Another big career shift for The News & Observer’s Steve Riley comes around the time of another big hurricane.
He moved from sports to news as Floyd approached the Triangle in 1999. Next month, he heads to the Houston Chronicle, which continues to — and will for many years to come — report on the aftermath of Harvey.
Riley, the senior editor for investigations, announced last week that he is leaving the newspaper after 31 years to be the Chronicle’s deputy managing editor for investigations and projects.
He was in his third year as The N&O’s sports editor and had agreed to become the metro editor when Floyd was days away from threatening the area. He had a conversation with his boss that drastically changed the timetable.
“ ‘We were thinking you might want to start a little early.’ ” Riley said he was told. “And I said, ‘When?’ And he said, ‘tomorrow.’ So I got the job of organizing the coverage for Floyd within about 36 hours before it hit and then being in charge of the coverage as it came, and that was my introduction back into the newsroom.”
Now Riley, whose last day at The N&O is Thursday, will head a team in Houston that will have plenty to investigate considering the numerous issues that have arisen in the aftermath of Harvey.
“There are some parallels there, I guess,” said Riley, who interviewed with the Chronicle before Harvey and has a tentative start date of Oct. 31. “But it will be a little different there. The folks who are there now are the ones who have been through that really grinding process that our staff was in when Floyd hit with all of the water rescues and all that was going on at that time. The staff did a terrific job on that storm and it was one of the things that helped kind of get me back up into the newsroom and into news.”
The N&O was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in breaking news reporting for its Floyd coverage.
The Chronicle has created a post-Harvey team and is hiring extra people to be part of it.
“It’s going to be the story there for quite a while, so they’ll need both sprinters and marathon types,” Riley said. “They’re sprinting now and they’ll have to stretch out more a little later. I’ll be some fresh blood when I manage to get there.”
Investigations team’s losses mount
His departure is another huge loss for the investigations team, which Riley has led since 2003. When J. Andrew Curliss left in 2015, he was replaced by Mandy Locke. She left in August, and the team will lose Joseph Neff later this month. Dan Kane and database editor David Raynor will be the only remaining members of the team.
John Drescher, the executive editor of The N&O, said it’s not clear who will be the next leader of that team.
“We are slowly filling jobs. We hired a new social media editor this week and in the next two months I expect to hire a senior editor who will oversee much of the newsroom. When that senior editor arrives, we’ll figure out who will oversee the investigations team,” Drescher, who hasn’t announced the social-media hire to his staff yet, said via email.
Riley credits Drescher’s “management backflips” for keeping the team mostly intact amid many rounds of layoffs and financial concerns at the newspaper.
“I think, going forward, that the newsroom will rebuild this,” Riley said. “We’re taking some losses with people leaving. I’m sure the next group will go about it a little differently and approach it a little differently. But I think the idea of public-service journalism is going to stay front and center in the newsroom. I believe that and I certainly hope that it will.”
Riley didn’t have to do any rebuilding because of a reputation for producing outstanding public-service investigations that reporter Pat Stith, who retired in 2008, established.
“Steve and his team built on Pat’s impressive legacy and strengthened it,” Drescher said. “In addition to his skills as a reporter and editor, Steve has been a great colleague and a strong leader with good values who has stood for all the right things — the kind of things that have made The N&O so valuable to this community and to North Carolina. The Houston Chronicle is getting a good person and heck of a journalist.”
Riley said no to Houston in 2014
There will be a lot of transition and personal challenges for Riley since his wife, Liz, will continue to practice law in North Carolina, based at her firm’s Raleigh office.
“Yeah, but we’ve been married 34 years so I don’t anticipate problems there,” he said. “A lot of people do this in this day and age, they can work some place and still manage to get together in various places and keep that together and do a good job. So, I’m hoping that we’ll be able to do that. We’ll see. We haven’t done that. We’ve always lived in the same place, like most people do.”
The Chronicle tried to get Riley to take a job in Houston in 2014 shortly after Nancy Barnes — the former N&O Sunday editor (1993–2003) who Riley calls a friend — became editor and executive vice president at the Chronicle. Because of “good family stuff” going on, Riley said that wasn’t a good time for him personally. The move makes more sense now.
“I’ll commute back from time to time, hopefully, every couple of weeks or so; she’ll come to Houston some, so we decided that this is a point in our lives — our daughters are grown — that if I was going to make a move and had one more big push in me professionally, that this was the time to do it certainly,” Riley said.
“It was just an attractive opportunity that came along, I guess at the right time,” he said. “I am 58 years old and I’m cognizant of the fact that these kinds of opportunities don’t come very often for people at this stage in my career. I’ve been in the business 37 years. I was surprised and gratified and hope to make the most of it.”
Career started in sports
Riley started his career in college as a sports writer at the University of Mississippi before switching to news because he thought his reporting would have more of an impact. He started covering state government and politics when he arrived at The N&O in 1986 and soon was named senior reporter for special projects.
While a reporter, he uncovered a foundation that spent most of its money on itself rather than its intended purpose. He wrote the series “Children on the Edge” about juvenile crime and also reported on the 1991 Hamlet chicken plant fire that killed 25 workers.
He was promoted to state government editor in 1995. He became sports editor in 1996 after the section had already been expanding under George Lawrence, who passed away earlier this year.
“They felt like they wanted a little more enterprise or edge to the sports writing and some of the sports reporting, so they asked me to go down to sports,” Riley said.
Riley fine with working behind the scenes
Riley’s name isn’t known to many of The N&O’s readers since he hasn’t had a byline in the newspaper in more than 20 years. His name hasn’t regularly appeared in the print edition since he left the sports department.
