RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Former Associated Press board chair Frank A. Daniels Jr., who shepherded The News & Observer of Raleigh through an era of political and economic transformation in the New South, died Thursday at age 90.
Daniels, whose family owned the North Carolina newspaper for over a century before it was sold to McClatchy Newspapers Inc. in 1995, died at a Raleigh retirement community where he lived, according to his son, Frank Daniels III. The son said his father died after a month of declining health.
During his 26 years as publisher of the paper of record for state politics and government, The N&O became a regional powerhouse for news, especially from the state's growing Research Triangle region, and an online pioneer. Similarly, his tenure as chair of AP's board of directors in the mid-1990s was marked by the not-for-profit news cooperative's technological expansion.
Daniels' family company embraced technology in the newspaper industry by developing one of the first World Wide Web newspapers, The NandO Times — a play on the News & Observer name designed to differentiate it from the print product — in 1994 and Nando.net, a commercial internet service provider.
Daniels joined AP's board of directors in 1983 and served as chair from 1992 to 1997. During his stewardship, AP emphasized expanding its multimedia presence, launching a video news agency business and developing “the Wire,” an effort to combine audio and video news with text and photos.
Daniels “was an early and enthusiastic supporter of AP’s entry into video, a major step for the news cooperative which later years have proven to be the right move when we made it,” Louis D. Boccardi, AP’s president and chief executive officer from 1985 to 2003, said in a recent email.
Daniels retired as N&O publisher in early 1997, months after the newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for its series on the environmental and health risks associated with the handling of hog waste generated by North Carolina's growing pork production industry. The paper won two other Pulitzers while he was publisher, including a commentary prize for editor Claude Sitton in 1983.
Daniels and Sitton — known for his previous civil rights reporting for The New York Times — championed the paper’s dogged investigative coverage. They were known to lock horns consistently with archconservative Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms on the paper’s Democratic-leaning editorial pages and wore the conservatives’ moniker for the paper — “The Raleigh Nuisance and Disturber” — as a badge of honor.
A Raleigh native, Frank Arthur Daniels Jr. was 14 when he began working for the paper purchased at an 1894 auction by his grandfather.
Josephus Daniels, later a secretary of the Navy and ambassador to Mexico, used the newspaper to promote white supremacy among North Carolina Democrats around 1900. But by the next generation of family leadership, The News & Observer had emerged as a stalwart of civil rights and racial equality, a commitment that continued under the leadership of Josephus Daniels' grandson.
“Frank Jr. was the preeminent modernizer of The News & Observer,” said Ferrel Guillory, who worked at the paper for over 20 years as a politics reporter, editorial page editor and columnist. “He saw newspapers as being a catalyst for economic and social and civic engagement and improvement.”
Owen Youngman, a journalism professor emeritus at Northwestern University with a focus on digital media, lauded Daniels’ role as a pioneer in internet publishing, especially for sports content.
“Nando.net and the Nando Times just plain dominated online sports in the earliest days,” Youngman, who also worked for decades at the Chicago Tribune, said in an email. “ESPN and USA Today didn’t go online till 1995, for example, and Yahoo was trying to classify the web, not publish news. Frank had the vision to understand that geography was irrelevant … Nando could build audience anywhere, and it did.”
Tall with a deep-voiced Southern drawl, Daniels graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After a stint in the Air Force that took him to Japan, he joined his family's newspaper full-time in 1956.
His father, Frank Daniels Sr., was the general manager and his uncle was the editor. Daniels learned about all facets of the newspaper business, selling advertising and serving as acting circulation manager, he said in a 2002 oral history project interview conducted by UNC. But he largely stayed clear of reporting and writing.
“I was a terrible typist, and you have to be able to type to write a story," Daniels said in a 2017 interview with PBS North Carolina. “I enjoyed selling, I enjoyed being with people. I enjoyed the production. ... It seemed natural to me.”
Daniels was elevated to president and publisher in 1971 when his father’s health became poor. His son, Frank Daniels III, also worked his way up through the family business to eventually become executive editor, leading the newspaper’s internet efforts.
It was a surprise to many when the Daniels family agreed to sell the paper and six local non-dailies to McClatchy in a deal worth $373 million that let him remain publisher.
“You want to be in a position that if you decide you want to sell something, you can sell it on your terms," Daniels Jr. said when the sale was announced.
McClatchy leadership said at the time the Raleigh newspaper was attractive, in part, because it would make the company less reliant on the economy of California, where most of its papers were located. McClatchy had also previously bought South Carolina newspapers owned by The News and Observer Publishing Co.
After the sale, Daniels became part of a small investment group that bought The Pilot of Southern Pines, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) southwest of Raleigh. The group’s holdings have expanded over time to include Business North Carolina and several other magazines.
Daniels “was a champion for the free press, a proud North Carolinian and a leader for his community and our state," Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said in a tweet Thursday.
Daniels also was the previous chair of the American Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation and the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. The Hussman School of Journalism and Media at his alma mater, UNC, announced in 2020 that family members were establishing a new executive-in-residence program bearing his name.
Daniels “has built a legacy of truth-telling, education, democracy and courageous journalism across the state of North Carolina,” UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said at the time, adding that the program would “prepare the next generation of media leaders.”
While AP's chair, Daniels and Boccardi traveled overseas several times to meet with media and world leaders, including newly elected President Nelson Mandela on a 1995 visit to South Africa.
"Frank Daniels was a joy to work with,” Boccardi said. “He combined a very sharp business mind, a relaxed management style, a hearty laugh and unquenchable curiosity about everything.”
In addition to his son, survivors include his wife of 68 years, Julia Jones Daniels, their daughter, Julia Graham Daniels; three grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; two step-grandchildren and four step-great-grandchildren.