Award-winning N.C. weekly sold to expanding media group in state


This is the ninth installment in a participatory case study of the newspaper.

By Buck Ryan

Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Media, University of Kentucky


When an award-winning North Carolina weekly newspaper agrees to be sold to an expanding media group in the state, that’s good news—especially for an industry where newspapers close at the rate of two a week.


The Chatham News + Record, which has won more awards from the North Carolina Press Association over the last three years than any other paper its size, is now owned by North State Media, based in Raleigh.


The new owners promise to build on the success of the newspaper, which covers Chatham County from its base in Siler City with a paid distribution of 3,400. The staff consists of five full-time and six part-time employees, including several freelance writers and photographers.


In a sign of the times for a weekly whose print edition arrives to readers on Thursdays, news of the sale came Monday afternoon on Facebook with a link to an online story on the paper’s website.


Bill Horner III
The newspaper’s outgoing publisher and editor, Bill Horner III, said his goodbyes to readers atop that post on his personal Facebook page while he was aboard “a river cruise on the Danube River, with Romania on my right and Bulgaria on my left.” 


Official word of the sale, which had been in the works for months, collided with Horner’s long-planned two-week European vacation with his wife. Terms of the sales agreement have not been made public.


Horner’s post prompted an outpouring of good will and a possible glimpse into the News + Record’s future.


“Such bittersweet news,” said Caroline Watkins, audience engagement manager at Retro Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization based in New York City, that produces documentaries. She served a fellowship at the paper as a social media intern with financial support from the Missouri School of Journalism.


“I am so proud of the Chatham News + Record staff for all that they've accomplished over the years,” Watkins said. “Thank you, Bill Horner III, for being such a fantastic mentor to me. I learned so much from you and your staff!”


Melanie Sill, a Pulitzer-winning journalist and founding executive director of the NCLocal News Workshop at the Elon University School of Communications, said “My friend and fellow journalist Bill Horner III has done a heck of a job in the past few years transforming the Chatham News + Record into what in many ways is a model for a community paper in 2023, with a lively, people-rich and news-packed approach online and in print.”


North State Media’s flagship is the North State Journal, which it calls “North Carolina’s only statewide newspaper,” claiming reach across all 100 counties in the state through its print edition and its website,


Sill, a former executive editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, described the Journal as having “a mix of news and opinion that both tilt to the right, and a pretty strong point of view.”


The Journal was honored last year by NCPA as the top winner in the smallest division. The News + Record won its awards in the next largest division.


In the News + Record’s story, Neal Robbins, North State Media’s president and the publisher of the North State Journal, said “We are excited to add the Chatham News + Record to the North State Journal family. We believe the long-term viability of North Carolina’s independent press lies in local ownership and strategic business planning. This acquisition furthers our goal to elevate the conversation across North Carolina while ensuring local communities are part of that conversation.”


Chatham County is the Raleigh-Durham metropolitan area.
Chatham County, which is in the central Piedmont region of the state, will be the sixth county with coverage by the media company. Two are adjacent to Chatham: Moore to the south and Randolph to the west. The other three counties are Forsyth (county seat Winston-Salem), Hoke (Raeford) and Stanly (Albemarle).

News + Record readers are being promised expanded content and new sections under the new ownership. At the 2022 NCPA convention, the News + Record won first place for general excellence in its division after finishing in second and third place the prior two years.


“We’ve built an audience. We’ve had a lot of fun and we've worked hard,” Horner said in his Facebook post. “Our weekly ‘chat’ features have given readers direct access to the county’s leading civic, nonprofit, business and government voices. Our in-depth coverage of Chatham’s municipalities, the county government and Chatham County Schools has helped make residents there aware of critical issues, and our elections coverage has introduced people in Chatham County to issues and candidates and made them better-informed voters.


Horner and his partners, real estate developer Kirk Bradley and construction company executive Chris Ehrenfeld, purchased The News and The Record, two money-losing, family-owned papers, in 2018. They formed the Chatham Media Group, publisher of the News + Record, and embarked on creating other print and digital news products that they have now sold.


Horner, a third-generation newspaper publisher in North Carolina, came out of retirement to continue a publishing tradition in Chatham County dating to 1878.  


“When we redesigned and merged the papers, it was like a new beginning,” Horner said. When sharing insights with industry and civic groups about the News + Record, he described his newspaper as “a 145-year-old startup.” 


“And that’s not to mention creating an award-winning website, adding social media, introducing three digital email newsletters, publishing two magazines and informing an under-served Spanish-speaking community with a new publication, La Voz de Chatham (Voice of Chatham). Our Chatham Brew newsletter is the most widely read publication in the county.”


Griffin Daughtry, the North State Journal’s local editor, will take over day-to-day operations of the News + Record. He said he looked forward to “developing new beats and features that will highlight all Chatham County has to offer.”


Horner, approaching age 60 and entering retirement again, said he plans to pursue writing projects and volunteer work in his hometown of Sanford. He’ll continue to be involved with his work for Communities In Schools of Chatham County and Chatham Literacy.


The Chatham News + Record has been the subject of an eight-part participatory case study published on this page of The Rural Blog, as a model for other rural newspaper publishers.


Horner said March was the paper’s most profitable month of the year, though bridging a $100,000 annual revenue gap remained a challenge.


“It all comes down to reader engagement,” Horner said about the challenge of finding the sweet spot in his politically divided county with a 50-50 split of Democrats and Republicans. 


“We weren’t always popular,” Horner said in the Facebook post looking back on his tenure. “A single-copy seller kicked us out of his stores because he didn’t like our coverage of Chatham’s Black and Brown community. Our reporters have been harassed and slandered. We’ve been accused of being ‘woke’; in reality the better word is: aware. But nearly everywhere I went, I would hear the same refrain over and over from subscribers: Thanks for giving us such a great newspaper.”


In the News + Record’s article announcing the sale, partner Kirk Bradley summed up their journey this way: “Today’s media landscape makes it hard to survive as a stand-alone operation. When we purchased the paper from the Resch family, our goal was to provide support for the importance of education and economic development in Chatham County told from a local perspective, while honoring the history of the paper. We remain hopeful that selling to North State Media will continue that vision and support the future of Chatham County.”


Horner gets the last word: “This industry is changing and evolving, and no doubt the News + Record will continue to change and evolve. I'll still be involved in journalism and writing. In the meantime, keep supporting your local newspaper.” 

