Q&A with Jeff Gauger, executive editor of the News & Record

Jeff Gauger is executive editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. He previously worked as an editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Ohio and Nebraska. In this interview, conducted by email, Gauger discusses his transition to North Carolina and the News & Record’s future under new ownership. 

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. I’ve not met the typical day yet, which is one of the blessings of my job. The one constant, I suppose, is meetings — news meetings, small-group staff meetings, one-on-one meetings with staff, department-head meetings with my peers and the publisher, meetings inside and outside the office with people who want my attention or with folks whose time I’ve sought. Today, I’ve had two meetings, a light day. Tomorrow, four. The next day, seven.

I spend time daily reading our content before and after publication. I also read other news websites and news trade publications. I look for talent, even when we’re not looking to hire immediately. I interact with readers by email and phone.

There’s always nitty-gritty administrative stuff: handling vendor contracts, dealing with occasional personnel issues, etc. And I write for my blog and a Sunday column, although I have and spend less time writing than I’d like.

I try, with more success some days than others, to make time to think. It’s easy with the daily scrum in a newsroom to stay busy. It’s harder to discern what not to do now to make time for thinking — about content next week or next month, about how to meet the business challenges we face, about how to succeed in a competitive market.

Q. Before coming to Greensboro in 2012, you worked at newspapers in Ohio and Nebraska. What has it been like to make the transition from the Midwest to the South?

A. I also worked for a newspaper in Illinois and for a handful of weekly newspapers in my home state of Washington. By far, though, I spent most of my career in the Midwest before moving to Greensboro.

The transition has not been difficult, with one exception. My newspaper career has taken me to five states and eight communities. I’ve learned that there are good people everywhere, good things about every community and problems in every community.

I’ve also learned that no one is harder on a community than the people who live there. I choose, consciously and deliberately, to like where I live. It isn’t hard. There’s always much to like.

The Midwest and South (with Greensboro and a few trips around the state as my reference points) have much in common, including a continuing appreciation for agriculture and the land. They share a hard-to-define sense of being places apart, proud of what they are and sensitive about hints of disdain from what they view as urban elites elsewhere.

In the Midwest, it’s sensitivity about what’s implied by the phrase “flyover country.” I’m less sure how to describe it for the South, so I won’t try to put words to it. Also, people in both regions embrace family and tilt red on the political spectrum.

There are differences, of course. Greensboro has more newcomers, more residents who have moved from other states, than the parts of the Midwest where I’ve lived. The Midwest has lots of churchgoers, but Greensboro has more. Labor unions, including those representing government workers, are a much bigger presence in the industrial Midwest (not in Nebraska, a right-to-work state).

Parts of the Midwest have stunning outdoor wonders (don’t knock Nebraska as a flat state if you haven’t seen its remarkable Sand Hills or Ohio as an industrial rust belt if you’ve never driven through the lush rolling hills of the Holmes County Amish country), but little with profiles as high as the Outer Banks and Atlantic Ocean or the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Civil War remains a living presence in the South, which is a revelation to a newcomer, even to one who lived nearly five years in Ohio, which paid heavily in blood during that war. I suppose my surprise stems in part from my roots in Washington, which achieved statehood only in the 1880s. From Washington, the Civil War can seem an abstraction because the Pacific Northwest is so far from where the war occurred. The war is not an abstraction here.

The exception to my otherwise comfortable transition to the South was a column I wrote just a month ago. The column presented fictional characters discussing issues undertaken by the N.C. legislature.

My presentation prompted criticism from readers who suggested I was an elitist outsider mocking North Carolinians. A “Condescending Ahole,” according to one email that now hangs on my wall. While many readers praised the column, the depth of the critics’ anger surprised me.

In every community where I’ve worked, in every state including North Carolina, people have said: “Folks won’t think you belong here until you’ve lived here for 30 years.” From the new scrapes and bruises of my recent experience, I think I can say that’s more true in the South.

I’m an outsider, and for my critics, I played to type. I learned a lesson.

Q. You’ve announced a reorganization of the Greensboro newsroom, including new hours and roles for some copy editors. What’s the reason for the change, and what do you hope it will accomplish?

A. We blended three separate copy desks — news, features sports — into a single “universal” desk. The goal was to reduce staff for print page-making and to reassign those positions to digital work and news-gathering. The change permitted us to create new positions for online news editors and a community engagement editor. We also added a business news reporter.

The changes were difficult, but necessary. Copy editing and page design are important crafts. They’re also more scalable, within limits, than news-gathering.

With finite resources, we must continue to find ways to devote a greater proportion of our human effort to making and presenting a digital report and to engaging with readers and consumers. Our changes got us closer to those goals.

Q. The News & Record was bought earlier this year by Berkshire Hathaway. What does that mean for the newspaper, and what do you see as the future of the News & Record in print and online?

A. It means resources. Unlike many newspaper companies, Berkshire Hathaway is well capitalized (newspapers account for little more than flea in its family of companies, hardly enough to make a blip in its earnings reports).

No one is handing out bags of cash, and there’s no less focus on expense control. But we have replaced worn-out equipment, and we are talking about investing in new print and digital products with a seriousness I haven’t seen in newspapers since about 2006.

It means standardization of some vendor relationships and consolidation of some back-shop functions that the consumer doesn’t see.

It means cooperation and collaboration among Berkshire Hathaway newspapers in North Carolina, which include the Winston-Salem Journal, the Hickory Daily Record and the Statesville Record & Landmark. Former competitors are beginning to share content. In time, we’ll see deeper, more meaningful cooperation.

Finally, and most importantly, it means focus on going all-in with digital. We’ll have a strategy and a roadmap for getting to the mountaintop, with technical support to provide the needed tools.

UPDATE: In April 2015, Gauger resigned as executive editor of the News & Record.