Success recipe? Weekly wins awards after filling revenue gap with grants, sponsorships, and relief money, and collaborating with journalism schools

This is the third in a series of articles from a case study of the Chatham (N.C.) News + Record.
By Buck Ryan
Associate professor, University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

This is the story of a $120,300 juggling act involving human capital, dollars and sense.

As the Chatham News + Record enters its third year of new ownership, the publisher and editor and his staff are celebrating a record number of awards from the North Carolina Press Association.

The paper won 28 news awards in the annual contest for 2020, or more than any other newspaper in its division as a small weekly (3,800 paid circulation, about half from street sales).

That number of awards was also more than any other newspaper in the state received except for three metro dailies. The awards, announced on Feb. 26, included prizes in the two major General Excellence categories: Website (first place) and Overall (runner-up).

But alas, the awards carry no fiscal benefits. The cruel reality for community newspapers is that quality is necessary but not sufficient for profitability. Every day is a street fight for sustainability.

In November 2018, along with two business partners involved in commercial and residential real estate, Publisher and Editor Bill Horner III purchased and combined two money-losing newspapers, the News and the Record. He then oversaw their redesign to create the print and website presence of the Chatham News + Record.

From the start, Horner was consumed by the juggling act facing every community newspaper leader: revenue and staffing. He remains the only original staff member on the news side and the head worrier about plugging holes in a sinking advertising-revenue ship, bleeding up to $2,000 a week.

This is a glimpse at how Horner has kept his award-winning journalistic vessel afloat, raising more than $37,300 from grants, adding $18,000 from sponsorships and securing $60,000 from the Covid-19 relief Payroll Protection Plan, plus $5,000 in underwriting from the Missouri School of Journalism to support an innovation intern.

It’s a vessel propelled by just four full-time reporters, yet over the last 27 months, Horner has said goodbye to multiple staff members in news, advertising or business office positions.

More than 100 years of local reporting experience churned in 2020 through the loss of two reporters, a managing editor, one sports editor and a part-time sportswriter. That revolving door, greased by layoffs, attrition and necessary changes, also included three interns, two freelance photographers and Horner’s own son.

Zachary Horner, the paper’s star reporter, won five press-association awards in his year at the paper before his father encouraged him to take a much higher-paying communications job, with benefits, at the county health department.

On and off, until he found the right advertising director, Horner handled ad sales himself while managing to report, write, edit and oversee off-site production and press runs.

How did he do it all? Here’s the Q&A that I conducted with Horner:

What has been your greatest success in finding sponsorships, and how did you do it?
    We have a wonderful sponsorship from our local Council on Aging, which used $10,000 from a grant it received to purchase more than 200 subscriptions for seniors who didn’t already subscribe to the News + Record.
    Chatham County has one of the oldest populations in North Carolina, and we covered several stories about the tremendous work the council does serving that group.
    The council’s executive director loved the changes we made to the News + Record, and he would occasionally ask how things were going. I told him we weren’t growing our audience as quickly as we’d hoped. Some time later he called me to say he was applying for a grant and he hoped to use part of it, or $5,000, to fund subscription purchases for council members.
    They got such great response from these new readers that when those 200-plus six-month subscriptions ended, the council wrote us another check for $5,000 from the grant funds for renewals.
President Reagan famously said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Yet you benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP. What was involved?
    We applied through a local bank. The application process was fairly easy because of our existing relationship with the bank. We got a little over $60,000, but we just missed meeting the qualifications for the second round because we didn’t meet the 25 percent drop-in-revenue threshold — barely.
    Of course, the best part is that it’s a forgivable loan. There’s a 5 p.m. ET March 9, 2021, deadline for funding for businesses with fewer than 20 employees and sole proprietors. Here’s the link.
    Another option for us was the Covid Economic Injury Disaster Loan, which, unfortunately, isn’t forgivable. Here’s a link if another community newspaper was interested in applying.