How a rural newspaper hits a target reader—over 60, Blacks,  parents—when its staff has none of those characteristics

This is the eighth in a series of Q&A insights as part of a “participatory case study” of the Chatham News + Record in Chatham County, North Carolina.

By Buck Ryan

Associate professor, School of Journalism and Media, University of Kentucky 


Editors need to have a keen sense of news judgment, which requires a clear view of their publications’ target readers. But what if the target reader is over 60 years old, or African American, or a mother juggling the lives of her children and the reporting staff is young, white and single? 


That’s the case for the Chatham News + Record in Chatham County, North Carolina, whose publisher and editor, Bill Horner III, has found a way to hurdle that challenge in award-winning fashion.


The News + Record, a weekly with paid distribution of about 3,400, has received more news awards than any other newspaper its size from the North Carolina Press Association over the last three years. 


It won 31 awards in the most recent contest, including first place for general excellence—the “best overall newspaper” prize—in its division, which includes 23 prize-winning papers. News + Record staff members walked away with more than 1 in 4 of all the news awards at stake.


Success has come despite the disconnect between the demographic profiles of the newspaper’s staff and the community it serves. For example, although Horner is not fluent in Spanish, he managed to spin off a successful Spanish-language publication, La Voz de Chatham.


Chatham County, which is mostly white (71%), has a population of 75,070 people, with a Hispanic community (12%) about as large as its African American community (11%). The median age of residents is 47.


The News + Record, like many rural community newspapers, has managed to keep its balance on the employee carousel over the last five years since its purchase in late 2018. The newspaper has been the first job for a series of reporters, most of whom stay 12 to 20 months and go on to bigger news organizations—with Horner’s blessing.


Horner took a break from his busy schedule to answer questions about the challenges he faces and to offer advice for other rural newspaper editors and publishers. Here goes:


The Over 60 Crowd
Question No. 1: Research on the median age of daily newspaper readers targets people in their 40s, but the age climbs to nearly 60 for once-a-week readers, typically on Sundays only. Is that why your weekly newspaper began to spotlight “6 Over 60”?

Answer: Not necessarily. After my partners and I acquired the News + Record in late 2018, we began a partnership with Chatham County’s Council on Aging. Among other things, we’ve helped sponsor their events, such as the Senior Games, and they’ve used grant funds to purchase subscriptions for senior citizens living here who didn’t already subscribe. 


It’s been a great relationship and we’ve helped promote the incredible work they do for our aging population. So when the COA’s new director approached us with the “6 Over 60” idea, I said yes right away. Chatham’s senior population is extraordinarily active and engaged, and it’s making significant contributions in a fast-growing market. Spotlighting those contributions and telling those stories just made sense. It certainly helps, of course, that they’re frequent readers.


Black History
Question No. 2: The front page of the News + Record typically contains a photo or a story about someone in Chatham County’s African American community. For the weekly issues that covered Black History Month in February, even a casual reader could see the increased emphasis to do justice to the experiences of Black residents. Chatham County has a checkered history with race relations. How would you describe your approach to news coverage of the Black community?

Answer: We are intentional about it in part because when it comes to news—and recognition in the county—that’s an underserved population. We don’t necessarily try to step up our coverage during February simply to check off a box. That’s disingenuous. But I think it’s an important part of our mission and role to give voices to those in the communities we serve.


Black History Month coverage included a story about a local woman
who had written a book about her family's white-supremacist history.
Looking back, in all honesty, we didn’t do a great job last year of highlighting Black history and stories. We have consistently covered that community, and I hope every community in Chatham feels like we’ve paid attention to them as well. We did make a special effort in February to plan better so that the coverage during Black History Month was more thoughtful and comprehensive. We did the same thing with elections last November after what I thought was middling coverage of our May primaries. We just got intentional.

We published a story and in-depth Q&A, for example, with a woman who lives in Chatham County who’s just published a memoir that examines her personal reconciliation of discovering, during her late childhood and young adulthood in Alabama, of descending from a family of well-to-do enslavers on her mother’s side. She points out that dozens of books have been written about appalling events in Birmingham — the most segregated city in the country — which she didn’t need to add to. “I have my own civil-rights stories,” she writes. “I was no hero, just a minor figure.” She’s white (she’s a retired medical researcher who worked at universities here) but she shares a perspective about Black history that not many of us think of.

It's been particularly interesting in our market because of two events: the removal of our Confederate monument (yes, it was at the courthouse steps) in 2019 and the placing of a historical marker late last year remembering Chatham’s lynching victims. We had six lynchings in Chatham County, second-most of any North Carolina county, between 1865 and 1950. We covered both the debate over the monument and the work done leading up to the placement of the historical marker pretty thoroughly. There’s a lot of complexity in our county with the issue of race. Lingering divisions have been amplified here— everywhere, I’m sure—since 2016. There have been plenty of stories to tell.


As we’ve told those stories, reaction has been mixed. No question we’ve lost some readers, but we’ve gained others. But it’s news, it’s part of what’s happening in a growing and changing market, and it’s incumbent upon us to take the lead to say what’s happening and why. 


Parenting Newsletter
Question No. 3: Your introduction of The Carpool email newsletter, which was in the works for many months before its debut in 2021, became an immediate hit with parents on the mailing list. Its reach exceeds the paid circulation of your weekly print newspaper. What lessons for other publishers can be learned from that success story?

Answer: Find ways to connect to potential audiences. Think creatively about your audiences and find problems you can solve for them. Try new stuff. Keep doing things that resonate.


I’d love to take credit for this parenting newsletter idea, but it came from our Table Stakes and Facebook Accelerator coach, Cierra Hinton. Hannah McClellan, who was our education reporter at the time, jumped on the idea. She now works for EdNC, an education-focused online news organization, but she’s still doing The Carpool for us, and doing a marvelous job. It gets a lot of engagement and it does what we set out for it to do: Be a must-read resource for parents in Chatham County.


Whereas our paid newspaper circulation numbers around 3,400, our thrice-weekly newsletter, The Chatham Brew, circulates to 6,500 email subscribers. Circulation for The Carpool, which is free, falls in the middle—4,600 email subscribers. 


