Frank Daniels Jr., N&O editor, dies at 90

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Frank Daniels Jr. and his wife Julia Daniels on Tuesday, September 22, 2020 in Raleigh, North Carolina

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Frank Daniels Jr., the blunt, crass, and outspokenly liberal editor of The News & Observer, who steered his grandfather’s paper into a modern age and progressive voice, then was the last of his Raleigh family to hold his reins, died Thursday. He was 90 years old.

Daniels served as president and publisher from 1971 to 1996, shortly after his family sold the paper to McClatchy and ended more than a century of local ownership.

But the newspaper life consumed him from the age of 15, when he worked as an N&O office boy and developed what his longtime wife, Julia, described as “ink in his veins.”

During his time, The News & Observer became one of the most respected and influential newspapers in the country, attracting Pulitzer Prize-winning writers and editors, branching out into desktop reporting, and rejecting the agenda of white supremacy pushed by Josephus Daniels – his grandfather who bought the newspaper at auction in 1894.

His son Frank Daniels III, former editor of N&O, said his father passed away peacefully in his sleep.

“He loved being with people, working with people, raising money for people,” he said. “He was a religious reader of the N&O until the last few weeks, and even always wanted us to read stories and headlines to him aloud. This journal is in his blood, and it was in his blood until his death. .

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Publisher Frank Daniels Jr. and Raleigh Times editor AC Snow examine the final edition of The Raleigh Times as it rolls off the presses November 30, 1989 in Raleigh, North Carolina Laura Dorton File photo

‘Always tell the truth’

The N&O under Daniels gained its reputation as liberal opinion pages, as well as its nickname “The Nuisance & Disturber”. But as publisher, he brought a commitment to open government so ardent that journalists were required to note in a logbook each time they were denied access to public records — just in case. the newspaper would like to take legal action.

“The most important thing you can do is always tell the truth,” Daniels said in an N&O interview when he retired. “If the people in the newspaper aren’t telling the truth, then people don’t know where you stand. You must be able to rely on truthfulness.

Melanie Sill, former editor of N&O and editor of projects during Daniels’ tenure, recalled that he considered it a publisher’s duty to uphold the public good in his hometown — even for whatever something as small as widening the I-440 Beltline.

The staff never doubted they would bear attorneys’ fees or lobby for public records, whether for N&O’s “Boss Hog” series, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1996, or something as minor as the profile of a Wake County. woman who obsessively pursued people.

“It’s hard to express what it means to know you’re working for an organization that’s going to support you,” Sill said. “I don’t think we took it for granted, but we kind of did.”

Daniels’ nephew, David Woronoff, longtime editor of The Pilot in Southern Pines, learned from Daniels’ example. He recalled that his uncle carried this maxim as a newspaper editor: “I don’t mind if you drive someone crazy, as long as you do it on purpose.”

Early in Woronoff’s career, The Pilot clashed with a local business executive on its news pages, and the young editor suffered an ear of scolding, including “You’re a disgrace to the family.” .

So, after a few choice words, Woronoff called Daniels in Raleigh, explaining the tirade and warning him that he could expect a similar call.

Daniels told him, “YYou’ll never go wrong if you punch the biggest bully in town in the nose, but you’ll always go wrong if you don’t reach out to the weakest person in town.

And as for being a disgrace, the N&O editor joked, it’s too early to tell.

“Print media is inherently stressful,” Woronoff said, “and the best journalists – I consider Frank Jr. to be certainly the best I’ve known – they find ways to alleviate that stress for their staff with humor and candor. He could calm everyone down.

As a young man, Daniels briefly took a break from the newspapers, earning a history degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and serving two years in the Air Force, including a stint in Japan.

But when he returned to Chapel Hill for law school, he only lasted two semesters before the N&O pulled him out and hired him into the publicity department. His father, Frank Daniels Sr., ran the News & Observer at the time, and his uncle Jonathan manned the news desk as editor.

He quickly rose through the ranks: business manager, treasurer and, in 1968, general manager.

