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Beginning tomorrow, a new name will appear on the editorial masthead at the top of this column. Robert D. Benson will be replaced as president and publisher by Carl W. Mangum Jr. As the unofficial and self-appointed guardian of the masthead, I couldn't let a change of that magnitude occur without a comment.

I want to comment for three reasons. First, I happen to believe that newspapers don't always tell readers enough about themselves, about their inner workings. Our pages are an open book each day, but the people who make the decisions that go into producing those pages are often a mystery to our readers.Second, and more specifically, a publisher sits atop the newspaper. It is he or she who calls the shots, who sets the tone for the newspaper in the community. Yet many people are not clear about a publisher's role, and about his or her relationship to various parts of the newspaper family.

Third, Bob Benson has been my boss and friend for the past 10 years. I can't let him go to his new job as president and publisher of The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star of Norfolk, Va., without saying a parting word.

Over the past decade, the News & Record has undergone tremendous change. That is simply a reflection of upheaval in the newspaper industry as a whole. We have merged two separate newspapers into one, installed fancy new technology, expanded news coverage, increased circulation and launched a host of specialized publications. Our presses hum virtually around the clock.

Through all of this and more, Bob Benson has kept a steady grip on the tiller. He has an uncanny ability to see five years down the road, and to anticipate and manage change before it happens.

As a result, the News & Record is recognized as a leader and innovator among newspapers its size. I realize that my judgment is prejudiced, but others in the industry tell us this is so.

As publisher, Bob Benson has presided over the news, editorial and business operations of the newspaper. It is a difficult balancing act at best, but one that he has carried off with aplomb.

As one who got his start in newspapers as a cub reporter, Benson has shown great sensitivity to the need for an independent, fearless news and editorial operation that's separate from the business side of things. By the same token, he has promoted cooperation among all the departments to improve productivity and service to readers and advertisers. The competition for our readers' time and our advertisers' dollars is too fierce to behave otherwise. Those who hesitate or stay complacent in the face of change will stagnate.

It's appropriate, as Benson completes his tenure here, that he leaves the News & Record during its centennial celebration. In his typically quiet way, he has set in motion a variety of community projects that will endure long after his departure, including annual college scholarships for academically-talented youngsters in our circulation area.

If Benson had a chance to red-pencil this column, I suspect he would edit out the references to himself and see to it that credit for the successes went to others. He would also point out that, with the daily deadlines we face, we never achieve the perfection we seek. A newspaper is by definition an imperfect organism that must be reborn from scratch each day. Fortunately, ours is a publisher who trusts his editors' judgment about what goes in the paper.

Bob Benson is a class act. I know I speak for my colleagues around here when I say: Thanks for everything, and good luck.

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