The La Voz de Chatham rollercoaster
Question No. 4: Your decision to reach a Spanish-speaking audience in your community, especially one hard hit by the pandemic in 2020, received an enthusiastic response in its original broadsheet print format, then tabloid redesign. Your website included Spanish-language translations and original stories to broaden your reach. The startup was made possible by a Facebook grant supplemented by advertising dollars from a chicken processing plant. The newspaper is on hiatus now, yet you’ve obtained a new grant for its publication. What is the future of La Voz de Chatham (The Voice of Chatham)?

Answer: Yes, the new funding—a $30,000 grant—is coming from the North Carolina Local NewsLab Fund. The startup for La Voz de Chatham got a lot of press, as it met the needs of an underrepresented Hispanic population of Chatham County, which accounts for about 12%. In April, 2020, we debuted La Voz de Chatham by mailing 2,500 copies of the first Spanish print edition directly to Spanish-speaking homes and placing another 2,500 copies in local businesses.


We’re going to get La Voz rolling again soon. It got off to a great start under the leadership of its lead reporter, Victoria Johnson, who left us to become an immigration paralegal. We put the publication on hold in June 2022 when Victoria left after two years of publishing on print and digital platforms. The holdup has been finding a bilingual reporter to lead the effort. We’ll need more funding than that to keep it going, and that’s something we’re working on.


The Staffing Puzzle
Question No. 5: Staff turnover remains a challenge for you, as is true across the rural journalism spectrum. At the same time, you have been able to succeed with publishing an award-winning newspaper by replacing talented reporters—young, white, single—with new ones covering a diverse audience. What’s your secret to success?

Answer: We’ve really been blessed here. It’s a combination of a number of things: UNC-Chapel Hill is close by (20 minutes from Pittsboro), and I have had some great relationships with folks in the journalism school there who have been happy to recommend us to students. We’ve gotten great applicants from UNC who already have experience with all kinds of diversity. They can easily go into communities with people who don’t look like them and come away with good stories. They are respectful young people and that goes a long way whether they are dealing with people much older than them or people of a different race or ethnicity.


In addition, we’re putting out a really good product, and young reporters are always eager to join a team that’s doing well. And fortunately, when we’ve had reporters leave and move on, they’ve always had great things to say about their experience at the News + Record.


Relationships are key, and I have been very fortunate—and I really think there’s some luck involved—in that I’ve been able to create a close bond with the vast majority of the kids I’ve hired. We’ve just been a good fit for each other all around, which makes for a fun working environment and great collaboration. 


It certainly helps that they’ve come to us with lots of experience from their time on The Daily Tar Heel at UNC and from internships, and that they’re skilled, determined and “get” what we’re trying to do here. So it’s not really a secret, but a formula that keeps working.


Literacy, Good Writing and Required Reading
Question No. 6: You are a book lover and someone who sees literacy as an essential key to success in newspapering. Fortunately, Chatham County has a celebrated history of championing literacy. Nonetheless, you have lamented that your young staff members typically don’t read a lot of books and instead spend a lot of time reading short items on social media. How do you help your staff develop a deep appreciation for good writing and producing in-depth stories?

Answer: Some read more than others; the correlation is that my best writers are those who have been the most devoted readers of books and of great reporting. 


I hope I can say that I push them to be better writers and reporters. There’s only so much you can teach; there has to be a willingness and a desire to get better on their part, and also the capacity to understand and instinctively know what’s really good when it comes to reporting and writing. So we talk a lot about writing and share 360-degree feedback. 


We talk about what we’re reading. I give my kids books about writing and reporting and recommend books on those subjects to them. For example, Verlyn Klinkenborg’s “Several Short Sentences About Writing” is one I’ve given everyone.


And I share well-done stories with them. A few of us are real fans of The New Yorker and the long-form stories you find there. I also talk to them about my word collection. I collect words I come across during my own reading that I like as I build my own vocabulary. I have a folder for them in the Notes app on my iPhone.


I ask my reporters a lot of questions about word choice and sentence structure. We don’t do it as much in person; it’s mostly often done through editing on our server. As I said, I try to push. I don’t mind telling them a lede stinks; I have them read my stuff, and if my lede stinks, I want to know!


I also love interviewing authors and regularly do so for stories in the News + Record and as part of our promotion of Chatham Literacy events. I just did a Zoom interview, which I posted on our Facebook page, of the great Southern novelist Lee Smith. She’s the featured speaker at Chatham Literacy’s next event in May.


One thing I’ll never forget from my studies at the William Allen White j-school at the University of Kansas was one of my professors, Elmer Lower, telling us that the world will always, always need people who write well. If we, as journalists, could develop into strong writers, he said, there would always be a place for us. 

A weekly's election-coverage model: Explain your approach in advance, hold community forums, and make endorsements a rarity

This is the seventh in a series of Q&A insights as part of a “participatory case study” of the Chatham News + Record in Chatham County, North Carolina.

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

As America heads toward Nov. 8 and a midterm election stress test for its democracy, a rural newspaper in one big swing state  — North Carolina — is rewriting the books on election coverage in hotly contested local, state and federal races.

Bill Horner III, publisher and editor of the Chatham News + Record in Chatham County, just west of the state capital of Raleigh, will do almost anything to ensure his citizen-readers have all the news and information they need to make good decisions on Election Day.

A search for election coverage on the News + Record website yielded 77 articles by 13 writers, plus staff reports and candidate bios, since October 2021 on races including mayor, sheriff, county commission, school board, state House and Senate, U.S. House and Senate, and district attorney.

In an editorial for the Sept. 1-7 issue, titled “Chatham’s elections season has begun. Here’s how we’ll cover it,” Horner promised candidate profiles and questionnaires, interviews and podcasts, candidate forums, and stories about “how voting in Chatham County works” to promote trust and transparency in the electoral process.

In a passage on “what we won’t do,” Horner said the paper will not cover candidate events or traffic in misinformation or disinformation. And something else: The News + Record won’t endorse candidates in the general election.

For Horner, that’s a big change from 24 years ago when he was publisher of The Sanford Herald, a daily in nearby Lee County. But it’s actually a throwback to a tradition embodied, more or less, by his father and grandfather when they served as The Herald’s publishers.

“We didn’t begin to endorse candidates at The Herald until after 1998, when we sold to Paxton Media Group and my dad retired,” Horner said.

There was at least one exception, reminiscent of New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling’s maxim, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

“My grandfather said we just didn’t do endorsements,” Horner said. “But years later, while I was looking through the archives for a story, I ran across our endorsement of him — for his mayoral run in the 1950s.”

The current no-endorsement pledge had an exception, too: a negative non-endorsement.