Facebook and Google are commonly viewed as threats, yet you have secured $37,300 in grants from them. What impact did those grants have?
    The $30,300 Facebook Journalism Project grant was a game-changer for us, and we used a $7,000 Google Ad grant to augment our expanded coverage. Originally our coverage focused on Covid’s effects on the Latinx community as part of La Voz de Chatham, or the Voice of Chatham.
    But soon the range of stories expanded so far beyond Covid that we just closed out the ad deadline for our first Spanish-language print edition. We sold seven full pages of ads, so this first edition will have at least 14 pages.
    We’re going to direct-mail it to more than 2,100 Spanish-speaking households in our market. This first edition was made possible by an $8,000 Chatham Hospital sponsorship, which we’re hoping to renew in July.
    We are in the process of applying for one of Facebook’s Accelerator Program grants. Here’s the link, and note the March 19, 2021, deadline.
    If a Google grant makes sense for another newspaper owner, here’s a link to find details about how to apply.

How has your relationships with journalism schools, including the University of Missouri, paid off?
    Thanks to you, Buck, a proud Mizzou grad, I was introduced to Kat Duncan, now director of innovation at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. We then made a pitch to have the News + Record designated as one of the sites for an RJI Student Innovation Fellowship.
    We were delighted to hear from Kat that a recent graduate, Caroline Watkins, would be our summer 2020 intern to help us create an innovative social media presence. Just as exciting was the news that Mizzou would pay her salary, a $5,000 stipend, and expected that she work for 30 to 40 hours a week for 12 weeks.
    Kat likes to share the wealth of funding and talent, so if this sounds good to another newspaper editor, go for it! I can’t tell you enough how valuable Caroline was for us on improving reader engagement. She now works as an audience growth producer at The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.
    Here are some more details about the Mizzou program.
    We have our eye on another Mizzou source of funding, as we are always pushing innovation. The Reynolds Journalism Institute is accepting 2021-22 RJI Fellowship applications from individuals or organizations with an innovative journalism project idea that could also benefit the industry.
    We’ve also been tremendously blessed by our relationship with the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. We hired three reporters from there in the last year and one this year, either as interns while they were still in school or as recent grads.
    We also collaborated with UNC on “Our Chatham/One Chatham,” which produced a series of “community conversations” on poverty’s effect on education, socioeconomic inequality in Chatham County and teen mental health.
    The adviser to the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, and I consult on business matters. They are helping us redesign our advertising rate card.

Sometimes you have to pay a little to get a chance to reap a lot. How much did Table Stakes cost you and what’s your hope that the investment will pay off?
    That’s another UNC collaboration, particularly with the Center for Innovation and Sustainability.
    We paid $1,500 to join Table Stakes, a Knight Foundation-supported initiative designed to help me close a $100,000 annual revenue gap, also known as my Performance Challenge. Here’s some background.
    I have been assigned a coach and we meet weekly in addition to our regular full cohort meetings. We set short-term goals around one big idea—transition from subscriptions to a membership program—and other initiatives, including a parenting newsletter.
    The program has brought me together with a team of consultants and an amazing cohort of journalists from a wide variety of news media organizations—print, broadcast and online—in North Carolina as well as Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia. I heartily recommend Table Stakes to other newspaper editors and publishers.

N.C. weekly uses Facebook grant to create new base of Latinx readers

This is the second in a series of articles from a case study of the Chatham (N.C.) News + Record.
By Buck Ryan
Associate professor, University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

Over the last nine months, the Chatham News + Record has leveraged a $30,300 Facebook grant to receive an $8,000 commitment from a local hospital by giving voice to a voiceless Latinx community on a health issue, namely the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As weekly community newspapers, suffering financially from the pandemic’s jolt to advertising revenues, struggle to stay afloat, the News + Record (3,800 paid circulation, about half from street sales) provides some valuable lessons on how to improve quality news coverage that gets recognized with financial support from a community institution.

The newspaper with two offices in Chatham County towns, Pittsboro and Siler City, sits between Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media provides student reporting talent. The Facebook project added faculty guidance by Paul Cuadros, an associate journalism professor at UNC, who has the advantage of living in Chatham County.

Back in May, the newspaper reported, “The News + Record was named one of just 144 local U.S. news organizations — and one of just nine in all of North Carolina — as a recipient of a Facebook Journalism Project COVID-19 Local News Relief Grant.”

Editor and Publisher Bill Horner III, along with a full-time reporter hired on the Facebook grant, tell the success story in hopes of inspiring other community newspaper editors and publishers searching for ways to solve the profession’s revenue puzzle and to garner another valuable asset: trust.