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A 1980 photo shows deputy city editor Ted Vaden (left), editor Claude Sitton (middle) and publisher Frank Daniels Jr. conferring after a fire at the News & Observer offices in Raleigh. File photo

The N&O ‘into the modern era’

It was Daniels’ idea in 1968 to hire Claude Sitton, who would win the Pulitzer Prize for his commentary in 1983.

As a Southern correspondent for the New York Times, Sitton was widely considered the foremost journalist of the civil rights movement, recording stories of the lunch counter sit-in, the murder of the Freedom Riders in Mississippi, and the bombing in the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four girls.

At the time, many white Southerners viewed reporters as undesirable agitators. Sitton often drew mobs of hostile thugs, to whom he promised: “if they kill me, by God, there will be 10 more like me in New York the next morning,” he once told an N&O interviewer.

Daniels was to have it, outmaneuvering competing newspapers to bring Sitton to Raleigh. In doing so, he changed the reputation of the N&O for good.

“I think it’s fair to say that Claude, along with Frank Daniels Jr., has brought The News & Observer clearly into the modern age,” said Ferrell Guillory, former N&O reporter, editor and professor at the UNC. “Yes, it was at that time still a newspaper that supported Democrats in the countryside and pushed hard for what would be considered in today’s terms a kind of center-left agenda.

“But there was a clearer distinction than before between the news pages and the editorial pages, and the newspaper developed a business section, got rid of the old women’s section, developed a very good articles and reopened an office in Washington.”

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Frank Daniels Jr. File photo

A Daniels for a new era

With Daniels in charge, the N&O contrasted with the journalism practiced by Josephus Daniels, who used his diaries to foment a race riot in Wilmington in 1898, killing dozens of black residents and sending black leaders into exile. Although the newspaper did not fully acknowledge its role in this bloody event until 2006, the N&O’s stance on civil rights under Daniels has moved away from the bigoted views of its ancestor.

In 2020, the family had the statue of Josephus Daniels removed from downtown Nash Square, and when his namesake college changed to Oberlin that same year, Frank Daniels Jr. released this statement: “The Legacy of Josephus Daniels in service to North Carolina and our country does not transcend its condemnable stance on race and its active support of racist activity.”

Frank Daniels Jr. also made the paper a staunchly Democratic mouthpiece, at least in its editorial pages, angering conservatives across the state who hated but nonetheless read its pages.

Daniels’ article, including Sitton’s winning Pulitzer columns, was a frequent target of U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, so much so that when Daniels retired, Helms sent a thank you note, saying he didn’t. never could have won so many elections without the help of “Nuisance et inconvenience”.

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Frank A. Daniels Jr. discusses retirement with former editor Woodrow Price of The News & Observer at a rally in 1996. Jim Bounds File photo

When the family sold out to McClatchy in 1995, those readers mourned the loss of such a constant foe.

“I am a rabid conservative fanatic who starts every morning reading The N&O’s rabid liberal bigotry,” wrote Mel Lewis, reading the sale at the time. “It won’t be the same without a Daniels to swear on my coffee. I questioned his politics, but I never questioned his commitment to our community.

Few who knew him would describe Daniels, by modern standards, as the picture of propriety. His vocabulary was peppered with four-letter words and his interactions with female journalists would not meet contemporary HR standards.

Legendary Washington Post editor Katharine Graham recalled his behavior in an N&O interview around Daniel’s retirement:

“Before – I guess you’d call it ‘pre-women’ – he’d walk into a room, where everyone was very serious, and he’d be like, ‘Hiya, Hot Lips!’ ” she says. “I liked it. I thought it was funny. He knew how to tease, how to have fun.

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Frank Daniels Jr. chats with Frank Daniels III at a reception after the Daniels family announced the Frank A. Daniels, Jr. Executive In Residence program at UNC Hussman School of Journalism in a ceremony on Tuesday September 22, 2020 in Raleigh, NC Robert Willette [email protected]

This story was originally published June 30, 2022 2:40 p.m.

Josh Shaffer is a general-assignment reporter on the lookout for “talkers,” which are stories you might discuss over a water cooler. He has worked for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.