Victoria Johnson have that; Lars Dolder, who’s just started with us, has no j-school training but like the others, he has that knack. We’ve also had interns (Caroline from the University of Missouri, and Patsy and Olivia from UNC) who share that passion and desire.
For me, it’s magic.