Up front: October 2012

The right man

When we decided to interview the Democratic and Republican nominees for governor to see where they stand on key business-related issues facing the state, we could think of nobody better qualified to do the story than Ken Otterbourg. Most journalists ­— at least those of us who came up through newspapers ­— have covered their fair share of government and politics, if only on the local level. But relatively few reach the rank of capital correspondent, and rarer still are those who can combine that experience with expertise gained as a business reporter and editor. Add executive insight from running the newsroom of a major paper, and you’ll see why we were so excited when Ken accepted the assignment.

In 22 years with the Winston-Salem Journal ­— the last five as managing editor ­— Ken not only honed his craft but learned larger lessons. “I know what it’s like to make tough decisions that affect people’s livelihoods and the bottom line.” He had to lay people off and cut back coverage before resigning in 2010 in a dispute with Richmond, Va.-based Media General Corp., which then owned the Journal, over its decision to consolidate copy editing and design of its three largest papers. He was 48. Since then, he has written for national and regional publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Fortune magazine.

“Like the crappy salsa, I was born in New York City. Grew up there and northern New Jersey. After graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine with an economics degree, I freelanced for a while and worked 30 hours a week for The Wall Street Journal as a news clerk II, which was the absolute lowest rung on the editorial ladder. Then I got a job at The Register Citizen in Torrington, Conn., the city that is single-handedly responsible for making South Carolina the manufacturing dynamo it has become. But that’s another story for another day. I covered schools, zoning and business ­— there wasn’t a full-time business beat, but it was a topic I got on the macro and micro level and, from a career standpoint, differentiated me when I decided to look for a job at a bigger paper. I had never been south of Washington.”

He was covering the Connecticut General Assembly when the Journal hired him. “That was 1986. By that time, the paper had four business reporters and a business editor.” In less than a year, that job was his. “I was 25, and I am sure I was a terrible boss in that a) I thought I knew everything b) didn’t and c) was often ham-fisted about explaining what I thought needed to be done.” He left for the St. Petersburg Times in 1988 but returned two years later to cover the General Assembly and state government in Raleigh. Promoted to assistant metro editor, then metro editor, he became assistant managing editor for news in 2001, followed by M.E. in 2005.

Managing a newsroom while your industry struggles to reinvent itself is in many ways like trying to govern a state under-going economic upheaval, he says. There’s always that bottom line: “We want our chief executives to lead and inspire, but at some point they’ve got to get down to business and get the job done.”