By Adam Beyer
Across the country, newspapers are evolving. As print subscriptions and advertising revenue fall, they are increasingly becoming digital media organizations. As executive editor for the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer John Drescher MPP’88 is leading his newsroom’s digital transition.
He oversees all editorial content except the opinion side of the organization.
“This job is completely different than when I first started,” Drescher said. “We were very print-centric then and we are very digital-centric now. It is much more budget and financial oriented; newspaper editors didn’t really used to do that.”
Drescher has been a journalist for his whole career. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1983 with a degree in journalism before working as a reporter covering local and state government. Growing up in Raleigh, he developed particular interests in politics, higher education and ACC sports— and these remain important topics for the N&O’s coverage.
After working for three years, he returned to graduate school at Duke for an MPP degree. He was the only journalist among his peers, but he said his public policy training helped make him a better reporter.
“Journalism is about asking the right question,” Drescher said. “Being exposed to the things I was exposed to helped me dig deeper into what the policies and alternatives more.”
He took courses in statistics, decision analysis and public finance that, though difficult, remain useful. Professors Helen Ladd and Charlie Clotfelter were particularly influential to him. After graduating in 1988 he returned to the reporting world, working for The Charlotte Observer and The State in Columbia, S.C. In 2002, he became managing editor of The News and Observer and then assumed his current job as executive editor in 2007.
Drescher’s connection with the Sanford School goes beyond his time as a student. He also wrote a book about its founder, Terry Sanford. The idea came during a dinner Drescher had with Sanford in the spring of 1996, when Sanford talked about I. Beverly Lake Sr., the segregationist candidate who was his opponent in the 1960 Democratic primary for governor.
“I didn’t know anything about the race,” Drescher said. “I was living in Charlotte and thought, ‘You know, there’s a good story to be told here.’”
He began writing the book—titled “Triumph of Good Will: How Terry Sanford Beat a Champion of Segregation and Reshaped the South”—in 1998 and finished in 2000. The research was based on interviews with approximately 35 people and archival research at the Southern Historical Collection at UNC and the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke. There was a lot of documentation to look through because Sanford was a bit of a pack rat, Drescher said.
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During his time at The Charlotte Observer, Drescher (right) and Foon Rhee (center), Trinity '84, had the opportunity to interview Terry Sanford shortly before his death. Rhee is now associate editor of the Sacramento Bee.
In preparation for the book, Drescher had conducted several interviews with Sanford, but Sanford died before the book was complete.
“I remember when I was actually writing in fall of 1998 that there were so many times I wished I could ask Terry about this,” he said.
Sanford had a great leadership style, Drescher said. He was composed but personable and quick witted. He was a good listener and an inclusive politician and governor; he had African-American and female advisors in the early 1960s, which was unusual for a white, male politician of that era.
Some of the areas Sanford cared about most -- especially education -- continue to be important topics in the N&O newsroom. Drescher was involved with two recent investigative series, one about how charter schools are changing K-12 education in North Carolina and the other about how low-income students often aren't placed in advanced classes, even when they score high on standardized tests.
“That’s the kind of story where my Duke background has been helpful,” Drescher said, emphasizing the quantitative skills he learned through the Master’s program.
Newspapers face a skeptical public, alert to “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Drescher said it is important for media to continue to do deep reporting and be as transparent with readers as possible.
In a digital-first newsroom, the opportunities to tell stories never really slow down, Drescher said. There is always an article, video or social media post for the staff to work on.
“I feel really lucky to work with a terrific group of journalists and storytellers,” Drescher said. “There’s never a boring day here.”