New publisher sees Herald 'ahead of the curve' in being total information company

Debbie Abels isn't wasting any time getting started as the new publisher of The Herald.

Since it was announced earlier this month that Abels, 55, would replace Valerie Canepa, who is taking a similar position in Columbus, Ga., the former advertising and circulation distribution executive for The Charlotte Observer has already presided over two companywide meetings and started making appointments to meet community leaders.

Abels, a New York City native who has lived in the Charlotte area for 34 years, recently answered some questions about the future of The Herald, online news and her plans to sail around Italy.

Here's what she had to say:

Q: Can you describe how your responsibilities as publisher affect readers who just want to know that their local paper will be accurate and delivered on time every morning?

A: The publisher is the president of the company. I have a music degree, so I'll use a musical analogy. It's like the conductor standing up in front of the orchestra: You have good players in all the seats, and the conductor's job is to make sure all the pieces come together and the end result is achieved. ... My job is just to bring it all together.

Q: Nationally, we see headlines about declining newspaper readership and advertising revenues. Is that happening locally?

A: Every newspaper is looking at over the long term a declining newspaper readership. The Herald really is bucking the national trend and doing better. This year, for example, we've had some months where we've had growth. Overall, we're down just a little bit year after year. That's such a small amount that I think you could say we're holding steady, which is much better than many newspapers in the country. ... The Herald is not just a newspaper company -- we're an information company. What you need to do is pair that with readership of our magazines and our readership online. Those numbers have seen a jump year after year. So, in the aggregate, we're doing quite well.

Q: Will we ever see a day when local newspapers die and people read the news exclusively online?

A: Of course, it's anybody's guess what the future's going to look like. But my guess is in 40 to 50 years, when you've had a couple of computer generations cycle through, the majority will probably be getting information online. But there will still be people who like the tactile experience they get with the newspaper. The newspaper is a very expensive way to put out information. In the future, the challenge will be finding the resources to support the people who want to get their information from the newspaper. The good news is we are and have been a total information company, so we're ahead of that curve. In the end, it doesn't really matter. What we want to do is get people information when they want it, where they want it. That speaks to our need to continue to provide news quickly -- more breaking news online, more features online and just going where the consumers are going for their information.

Q: Do you read the news online or in print? Or do you watch on TV?

A: All of the above. Of course, I look at the newspaper every day. When I get home from work, I get online and see what's happening since I read the paper that morning. And at night when I'm getting ready for bed, I'll turn on the TV as well and hear it that way. Clearly, I prefer the first two, not only because I'm in that business, but because there's a lot more in-depth coverage.

Q: For years, The Herald and The Charlotte Observer were stiff competitors in York County. What challenges do the two papers face moving from competitors to friends?

A: The biggest challenge has been the mental shift, thinking of ourselves as the same family working together. ... But we're getting there. We're starting to see the benefits of what we can do together and also where we want to stay separate.

Q: Will The Herald ever become part of the Observer and stop operating as an independent paper?

A: No one can say what will happen in 50 or 100 years, but it's hard for me to imagine that would ever be the case because we serve different readers. We have different missions. The Herald is the local newspaper. The Observer is a regional newspaper. ... It would serve no purpose for the business, for the growing readership or growing revenue if we took two distinctly different papers and made them into one. We complement each other nicely. ... It really just wouldn't make sense.

Q: You said you have a music degree from Duke. How did you wind up in the newspaper business?

A: I came to Charlotte because of music. My cello teacher at Duke had moved to Charlotte to head up the newly formed arts department at UNC-Charlotte. I came here to continue taking lessons from him, and I needed a job to support my music habit. ... So I started at one end of Tryon Street and made my way down trying to find a job. There was one job at the Observer as a classified advertising ad assistant, and I got it.

Q: Why did you stick with it for 34 years?

A: It's so different working for a newspaper company. It has a mission. It makes a difference in peoples' lives. We're a watchdog of government. We are a voice for people who don't have a voice. How many companies can have that kind of impact on the lives of your neighbors and family and friends? I've always taken a lot of pride working for The Charlotte Observer, and now I'll have the same pride working at the Rock Hill Herald.

Q: How do you spend your time away from work?

A: First of all, family. My husband and I have been married for 19 years and we have a 13-year-old daughter. ... We travel as a family. We try to take a big trip every other year. A couple years ago, we took a trip to the South Pacific. This summer, we're hoping to pull off getting a sail boat and traveling around the southern tip of Italy. I always have a bag packed, you could say. I'm addicted to travel.

Q: You said with your daughter in school you'll continue to live in Pineville, N.C. How important is it to you to get involved in Rock Hill and York County?

A: Extremely important. I don't see how you could do this job without being plugged in and active. I strongly believe you should give back to the community where you live and work. ... I don't believe in being on a board and just having your name on the list. I have been actively involved with every organization I've been a part of, and I will continue to do that here. ... You will see me out and about. I want to meet as many people as I can and get involved with as many organizations as I can.