In the spring primary election, Horner published an article exposing a troublesome slate of town commissioner candidates waving a “Unity bloc” banner. He said the four candidates, backed by “a mysteriously self-mythologizing millionaire,” had recently moved to town together, making grandiose promises about, among other things, a $100 million housing loan fund they claimed to have secured. For Horner, they were just a bridge too far, and he let his readers know it in an editorial. "They all finished dead last," he tells us.

Perennial swing states, like North Carolina where election results are close year after year, tend to have a rural-urban divide. That same division exists in many counties, including Chatham. Horner’s news coverage must cross boundaries of race (white, Black, Hispanic), wealth (from very rich to very poor) and politics (from MAGA to progressives) in a county known for high voter turnout.

A May 18 article on results of municipal and primary elections was only an interlude. A gerrymandering lawsuit that led to political maps being ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court had pushed state primary elections to June 7. The issue, once resolved, was called a “powerful win for North Carolina’s Black voters.”  

The most recent front page of the Chatham County newspaper 
The News + Record’s Oct. 13 edition featured headlines such as “DENIERS: Where Chatham candidates stand on the ‘rigged and stolen’ 2020 election” and “Inside the ‘Election Integrity’ efforts undermining elections,” a reprinted article published in partnership with two other publications, The Assembly of North Carolina and The Guardian, with financial support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Horner credits Melanie Sill, a former top newspaper editor and founding executive director of the North Carolina Local News Workshop at Elon University, for helping him brainstorm in August about new approaches to coverage during a workshop titled “NC Elections Prep: Focus on Democracy.”

Other partners include the Chatham Chamber of Commerce and Central Carolina Community College, which provide support and locations for candidate forums, which are broadcast live on the newspaper’s Facebook page.

Horner actively encourages citizens to write to the newspaper, but he put up this guardrail: “No letters to the editor addressing subjects related to candidates or issues in the Nov. 8 election will be published after the News + Record’s Oct. 20 edition,” when early voting begins.

Horner agreed to take a break from his harried schedule to answer questions exclusively for The Rural Blog’s readers. Here goes:

One of my University of Kentucky colleagues, historian Tracy Campbell, wrote a book, Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, an American Political Tradition - 1742-2004. In my old Chicago Tribune newsroom, I was jokingly encouraged to vote “early and often” in the Chicago tradition. Most recently the Salyersville Independent, an Eastern Kentucky weekly, posted a bounty—a $3,000 cash reward—for evidence of vote buying in the Nov. 8 election. There’s been a lot of talk lately about election integrity, but what makes the current civic environment so different from days past?

From my chair, it looks like emotional engagement is up, but intellectual engagement is down. Rage and ad hominem attacks are the standard; statesmanship and discourse seem forgotten. Election time is always a silly season, but the meanness and capacity for misinformation and disinformation have become so much greater, probably because it gets amplified too much on social media.

“Agree to disagree” gave way to “You’re wrong!” which gave way to “You’re a ____!” (Fill in the blank with the insult of your choice.) Physically lashing out is the logical next step. Remember “Hang Mike Pence!”?

Not everyone’s like that, of course, but the toxic rage of the vocal few turns people away from the valuable processes that take place that normally makes the civic environment a fun place to be.

It may have been like this for a long time, but what I notice so clearly now, as opposed to 20 years ago, is that voters can tell you WHAT they think, but they can’t adequately answer WHY about the basis of their beliefs.

If you want to have fun, ask someone who’s rabid politically and is spouting off about something: “Help me understand why you think that/believe that?” And keep pushing by asking, “Why would you say that?” when they respond, working to drill down to the facts on which they base their beliefs.

By the way, we need to practice that exercise with ourselves, too.

Early voting in North Carolina dates to 1977. But it hasn’t become a political force, or a serious issue, until recently. How did the prospect of early voting from Oct. 20 to Nov. 5 change your mind about the timing of election coverage?

It just meant we needed to plan better, and then stay on top of execution. I’m sure 95% of early voters know most of whom they’ll vote for, but still, it made us think hard about the timing of our candidate profiles and the deadlines for getting our candidate questionnaires posted online.

You have enlisted civic partners to organize, promote and hold candidate forums this election season in conjunction with the newspaper. You have put yourself front and center as moderator for some forums, and for others you have just discreetly joined the deliberations. How do you explain your approach, and have you faced any problems?

It's part of our job to make sure the best and most accurate information is out there, and that voters have a chance to get to know candidates before they cast ballots. Another reason is that so many “forums” I’ve seen over the years — done by chambers of commerce or other civic groups — are so poorly executed. And I moderate just because it’s hard to find an outside moderator who’ll do it the way I envision. Someone who’s likely to take that role is also likely already engaged in the process, which will make one party or the other not like them.

Here’s an example of the craziness of today's election ecosystem: Chatham County Republican candidates pulled out of two scheduled candidate forums that we're producing because we wouldn't allow their pet videographer — who's denigrated our work since Day 1 and, among other things, encouraged anonymous online attacks on my reporters, all the while being the chief distributor of misinformation and disinformation to his small legion of followers  — to record the proceedings. Anyone but him, we told them; it's him or we take our ball and go home, they said.

After living the life of a publisher who endorsed candidates, you’ve fallen back to what you learned at the knee of your father and grandfather as newspaper publishers. What was their rationale for not endorsing candidates, and is that the same one you use today?

I remember asking my grandfather, probably back in 1987 or ’88, why we didn’t do endorsements. He told me, essentially, that we had more to lose than we had to gain by endorsing local candidates. I saw his point; that’s the reason we, at the CN+R, don’t do them. As a small weekly, there are inherent risks, and we’re in a deeply divided political ecosystem in Chatham County.

Half our potential readers already don’t trust us because of our coverage of things like the removal of our county’s Confederate monument. It’s a different reality now; people assign us motives all the time. They look for bias in every story because that’s what they’ve been told the [news] media do. There’s no basis for their distrust of us; they’ve just been told that repeatedly by people like Donald Trump. For so many people, their truth is not in actual facts but in the regurgitations of a politician they worship.

When we did endorsements (for 18 years straight) at the Herald, it was because I began to realize how little information so many voters use to make their decisions. And when negative campaigning and awful mail hit pieces became too prevalent, I thought we had a responsibility to address that head-on. The forums and endorsements were the best way to do that.

