Sherry Chisenhall is the executive editor who transformed The Wichita Eagle newsroom from print to online journalism these past 12 years.
She announced Wednesday that she is leaving after June 3 to go back to North Carolina – to work for the man who hired her to come here in the first place.
In 16 total years in Wichita, she said, she has made many friends and put down deep roots. But in a way, she’s going back home.
Chisenhall, 52, will become managing editor of the Charlotte Observer, where she worked for 14 years before coming to Wichita.
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Rick Thames, the editor of The Eagle until 2004, had hired her from Charlotte to come here as managing editor in 2000.
As editor of the Observer now, Thames is bringing her back to Charlotte. He’s hiring her there for the same reason he hired her in Wichita, he said.
Journalism is facing challenging times and a disruptive shift from print to digital publication – and she’s a leader up to that difficult challenge, he said.
Chisenhall has for a long time played an outsized role in McClatchy, the parent company of The Eagle, Thames said. McClatchy owns both The Eagle and the Observer.
For years now, Chisenhall been one of the company-wide leaders in turning McClatchy to digital, 24-hour journalism, Thames said.
“Sherry is frequently called on to serve on McClatchy-wide task forces to decide major policy issues,” Thames said. “I know for a fact colleagues turn to her for advice and her good judgment. She is as well-grounded a leader as you could hope to have.”
Lou Heldman, now vice president for strategic communications at Wichita State University, was publisher of The Eagle in 2004 when Thames left to take over the Charlotte newsroom. Heldman said there was no debate in his mind about who should replace Thames.
“Sherry totally understood the implications of the move by news organizations to the Internet and began focusing on that in Wichita long before many other editors did elsewhere,” Heldman said. “Beyond that, I hired her (as editor) for her thoughtfulness, her integrity and her journalistic skills.”
Chisenhall led The Eagle newsroom during great challenges and triumphs. She directed coverage during the 11 months of the 2004-05 police hunt for the BTK serial killer, making tough decisions about what to say and not say about a complicated story.
Some of the work she’s most proud to have done here, Chisenhall said, was the legal work and efforts that made Kansas public officials and the judicial system more transparent to the public it serves.
She, along with other editors statewide and the Kansas Press Association, worked for years to make criminal court affidavits open to the public.
E-mails sent by public officials on their private e-mail addresses will now be subject to disclosure under the Kansas Open Records Act. The Legislature strengthened the act this year after a series of stories by Eagle reporter Bryan Lowry showed that Gov. Sam Brownback and his advisers had used private e-mail accounts to conduct public business.
Chisenhall also led Eagle journalists into the digital age, creating strong and immediate online news coverage. Under her leadership, photographers became video journalists, and reporters became photographers and creators of video stories.
“This is a great news team,” she said Wednesday in announcing her departure. “This is the best news team we’ve ever formed here, a fantastic group of people who care deeply about what they do.
“Sometimes people don’t realize how deeply committed people in the newsroom are to this community, how deep their roots are and how much they care.”
Roy Heatherly, The Eagle’s publisher, said he will begin a national search for a new editor immediately. In the interim, deputy editors Michael Roehrman, Jean Hays and Tom Shine will run the newsroom, he said.
It won’t be easy to find someone with Chisenhall’s talent, Heatherly said. When McClatchy’s top management finished interviewing him for the Wichita publisher job last year, they told him he had to pass muster in an interview with Chisenhall – whom he would supervise.
“They told me that if I passed her interview, they’d hire me here,” he said.
“She’s the best editor I’ve seen in 37 years working in journalism.”