A Tribute To Real News, And One Man Who Kept It That Way

Jun 16, 2019

We live in a time when some people react to news they don’t like by calling it fake news. That’s a deep insult to those of us who have spent our lives trying to bring you the real thing.

I want to tell you a little bit today about someone who brought you the news here in Charlotte for more than 30 years. His name was Frank Barrows, and as much as anybody, he made sure the news you got in this town was accurate and true.

Frank started at the Charlotte Observer as a sportswriter in 1969. He left the paper in 2005 as managing editor, the no. 2 spot in the newsroom. Back then the top editors at the paper had big glass offices. In Frank’s office, for the 13 years he was managing editor, he led countless discussions and made countless decisions that shaped the stories readers saw every day.

He was tough, unafraid of powerful people, and he loved a good scoop. But more than anything he was fair. He was great on the front end of a story – sifting through ideas, working up a plan, coordinating with editors. And he was great on the back end, where every detail mattered. He sent many an unhappy reporter back out to make one more call, check one more fact, rewrite one more sentence, until the story was the very best we could make it.

His sharp eye saved us from untold errors. But a story is more than facts – it's nuance and tone, all the little judgment calls about what to leave in and what to leave out. Frank didn’t mind upsetting readers, or offending them. But he made sure we did it with the truth.

In the spirit of fairness, let me disclose my bias. Frank is the one who picked me to become the paper’s local columnist back in 1997. He was my boss and my mentor and he became my friend. He played the same roles for my wife when she worked at the paper. And even after all three of us had left, Alix and I counted on him for advice about storytelling and life.

Frank Barrows

Frank died last week. He was 72 and had dealt with a series of illnesses the past few years. On social media, after his death, all these tributes bloomed. So many came from people who had worked for him over the years. Those people now work for the New York Times and the Washington Post, the New Yorker and National Geographic, ESPN and NPR. They’ve won Pulitzers and written best-selling books. They learned from Frank, like I learned from Frank, how to produce work every day that is the diametric opposite of fake news.

Frank spent his career believing in the value of real news, and counting on the public to do the same. It’s hard, these days, to keep believing. It requires an effort to cut through the smoke and get to the truth. Frank thought the effort was worth it. Those of us who worked for him hope you think it’s worth it, too.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.