We picked some bad horses along the way, but I kept a running spreadsheet over the years: we picked candidates nearly equally from both parties, and more than 80% of those we endorsed won.

But the alienation factor today is driving more and more papers away from endorsements. I think it’s unfortunate, but I understand.

For other rural newspaper publishers, winding down coverage now and looking ahead to covering future elections, what are three things they should keep on the top of their minds?

1. Give every candidate a voice and an opportunity to share their story and their platform, and make it easy for readers to access that.

2, Be extra diligent about the words you choose when writing stories. Politicians (and now many readers) look for bias; don’t make it easy for them to accuse you of it. Not saying I’d make this a hard-and-fast rule, but we even count words on candidate profiles and work to make their formats similar.

3. Be prepared to get skewered on social media anyway. Election season is a great chance for journalists to practice stoicism.

A revenue-raising tale of two rural community newspapers, as told at the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America

This is the sixth in a series of Q&A insights as part of a “participatory case study” of the Chatham News+Record in Chatham County, North Carolina.

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

What a difference 15 years can make, even though the setting remained the same—a rural place founded two centuries earlier.

Just ask Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the main force behind the second National Summit on Journalism in Rural America. He organized the first summit in 2007.

Cross posed a provocative question—“How do rural communities sustain local journalism that supports local democracy?”—that inspired two days of deliberations by 30 or so current or retired journalists, scholars and journalism supporters.

The summit, held June 3 and 4, returned to a place not only rural but also historical: the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

From 1805 to 1910, when the third largest Shaker community in the U.S. made the village its home the Industrial Revolution helped newspapers to revolutionize the way people received news, in print.

At a midpoint of the Shaker experiment in Kentucky, or 1850, America registered 2,526 newspapers, mostly weeklies, with a total circulation of half a billion, with a population of only 23 million.

Today, although the U.S. has about 7,000 newspapers, with more than 80 percent of them weeklies, those kinds of circulation numbers have long disappeared. According to a Pew Research Center study, the circulation of weekday newspapers in 2020, both print and digital, was 24.3 million and for Sunday newspapers it was 25.8 million, down 6 percent from the previous year.

The Shaker period saw the debut of The New York Times (1851), The Washington Post (1877), the Los Angeles Times (1881) and The Wall Street Journal (1889).

Eleven years before the Journal’s debut, The Chatham Record began publishing weekly in Chatham County, North Carolina. A community newspaper in Keene, New Hampshire, had them all beat to the press punch, with its debut in 1799.

Terry Williams
The Keene Sentinel covered every presidential administration in American history, except for the first one,” said Terrence “Terry” Williams, the Sentinel’s president and chief operating officer.

He joined Bill Horner III, publisher and editor of the Chatham News+Record, for a summit panel discussion. Horner described his paper as a “144-year-old startup.”

Their rural communities—in central North Carolina and southwest New Hampshire —have sustained newspapers for their combined history of 367 years. To support local democracy, the News+Record and the Sentinel continue to provide quality journalism and have won impressive awards to prove it.

Bill Horner III
Editor & Publisher
 magazine recently named Horner to its “Editors Extraordinaire” Class of 2022. Williams’ Keene Sentinel is also an innovator, partnering since 2018 with the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship to invite national thought leaders to an annual "Radically Rural" summit to discuss multiple topics, including community journalism.

Quality, however, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for sustainability. As moderator for the panel discussion that focused on “adapting to change,” I posed this question to Horner and Williams: "How did the change in your minds translate to change in your newspapers that put more change in your pockets?"

Both newspaper leaders engaged their staffs in the Knight-Lenfest Table Stakes program to master “the new essentials of sustainable journalism” as well as the Facebook Membership Accelerator grant program.

They generated ideas for changes in strategy, user experience ("UX"), product development and, mostly, increasing revenues. At the Sentinel, to reduce subscriber churn, staff members write letters thanking subscribers for their support and explaining how the paper published stories to help the community.

Horner and Williams agreed to answer some questions to offer advice to fellow community newspaper publishers on how to raise revenue to achieve sustainability and what to do to make that happen. Here is the Q&A:

Q1: First a few basics: What can you tell us about your rural communities and your newspapers?

BILL: Population of Chatham County: 74,740; 72% white Caucasian; 12% Hispanic, 12% African-American, 4% other; growth patterns and trends: Population up 17% since 2010
Circulation: Print 3,800 (1,600 copies a week in street sales); digital is all print customers plus 1,000 digital-only
Staff size: 10 FTEs; 5 in newsroom plus 30-60 hours/week from part-time photographers
Awards and honors: General Excellence for best website (points for 1st, 2nd or 3rd place) in each of the past three years among small community newspapers from North Carolina Press Association; more news/reporting awards than any other small weekly in N.C. over past three years; just awarded 30 prizes (with more to come during the ceremony, to be held in August) in the 2021-222 contest.

TERRY: Population of Keene 23,000, Cheshire County 76,000; 95% White Caucasian; 2% Hispanic; 1% African-American, 2% other; growth patterns and trends: Population down about 1,000 since 2010
Circulation: Print 3,800, digital 1,800; staff size: 55 FTEs, 17 in newsroom
Awards and honors: New England Newspaper and Press Association
Innovator of the Year: 2015, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021; NENPA Distinguished Newspaper 2019, 2020; News Media Alliance John P. Murray Audience Development Award for mid-sized newspapers.

Q2: What was your biggest realization on the way to righting your newspaper’s ship toward sustainability?
BILL: To recognize we wouldn’t get there with the biggest boost coming from print advertising. And that a legacy print newspaper, to be sustainable in today’s reality (think: modern news ecosystem, driven by equal parts apathy, news fatigue and social media), would have to focus on new revenue streams and be reader-driven.
TERRY: It was the acknowledgment that for us to be successful, we needed the newsroom heavily involved in building reader revenue, generating philanthropic support and crowdfunding. I wouldn't refer to this as a mental pivot, more of an epiphany.

