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'League of his own': DTH alumnus Sharif Durhams pushes to reach more communities in new role

PH-PERSONALITY
Photo courtesy of Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post.

During the 1998-99 school year, Sharif Durhams, the first Black editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel, led the newsroom’s coverage of two massive events: former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment and the Columbine High School massacre. He had “unusual” poise, comfort and journalistic judgment at such a young age during this time, Rob Nelson, a former colleague, said.

“Here he was, as a senior in college, making major coverage decisions about two stories that the nation — everyone in media was covering,” Nelson, who was Durhams’ managing editor in 1998-99 and his successor as the second Black editor of The Daily Tar Heel the following year, said.

Nelson said that when it came to major coverage, Durhams was “in a league of his own.”

On June 5, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution named Durhams as its managing editor of news. Durhams, 46, will be leaving his role as deputy managing editor at The Washington Post. 

Prior to The Washington Post, he served as the managing editor at The News & Observer in Raleigh and The Herald-Sun in Durham, as well as the senior editor of digital global programming at CNN. 

In his new role at The AJC, Durhams said he is excited to explore the intersections between politics and culture in Georgia, as well as expand The AJC’s coverage to reach communities not covered before.

“I love the excitement in the newsroom about using different kinds of story forms,” Durhams said. “About writing stories in different ways, about focusing on different characters and stories as ways of appealing to a wide audience.”

Having grown up in Raleigh, Durhams attended UNC and first joined The DTH on the University Desk. Learning about the campus and the intricacies of student government helped Durhams fall in love with journalism, he said. He also said that editors at The DTH gave him a perspective of the entire newsroom, from the business of journalism to paper production and management of people.

Durhams, who was also elected as the first Black president of NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists in 2018, said that knowledge gained by diversity positively informs reporting. He said learning and listening to communities “right next door” allows mainstream journalism institutions to deliver better coverage.

“Just because I’m Black, that doesn’t mean I understand issues that are going on in particular communities,” Durhams said. “But by studying them, and by following reporters who are intensely focused on those groups, that actually informs my reporting and the editing that I’m able to do.”

Evan Markfield, a former colleague of Durhams at The DTH on the Sports Desk, said that Durhams’ leadership as a Black journalist at The DTH was “precedent-setting,” changing the evolution of the future of both The DTH and newsrooms in general. 

In 2019, The DTH introduced the Sharif Durhams Leadership Program, which welcomed its first cohort in the 2019-20 school year. The program for students from underrepresented groups a​​ims to create equity, inclusion and opportunity in the newsroom, as well as to connect students to professional opportunities after graduation.

Markfield also said that Durhams’ experience in diverse roles in online and print journalism makes him capable of addressing the challenges of newspapers today. 

“If anyone’s capable of navigating that landscape, it’s him,” Markfield said. “I’m confident that The AJC got a good one there.”

In Durhams’ limited free time — "Do I ever leave work?" he joked — he said he enjoys people-watching and exploring the cities of Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. He also enjoys spending time with friends, which still include Nelson, Markfield and former DTH colleague Aaron Beard — who is now a sportswriter at The Associated Press — even over two decades later.

Beard said he and Durhams have maintained a strong friendship cultivated by their time together at The DTH. He also said that he has no doubt in Durhams’s ability to excel as managing editor at The AJC.

“Every time I look up and hear he's working for another major publication in a major role,” Beard said. “And I’m just like, ‘That’s my guy.’”

Editor’s note: The Daily Tar Heel hosts the Sharif Durhams Leadership Program, a talent and leadership development course for DTH students from underrepresented groups. The program is named for Sharif Durhams, who was the editor-in-chief of the DTH in 1989-99. Evan Markfield, Aaron Beard and Rob Nelson are also former staffers of The DTH.

@ashnqm

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com

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Ashley Quincin

Ashley Quincin is a 2023-24 assistant university desk editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a university staff writer. Ashley is a senior pursuing a degree in English and comparative literature, with a double minor in media and journalism and composition, rhetoric and digital literacy.