Here’s the Q&A I conducted with Horner:

1. What inspired you to apply for a Facebook grant?

The need for an influx of revenue! That aside, it quickly shifted for me as an opportunity to do exactly what the goal of the grant was: for a newspaper to cover and to serve an underserved community. The largest employer in our market is a poultry processing facility and its largest employee base is Latinx. So with COVID ravaging our community, it presented an opportunity to tell stories about a marginalized part of our potential readership base.

A strong Latinx community (12.5 percent) lives in the western half the county with a significant undocumented population, and a largely white (71.6 percent), eclectic mix of residents live in the other half. At one elementary school in the southwest, 98 percent of students receive free or reduced lunches — while in the northeast, close to Chapel Hill, some of the most affluent residents in the state have homes.

COVID’s impact on the Latinx community is a story that many of our readers either didn’t know about or, frankly, didn’t care. Who else could tell those stories but us?

2. What was the application process like?

It was a very simple process. The application clearly spelled out what Facebook was looking for in terms of how it would prioritize applicants. Developing the idea was instantaneous; the hardest part was the wordsmithing.

Facebook is asking newspapers to stay tuned for future funding possibilities with this link. and here’s background on the Facebook grant that the News + Record received.

3. How did you use the money?

We funded a full-time reporter, Victoria Johnson, a 2020 UNC journalism graduate fluent in Spanish, and a part-time reporter, Patsy Montesinos, a UNC journalism senior and native speaker with family from Mexico. We allocated some of the funds to underwrite extra pages in our weekly print edition to include the stories we were adding to our coverage lineup. The funding also covered the cost of photography as well as news story translations done by Johnson and checked by Montesinos. We post all those stories in front of our paywall on our website in English and in Spanish.

4. What was your greatest accomplishment?

Engaging and compelling storytelling that serves a population otherwise mostly not listened to by many of our traditional readers. We are also building trust within that community, which is very difficult to do. Here’s how Victoria Johnson answered the question: 

“I think our greatest accomplishment lies in our name — La Voz de Chatham, or the Voice of Chatham. We’ve amplified the voices of those who usually don’t appear in mainstream American newspapers — either because they don’t speak English or because they fear speaking to the press. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve gained the trust of many among Chatham County’s Hispanic community, undocumented immigrants or citizens, young or old, Spanish speaking or bilingual.”

As for her focus, Johnson said, “We are reporting on COVID-19's impact on the Hispanic community in Chatham County — everything from businesses, social life and religious life to the inequities that the pandemic has only served to worsen. We want to publish important information in Spanish related to the pandemic and the governor's response. We also want to celebrate Chatham's Hispanic community with community member spotlights.”

5. In what other ways did the Facebook grant benefit the newspaper and the community?

Many, many ways, but I think foremost was to demonstrate to our community how serious we are about good reporting and community service. Thanks to Victoria, we covered the struggles many Spanish-speaking families have faced during remote learning, the difficulties confronting Hispanic churches to maintain and support their congregations throughout COVID-19 as well as the struggles — and triumphs — of Latinx high school students. We focused on success stories, like the profile of Octavio Hernandez, who crossed the border at 12 years old and who later built a successful steel erection company in Siler City. We took a multimedia approach to storytelling. Montesinos created a short documentary about one Siler City family who had sacrificed nearly everything to put all three of their children in college. We measure results through reader reactions, such as the Pittsboro pastor who reached out to help the Hispanic churches and Ilana Dubester, executive director of the Hispanic Liaison nonprofit in Siler City, who begins nearly every interview thanking us for consistently covering their community.

More details about the coverage are available on the newspaper’s website and on Facebook.

6. What’s next?

We hope that the $8,000 commitment from our new sponsor, Chatham Hospital, as well as the recognition we have received for our coverage of the Latinx community, will position us to apply for more funding from Facebook and a second, $16,000 sponsorship from the hospital in July as its next fiscal year begins.

How a North Carolina weekly has covered the Confederate monuments issue

This is the first in a series of articles from a case study of the Chatham (N.C.) News + Record.

By Buck Ryan
Associate professor, University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

The Chatham News + Record has been embroiled in coverage of issues surrounding a Confederate statue in front of the Chatham County Historic Courthouse, now a museum in Pittsboro, N.C.