Q3: What was the best idea you had that generated the most revenue with the least work on your part?
BILL: We looked hard at our pricing structure for subscriptions and advertising, and then we put together a plan to raise our rates—particularly subscriber rates. Prior to our ownership, the pricing structure was very low historically. We went from 75 cents to $1 for single-copy, for example, and we got a lot of blowback from some readers and even dealers. But it’s a value proposition: sometimes you support the value of your work with higher pricing. In addition, the only two subscription options were to pay by cash or check for either six months or 12 months in advance. (No monthly options; no credit cards.) We certainly added expenses and made the paper better. So we simplified rates and raised them. Some short-term pain, but long-term it was easy and good for us.
TERRY: Requiring six-month commitments and recurring credit-card payments for all new subscription starts that are part of a discount or gift program (pretty much all of them). This significantly cut churn and increased print and digital reader revenue. Our percentage of these EZ-pay subscribers grew from 30 percent print in 2018 to more than 50% today; and from less than 10 percent online in 2018 to 82% today. Revenue growth that came with the resulting increased retention rate has been significant.

Q4: What partnership has been the most lucrative or profitable?
BILL: We work hard to promote nonprofits in town and help them reach larger audiences, and one of them—our Council on Aging, which is really a county department but mostly funded privately—loved what we did. The executive director used two Covid-19 grants to give us $10,000 to provide subscriptions to senior citizens they serve who didn’t subscribe. We also got $18,000 in financial support from Mountaire Farms, a poultry processing company with Spanish-speaking employees, for our La Voz project to bring a Spanish-language publication, La Voz de Chatham (Voice of Chatham), to the community.
TERRY: Our partnership with the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship led to the launch of Radically Rural, which provided the foundation for a track on community journalism. We have always felt that the most sustainable communities need sustainable news organizations. The journalism track of Radically Rural focuses on helping small news organizations better succeed. The overall event features tracks in 1) entrepreneurship, 2) downtowns, 3) land and community, 4) arts and culture, 5) clean energy, 6) healthcare and 7) community journalism. It has been profitable for both partners and a boost to the local community. We have won numerous regional and national awards for Radically Rural, including third place for Virtual Events from theLocal Media Association in 2020. Feel free to join us Sept. 21 and 22, 2022, either virtually or in person.

Q5: What was that one great idea to increase revenues that ended up costing you money?
BILL: We partnered with a new vendor on a digital project that ultimately (we hope) is going to pay big dividends, but it’s been very slow out of the box for a variety of reasons; ultimately it’ll be a plus for us. We also partnered with another vendor, Second Street, which is used (successfully, I might add) by some newspapers I know. We just never got things going with them for a variety of reasons, mostly on our end; it was a complete bust for us and a few thousand dollars wasted.
TERRY: We launched a new magazine out of market, hunting for new revenue. The focus was on buying local and supporting local business. It did well and turned profitable in year three. Then, disaster: our sales manager was diagnosed with breast cancer and passed away, Covid-19 crushed the local retail market and, after a one-year hiatus and a survey of advertisers, it was clear we could not regain momentum, so we closed the publication.

Q6: Now that you’ve gotten to know each other, what’s the best idea you plan to steal from your new friend?
BILL: I took more notes while I was up on stage during Terry’s presentation than for any other presentation I saw! I particularly like the direct personal appeals he and his staff do by email to readers and contacts; we have already built a plan to replicate that. And I loved his Community Impact Report. What a great way to tell your own story and demonstrate your value to your audience.
TERRY: Bill’s team produces a handsome, helpful community resource guide (Chatham 411) that is heavily supported by advertising. We are looking at producing something similar for our market, and Chatham News+Record’s product is an excellent model for us. It’s very well done.

As industry looks grim, N.C. weekly seeks audience development manager who will also be managing editor, gives readers local insights about Ukraine

This is the fifth in a series of Q&A insights as part of a “participatory case study” of the Chatham News + Record in Chatham County, North Carolina.

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

“When it’s grim, be the Grim Reaper and go get it.”

With 13 seconds left in an AFC Divisional Round playoff game, that was the advice Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid gave his quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. The results turned into an NFL classic: success for the Chiefs and heartbreak for the Buffalo Bills.

For Chiefs fan Bill Horner III, publisher and editor of the Chatham (N.C.) News + Record, things look grim for community newspapers almost everywhere. Rather than buckle, he has decided to go get it.

Since November 2018 when Horner and two partners bought two failing newspapers, The News and The Record, and merged them, Horner has slowly developed a successful formula by trial and error to increase revenues, navigate staff turnover, counter lingering pandemic effects on the bottom line—and manage stress that can be so debilitating.

One unique aspect of this formula is taking a global outlook to coverage. Where else are you going to find a community newspaper offering insights on Russia, Ukraine, China, Afghanistan, Mexico and Latin America?

In his latest show of confidence to make the world his oyster, Horner has posted a new full-time job, audience development manager, a newly createdposition to serve as both a managing editor to help him balance his newsroom workload and an extra pair of hands to advance initiatives to increase subscriptions, both print and digital, and other revenues.

Over the last three years and four months, Horner’s newspaper has made its mark for quality, winning both print and online honors from the North Carolina Press Association, while he struggled to close a $2,000-a-week gap between expenses and revenue.

On some good weeks, he has whittled that deficit down to zero. The newspaper turned a small profit in January. Now he hopes the new position will help him turn the corner to a sustainable profitability as he gains the time to implement money-making ideas and audience-funneling ideas from his training sessions with the Knight-Lenfest Table Stakes program and the Membership Accelerator of the Facebook Journalism Project. 

Horner took a break to answer some questions in the hopes his experiences might help and inspire other community newspaper publishers.

Bill Horner III and wife, Lee Ann, during their cruise
Question 1: I know we have a lot of important issues to discuss, but I just can’t get over this first question: How on earth did you put out a week’s edition while on a cruise in the Caribbean?

Answer: Well, it's not like I did it by myself! But we're a small staff and there are certain things that only I do. Since we work off servers, anywhere there's internet, I can work. The good part of that is I can communicate with the newsroom and our designers, proof copy, proof pages and approve pages from anywhere.

I've done it from a coffee shop while on mission trips to Odessa, Ukraine; while on vacation in the mountains of North Carolina and Colorado; and while visiting the Florida coast and the Kansas prairie—and even from a few different ships.

The bad part of that is that I really can't take a "real" vacation on those production days. For me, that’s Sunday through Tuesday. But if you are used to having a working vacation, putting out a newspaper from a secluded deck on a cruise ship isn't a bad place to do it. I even got myself a piña colada (virgin, of course) while processing copy that Monday.

In Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, there’s Habit No. 7: "Sharpen the saw," which means having a balanced program for self-renewal. Managing stress is an essential talent for a community newspaper publisher.