“For a lot of readers, of course, that means I never existed and I understand that,” he said. “My role’s been different and I’ve found, as an editor in a lot of different jobs, that I got a lot of satisfaction out of helping people do the best work that they could muster. My job was to make the reporters work as good as it could be and therefore to make them look good, but more important to serve the readers as best that we could. So, I was behind the scenes and that was fine and is fine.”
He’s a bit like the offensive lineman who only gets mentioned publicly when there are possible issues, as he was in court filings when former SBI agent Beth Desmond brought a libel charge against the newspaper. A Wake County jury ruled against the newspaper, which is expected to file an appeal soon. With the appeal still to come, Riley could not comment on the story or the case.
But, behind the scenes, he’s been more like a quarterback (or a head coach), directing the investigative team through plenty of award-winning stories and series. He estimates that he’s been involved in 45 multi-part series as editor in the last 14 years.
“That’s a great thing to be able to hang around long enough to perhaps have that kind of impact,” Riley said. “It’s been great, and hopefully the next part will be great.”
Like all editors, his job is to guide his staff.
“I’d like to think I had something do with helping them choose well, which, to me, is the biggest thing that an editor can do: to help reporters choose the right stories and the right ones to stay away from and then, once we’ve all agreed on what we are doing, to put everything we had into whatever it was,” he said.
Chronicle’s parent company in much better shape than McClatchy
Riley will go from The McClatchy Company — a publicly traded chain that is struggling financially and still dealing with debts associated with its purchase of Knight Ridder — to privately owned Hearst Communications Inc., one of the best companies with newspaper ownership in the country. It is diversified, with 22 magazines and 18 newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, said via email that the San Francisco and Houston papers are “strong turnaround stories. A well-run company with good assets beyond the newspapers.”
Riley said it was hard to say how much he weighed the differences between the companies.
“I think Hearst has certain things going for it,” Riley said. “Hearst has decided that’s a place where they want to try to maintain a really strong newsroom and I think they have a really strong newsroom and it’s gotten better and it’s getting better. I don’t want to make this an us vs. them or them vs. us, whichever way that would be. You won’t hear anything but good things from me about The News & Observer.”
As of January, the Chronicle’s Monday through Friday print circulation was 276,445, 11th in the country, while The N&O was 55th at 98,158.
Many changes in his time at N&O
While complimentary of the newspaper’s commitment to public-service journalism, Riley bemoans that this is a very different N&O than years ago.
“At one time, we had a newsroom that was bigger than we had any right to be and credit then to the Daniels family for being willing to spend the money to do that,” Riley said. “But we’re in a different era and the size of the staffs and the range of things that a newsroom can do now, they’re different and they’re more limited. But you can choose wisely and you can still have an impact and do good things for your readers and your community.”
He admits that it’s been difficult to watch the newsroom staff continue to get smaller.
“I have to say, I’ve worked with a ton of really smart, good journalists and people over the years and some of them are not here anymore,” Riley said. “But many of them are, and they contribute in so many ways every day and they make us all look better. They make me look better. They make my team look better. I hope that our team has made The News & Observer look better over time. That’s all I can ask.”
UNC scandal coverage stirred emotions
Of all of the investigative work done under Riley’s watch, probably the most public push-back — or praise, depending on the fan base — resulted from Kane’s work uncovering the UNC academic scandal. But Riley, who has a daughter with two UNC degrees, said that he long ago developed a thick skin.
“I think the place I had to develop a thick skin first and foremost when I was sports editor because every Monday morning — this was in the days before Twitter and Facebook — I would budget the first three hours of my week to answer emails and phone calls from readers of whatever school it was that we had offended that particular weekend after the games and whatever stories we had done.
“There’s a healthy passion and sometimes it crosses over to irrational behavior — the intensity that people carry for whatever sports team it is that they root for — and we saw that large with Dan’s work on UNC,” Riley said.
Riley said that there Kane dealt with a lot of “personal stuff” that was “uncalled for” over his reporting about the UNC scandal.
“He’s handled it really well and it never deterred him from continuing to dig, and that’s what it takes,” said Riley, who passionately defends the work done on the story.
“I will stand behind that work from start to finish as the kind of journalism that we ought to be about because people learn something very important about one of this region’s revered institutions and that is that everything wasn’t on the up and up,” Riley said. “… I know there are classes everywhere where athletes who are not necessarily great students can congregate. But this was a different kind of animal and it was at a place that had been revered for its academic/athletic balance and we just felt like we ought to take a strong cut at that story.”
It’s about helping people
Although he admits that it’s hard to pick one or two stories that make him most proud, one does stick out. He reported in the early 1990s that N.C. Central had over-promised scholarships to athletes, and that the school was unable to fulfill all of the promises. Some decided to leave, and one athlete couldn’t get a transcript to transfer because he had not paid the tuition bill that the school had promised would be covered.
“I wrote about that and pretty quickly he got his transcript, so that was sort of an instant-gratification-type thing,” Riley said. “But it helped an individual and I’ve always remembered the power of that and have tried to apply it to projects large and small.”
His team, in collaboration with The Charlotte Observer, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting for the series “Prognosis: Profits.” Under his watch, the investigations team earned dozens of awards, did terrific work on various issues and changed the lives of many people.
“They involve, with Joe Neff in particular, both having an impact on people getting out of prison, with Alan Gell and Howard Dudley, and people going to prison, with Meg Scott Phipps and Dana Cope,” Riley said. “I don’t take relish in people’s pain, I don’t want to be misread. But I think they were circumstances where state employees’ money was being misspent or taxpayers’ money was being misspent and it needed to be addressed. And we helped get it addressed and I think on a larger scale as far as helping people.”
That help will soon shift to Houston, which probably needs it as it recovers from Harvey and looks for solutions.