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Ole Miss Alum Becomes 'One Of The Best Investigative Editors In The Country'

Photo by Ethan Hyman

This story was republished by permission of The Meek School Magazine.

Steve Riley (’80), senior editor for investigations at “The News & Observer” in Raleigh, North Carolina, has worked in journalism for more than 35 years.

He described his decision to be a journalist as a combination of enjoying sports and watching the Watergate story unfold.
“I was in high school during the Watergate scandal, and it gave me ideas that journalism could have impact,” Riley said. “I thought that is what I wanted to do.”
Thinking of the time he spent at the university, Riley recounted his memories of being a student in the classroom.
“I spent more time than I probably should have at ‘The (Daily) Mississippian’ and a little less time than I should have in the library. I worked almost exclusively at sports during that period. I was the sports editor as a senior.
“My most vivid memories are of Will Norton, Jr., dean of the Meek School of Journalism) embarrassing me on his overhead projector in class,” Riley said. “I still remember in my advanced reporting class, he put a story of mine on the overhead projector and said ‘Geez, Riley, what is this…?’ Will had very high standards and, while embarrassing me, he explained to me that I could be better.”
Norton described Riley as conscientious.
“He spent most of his awake hours at ‘The Daily Mississippian,’ and he did some great stories,” Norton said. “He is really an outstanding journalist. He is one of many who were here in the ’70s and ’80s who have made a difference in their communities, and that is what makes Ole Miss such a great place to be.”
After graduation Riley did not hesitate to start his career. He was, and very much still is, immersed in his work.
“I landed at the Sun Herald in Gulfport (Mississippi) for my first news job covering City Hall and doing other general assignments,” Riley said. “My first and closest editor there was Mike Tonos, who is teaching (at Ole Miss) now. Mike really helped me understand some of the critical parts of putting together stories. They didn’t have a big staff, so I got to do a lot of different things covering a pretty active and chaotic city hall in Biloxi. I remember my first assignment was going to an exhibit that was assembled by a guy who used to be in Elvis Presley’s band. He had some of the property from Elvis’ wife there, and we had fun with that story.”
“Steve was the kind of reporter who editors dreamed of having,” Tonos said. “He was a self-starter, took a lot of initiative, and he came to us as a good writer and had a lot of things we were looking for: curiosity and a presence in the newsroom, even as one of the newer reporters.”
Riley covered a variety of stories, from the Legislature and politics to aliens and UFO abductions.
“I interviewed Charlie Hickson down in Pascagoula, who claimed he had been abducted by UFOs,” Riley said. “They sent me down there to see Charlie on the anniversary of the abduction, and he claimed then that he had further abductions and had all sorts of other contact with the aliens. It turned into quite a story, and we had a lot of fun with it.”
Riley’s next position was with the state’s largest paper, The Clarion-Ledger.
“Charles Overby hired me to open ‘The Clarion-Ledger’s’ first Gulf Coast bureau,” Riley said. “So I stayed on the coast and that was a really active time for political corruption and nefarious behavior. I was a one-man band, so whatever was happening was my story, which unfortunately ranged from a jail down in Biloxi that killed 29 inmates, to a television preacher who was arrested for drug smuggling, to a sheriff who was arrested for drug smuggling in an FBI sting. I was bouncing from one good story to the next, and it was a really lively time down there.”
As a journalist, moving from place to place became second nature to Riley. He started in Tupelo, then moved to the Mississippi coast, then to the capital city of Jackson and, finally, to North Carolina.
“I lived in Gulfport and then Ocean Springs. So I was all over the coast having fun,” Riley said. “Then Charles asked me in ’84 to come up to Jackson to cover state government politics. I was 25 at the time in the capital bureau covering the Legislature and state government. ‘The Clarion-Ledger’ had a very big and talented staff at the time, and it was a great time to be there. It was shortly after they had won a Pulitzer on the education series.”
He continued, “I got married while on the coast, and Liz and I moved to Jackson and stayed two-and-a-half more years, then the moving stopped once we came to Raleigh in ’86. I went to work for ‘The News & Observer’ and have been here ever since. I have had a lot of different jobs, but I have been with the same paper. It will be 30 years in July.”
Orage Quarles, president and publisher of “The News & Observer,” called Riley, “one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with. Patient, persistent and professional. His reporters enjoy working with him.”
Although many say that newspapers are dwindling, Riley is proud to say that “The News & Observer” is thriving.
“‘The News & Observer,’ through all the difficulty and the chaos over the last few years, has actually added to its investigative staff,” Riley said. “It speaks really well of the paper’s commitment to shining a light in places where otherwise nobody would. That has evolved in my 35 years of being in the business, and ‘The News & Observer’ has helped differentiate us from other people in the news business around here.”
Riley further explained the work he and other staff members of “The News & Observer” are doing. “We have taken on politicians and bureaucrats of all political stripes and have taken on community institutions such as nonprofit hospitals. One of the guys that I supervise on our investigative team has broken every story of note on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill scandal.
“They (the university) were basically running a system of bogus classes that athletes didn’t have to show up for in order to help keep them eligible for basketball and football in particular, but also women’s basketball and women’s soccer were taking advantage of it. That’s my long way of telling you, if it hadn’t been for ‘The News & Observer,’ that story would have never been told. If you are wondering what gets me up in the morning and what makes me want to go fight the battles every day, it’s that kind of story.”
John Drescher, Riley’s current boss, said Riley “is the best at handling the biggest, most difficult, most sensitive stories and has great news judgment. Steve is one of the best, if not the best, investigative editor in the country.”
When asked what has changed in the journalism field, Riley laughed and said, “What has not changed in the journalism field since I’ve been here? I started typing on an IBM Selectric, and now I wouldn’t know how to think properly to use a typewriter. We have all this potential, and people can read us from anywhere now. They use to only be able to read us from a section the size of a third of North Carolina. Now they can pick up our work from anywhere, literally, in the world. That is what has changed, and the pressure and the demand to communicate what we know far more quickly and far more regularly.”
The advice Riley gives to students who are entering the journalism world is: “You’ve got to know what makes a really good news story, how to construct a really good news story, where to find the records and documents that can help you to construct a really good news story, where to find the people who can help explain that news story. And it’s got to be delivered in ways that I am not competent in and in some ways I suppose that none of us have conceived yet. But, people are going to need to know what is happening in their communities, and in their state, in their region and in their country. I am somewhat pessimistic on the short-term prospects, but the long-term, I’m pretty optimistic that there is going to be a market for properly delivered news and analysis.”
Work that Riley has led and edited has won several awards, including the National Headliner and the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel when he was a reporter; the Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers; the Barlett and Steele Award for Business Investigative Reporting (bronze); the Michael Kelly Award; the Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting; the American News Editors prize for local reporting; and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards Grand Prize when he was an editor.
Also, two stories he supervised have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.
Riley and his wife Liz, a Raleigh attorney, have two daughters, Sara and Kate, and a “spoiled” black Labrador named Archie.

Molly Brosier is a 2016 integrated marketing communications graduate. 

The Meek School Magazine is a collaborative effort of journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications students with the faculty of Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Every week, for the next few weeks, HottyToddy.com will feature an article from Meek Magazine, Issue 4 (2016-2017).

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