While I’m not on vacation, I still keep Covey's "Sharpen the saw" in mind. I find ways to do that during the week, making Wednesday my "recovery day." It doesn't always work out — it's a Wednesday now as I write this, it's 6:30 in the evening and I'm still working, going since about 7 this morning.

But I'm on my screened-in porch, with the fireplace going, and I took the dog on two long walks today. So it's not horrible. And I try to make time to read every day, something for self-development or whatever other book I'm into. That helps, too.

Question 2: Congratulations on getting to the point of posting the new job of audience development manager. How did that come about?

My partners are well aware of the workload I carry. Each of them carries a heavy load in their other businesses. And they know it’s been hard for me to find the time to implement all of the ideas from the Knight-Lenfest Table Stakes and Facebook Accelerator programs, particularly since half my week is devoted to production.

We have formal catch-up meetings monthly, and recently one of them asked: “What would it take to get you some help?” They know I didn’t replace a managing editor position that came open almost two years ago, so that’s where the discussion went.

We have plans to raise revenues from a membership program, to introduce a series of new newsletters to attract more readers and subscribers, to create “What’s Next, Chatham?” public forums to improve community problem-solving—more good ideas than time to implement them. If we hire the right new person, that can be a game changer for us. The longer we wait, the more likely our windows of opportunity will close.

Here’s a little story to help you see what we’re up against: I was at a Monday night school board meeting and the local blogger—every town has one—came up to our photographer and me. He has a couple of online sites, a couple of Facebook pages and an email “newsletter” (it’s really more like a bulletin board), but he only covers about a third of the county. Still, he considers himself a real news organization, although 96 percent of what he puts out and shares comes from other online sources. Only about 4 percent, if that, is original.

He was passing out little notecards promoting his sites. When he got to me, he said, “Oh, you’re the competition.” The hard part is that to some people in our market, we’re no different than him. But what we do, in the eyes of anyone who knows what journalism is, is day-and-night different.

Question No. 3: I’m impressed with the international coverage in your newspaper, something that makes your weekly unique. I also know the Ukraine issue is personal for you. How did you decide to bring that crisis home to your readers?

We throw around the term “hyper-local” a lot in our industry. But I like to think about news and reporting in terms of relevance and whether an article is worth a reader’s time to be engaged with a topic. Obviously Ukraine is a long way from Chatham County, but the Russia story is really relevant to all of us, whether we realize it or not. And it’s news, and we’re a newspaper, so we’re going to find the local angle. 

We have a former ambassador and diplomat in our market, Bob Pearson, who retired with his wife, Maggie, to Chatham County. Maggie is also a retired diplomat. They’re very active in Chatham and still so in tune with what’s happening in Europe. They shared a byline on a story they wrote for us in September after the Afghanistan withdrawal last year.

I also have a good friend, Maia Mikhaluk, who with her husband is on the front lines in Ukraine. Their hometown is in the capital city of Kyiv. I’ve been to Ukraine four times on mission trips. I know these incredible people who have such a history of suffering. The connection is International Partnerships, a ministry with a team of full-time faith leaders based in Boone, N.C., about 140 miles west of our Siler City newspaper office.

So as I read more and more about Putin’s moves toward invasion, I thought: Let’s leverage those connections to share insights with the people of Chatham County about why we should care about what’s happening in Ukraine. I reached out to both Maia and Bob, and they happily did the work. Bob’s commentary was strong, and Maia, an incredible photographer, really added something to her package with her pictures.

Then you, Buck, picked up on a quote from Maia’s article—“Like most Ukrainians, I am preparing emergency backpacks and marking on our Google maps the bomb shelters closest to my home and office”—and leveraged your contacts in Russia to write an exceptional piece from the perspective of Russian journalists covering the story.

After the invasion, Maia wrote a follow-up article about carrying on with life amid the bombings, and I now routinely share her Facebook posts.

I think we would have been remiss not to publish those articles, given the fact that all the writers were so ready and willing to share what they know and what they’ve seen. I don’t know how much traction those stories got, but I firmly believe we had the responsibility to put those articles out there. They’re important and give our readers a unique perspective on a story dominating the news, from White House speeches to our own backyard.

Question 4: You have opened a whole new world in Chatham County with your publication of a Spanish-language newspaper, La Voz de Chatham (Voice of Chatham). What’s the latest progress report on revenue and readers for that project? 

We published three print editions of La Voz de Chatham last year—in April, September and December. The first edition was a broadsheet like our weekly newspaper, then the other two editions were published in a tabloid format, which we found easier to design and mail.

The three publications were supported by a total of $24,000 in sponsorships, plus about $7,000 in ad revenue the last two editions. We are planning a fourth print edition for spring, though La Voz articles appear regularly on our website in English with Spanish translations.

The La Voz de Chatham story started in 2020 with a $30,300 Facebook grant to cover an underserved segment of our community particularly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The grant allowed us to add reporters. Victoria Johnson was a real find. She originally covered stories in our Spanish-speaking community, connecting families and issues from Mexico and Latin America to Chatham County.

Johnson then became the lead writer for La Voz when we folded those kinds of articles into a print Spanish-language publication.

We debuted La Voz de Chatham in April 2021 as an 18-page broadsheet that we mailed to 2,500 Spanish-speaking households in Chatham County. That was made possible in part by a $8,000 sponsorship grant from Chatham Hospital.

We redesigned the publication to make it a tabloid for our second edition, which we published in September. Mountaire Farms, a food processing company specializing in chicken products, was so pleased with our outreach to the underserved community that it gave us $18,000—promised in the spring and paid off in December. The company has several Spanish-speaking employees.

We just had a planning session for our spring edition. Demand for it is high. We’ve doubled our distribution (2,500 to 5,000) and interest in the publication continues to grow. It’s not a money-maker for us yet, but it’s helped us reach new audiences and it’s a momentum-builder.

Question 5: We gave a lecture to a 9 o’clock morning journalism class at Jilin University in China, thanks to Zoom, a 13-hour time difference and an invitation from a former Duke University visiting scholar. What did you learn from that experience?

The reality on the ground in China is that community journalism is dealing with some of the very same challenges we face here: credibility, staffing and profitability. The invitation to speak to the journalism class came from its instructor, Associate Professor Siqi Zhang. I met her when she visited our newspaper office in 2020 while she was a visiting scholar at Duke down the road.

Siqi has published articles in our newspaper; for example, about a Covid-19 art contest and a PPE donation to nursing homes.