Editor and Publisher Bill Horner III addressed the controversy in an editorial, “A message to the agitators: When enough is simply enough.” Inspired by the editorial, I conducted a Q&A with Horner:

What was the tipping point that led to your editorial?

The protests have attracted activists and extremists from outside Chatham County. A few neo-Confederate groups and a few extreme liberal groups have camped here on weekends and raised the level of rancor and added much hate to the mix. They needed to be called out on it. Our photographer would take pictures of groups of protesters and longtime residents would say, “I don’t recognize one person in that picture.”

It’s clearly gotten to the point where enough is enough. The statue issue is going to come down to a legal ruling; it’s not a popularity contest and it won’t be settled with a public vote. These Saturday protesters from outside Chatham County aren’t adding to the conversation. They’re bringing more anger and more hate into an already volatile situation, which accomplishes not one thing. That’s what drove me to write this latest editorial.

When did the Confederate statue issue first emerge?

The “Our Confederate Heroes” statue was erected in 1907, and I’ve heard anecdotally that it has been a point of contention for some of the county’s African-American population over the years. Pittsboro’s mayor recounted a conversation she had with a black resident recently who said many of those in the African-American community always thought the soldier in the “Our Confederate Heroes” monument was black.

For the most part, the issue of moving the statue didn’t get real steam until a local group called Chatham For All began this past spring to push the county commissioners to move it. The local group was led primarily by “new” Chatham residents who either retired here or transplanted here over the last few years from outside North Carolina. That’s what has angered so many of the locals, most of whom, it seems from my observation, have seen it simply as a memorial to those from the county who fought and sacrificed during the Civil War. So many people look at this as a case of outside agitators stirring up trouble where trouble didn’t exist before, but clearly the issue is more complicated and complex than that.

What has been your approach to the coverage?

Measured and balanced and not overblown. That’s been the goal.

So you have to look at our coverage of the discussions at public meetings and in the community about the future of the statue and the commissioners’ work to address it as one piece of our work, and the protests that have followed as another. Our focus has been on the former; we’ve tried hard not to do what some of the state’s TV stations have done in terms of sensationalizing the protests. All sorts of media come on Saturdays to show the protesters clash. It’s like a made-for-TV show. We’re watching, but telling the more relevant stories.

We recognize that some of the protesters are doing things for effect. Remember, the protests began after the county commissioners ruled that the statue’s owners, the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s local chapter, had to move it. So a lot of what’s happened since is bloviating and yelling and making noise. In those instances, we have to ask: Is this newsworthy? How newsworthy, in the scheme of things? Protesters are lining up on opposite sides now almost every Saturday in Pittsboro, our county seat, so we’re looking at issues such as, How are downtown businesses impacted? As opposed to, say, what are the arguments of the agitators who come in from out of state and scream and spit at those on the other side?

Playwright Arthur Miller once said, “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking with itself.” What have you done, beyond coverage, to promote a community conversation about the issue?

We’ve tried really hard to have broad and balanced coverage and explain the issues succinctly and clearly. Editorially, we chastised the UDC when they walked away from the negotiations with the county on the future of the statue; that was Chatham County’s one great opportunity to show everyone that we could do it right, and do it better, and solve a problem without pouting or pointing fingers. We’ve also welcomed guest columns and published letters to the editor about the statue.

But we’ve also worked at the same time to point out there are many more serious, many more significant issues that need addressing in Chatham County. Our “One Chatham” public forums, for example, have taken place during all this hullabaloo with the statue. We could have packed the house with a public forum about the statue, but instead one addressed socioeconomic inequality among our residents and another addressed poverty’s impact on public education. We also have had a series of stories about mental health issues in the Hispanic community and one man’s effort to lead a conversation about the county’s lynching legacy. We can’t guide conversation on the statue because there’s so little of it; as I said earlier, it’s a lot of yelling and not much listening. But we can tell the relevant stories in a measured way.

What have been the reactions from readers?

A few weeks ago, I received two email messages taking us to task. One woman railed about how it’s so obvious we’re in favor of having the statue removed. Another said we were horrible journalists because it was so clear we’re in favor of letting the statue remain. Both messages were referring to the same exact news story.

We got a very angry call from one elected official berating us for — and this is what he said — publishing stories that were “too balanced, too fair.” He thought our stories should have been slanted toward the statue’s removal.

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