We delivered our joint presentation, entitled “The Rise and Fall—and Rise—of Community Newspapers in the U.S.,” at 8 p.m. on Nov. 17, 2021, and—voila—we were speaking live on Zoom to Siqi’s class at 9 a.m. on Nov. 18. It was so much fun.

I’m glad that you were able to write an article about the experience for our newspaper with Siqi’s star student, Duo Yuanyuan. I think the main takeaway for me was journalists just about everywhere—including China—have the same drive to tell stories, provide compelling reporting and find ways to reach readers with the truth. And: hope for the young!

Publisher junks general-interest-newspaper assumptions; aims for audiences, plural; and new sources of revenue

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

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

Simon & Garfunkel’s lament—“nothing but the dead and dying”—may be the haunting anthem for a struggling newspaper industry, but not for Bill Horner III’s town of Siler City (population 8,078) in rural Chatham County, North Carolina.

There the publisher and editor of a feisty community newspaper, the Chatham News + Record, is working to defy the odds, providing a light out of the wilderness for other family-owned or independent journalism enterprises.

Just as Chatham County sees gains in population and median household income, Horner reports increases for average weekly circulation revenue, digital subscriptions and weekly newsletter open rates, though print sales and advertising revenue have remained frustratingly flat.

The paper has partnered with a local coffee roaster.

The paper’s e-newsletter, The Chatham Brew, promotes a special blend of coffee for sale by the same name as part of the paper’s innovative collaboration with a local coffee roaster.

Drink coffee while you read the newspaper? Now you can buy the same brand. Read all about it in the newsletter, which is sent on email three times a week to 3,800 recipients.

Taking the bold move of publishing a spinoff of the newspaper all in Spanish, La Voz de Chatham (The Voice of Chatham), Horner saw his gamble pay off handsomely with seven full-page ads in the 18-page publication.

Mailed directly to 2,500 Spanish-speaking households in the market, the publication gained more than moral support among its new readers. The spinoff project is expected to generate a total of $32,000 in new sponsorship revenue with $24,000 in hand and an additional $8,000 in the works.

The new revenues came mostly is a $16,000 sponsorship from a local chicken processing plant, Mountaire Farms, which employs many Spanish-speaking workers in the community.

Chatham Hospital contributed an $8,000 sponsorship and is entertaining a request for an additional $8,000 to keep the new publication rolling.

Follow-up print editions of La Voz are planned for August, December and April as interest increases.

Learning to unlearn  

Horner is doing a lot of things right. He has received national recognition through a featured webinar for America’s Newspapers and acceptance as one of only 30 publications nationally into a Facebook Membership Accelerator grant program, and an article on the Medill Local News Initiative site.

But they are not always the things he learned from his grandfather, who founded the Sanford Herald, 20 miles south and now chain-owned, in 1930. In fact, Horner has developed a new skill for a new age: learning to unlearn habits of general-interest newspapering.

Coaching on alternate ways of thinking from the Facebook training program and Table Stakes, a Knight Foundation and Lenfest Institute initiative, brought Horner to the brink of despair.

So did the realization that the strategy “build it and they will come” has largely fizzled for him and his two business partners in the last two and a half years since they purchased two money-losing weekly newspapers, the Chatham News and the Chatham Record.

Horner’s goal in Table Stakes is to fill a $100,000 annual revenue gap in loss of advertising that he attributes to multiple factors: the pandemic, a come-and-go ad sales staff, and national trends.

Shifting from subscriptions to memberships with varying benefits levels, launching a parenting newsletter, and gaining sponsorships for a video newscast are among the future revenue-generating ideas.

It’s a gamble, for sure, and one as great as trying pull Chatham County officials and citizens together for the public good.

Google map, adapted
When Horner explores the various potential audiences for his newspaper, he sees a county split more ways than a roulette wheel with several divisions: political (Trump flags in the west and BLM signs in the east), socioeconomic (very rich and very poor) and racial (12.7% black, 12.5% Hispanic).

These are the times that try a community newspaper publisher’s soul. To share some common sense, Horner agreed to take a break for an interview.

He hopes his hard-fought epiphanies can benefit his journalism colleagues nationally. Here goes the Q&A:

You got hit from both sides—Table Stakes and Facebook—with the coaching advice that “the general-interest newspaper is dead.” That stung pretty hard. How did you get back on your feet?

With lots of conversations on this topic with friends and colleagues in the industry who are succeeding. The feedback I got was everything from, “That’s ridiculous—just ignore that!” to “Well, as much as I hate to admit it, there’s a lot of truth to that.” Ultimately most all of us agreed that you have to produce a product that has specific appeal to your potential audiences because there’s so much competition for attention, especially in the digital sphere.

Table Stakes emphasizes the “s” at the end of “audiences” and talks about “growing the audience funnel.” That means moving readers from wide but shallow interest down the funnel to loyal, paying customers.

To create more customers like that demands a strategic approach, not the traditional general-interest, scattershot product. Getting from “A” to “B” requires deep thinking about your audiences. The noise of the digital landscape is so loud that if you don’t, you’ll get pushed aside.

We all have to think really, really hard about what we’re doing, what we’re publishing for. If we’re not out there trying to solve a specific problem for our readers, then why are we working so hard?

You’re now most of the way through the year-long Table Stakes program, facing a final presentation in September on meeting your goals. What would you say are your top three lessons learned at this point?

It’s hard to narrow it down to just three, but I’d say:

A. You have to be audience-driven. The days of our front pages setting the news agenda, and assuming the audience would take cues from us, are long gone.

B. You need to go to where your audiences are. You can’t expect them to come to you. Meet them where they are. That’s the only way connection and engagement are created. I think our Spanish-language newspaper is the best example of that.

C. You need to explore diversifying ways to grow revenue. That’s more obvious than ever. There aren’t silver bullets, but there are ways you can test and innovate to create a value proposition to your readers and advertisers.

I think our collaboration with a local coffee roaster to create The Chatham Brew blend is a good example. We spent $600 to buy at a wholesale price bags of coffee we’re offering as gifts to entice new subscribers. That way we can support a local business, add value to our new readers and bring a smile to our e-newsletter readers who see the promotion.

Your Facebook Membership Accelerator grant lived up to the warning: “Beware of gifts that eat.” You devoted one full workday a week with staff to Zoom coaching sessions in a 12-week program. Now that the sessions are complete, how did it go, what have you learned and how will you spend the grant money?

Since the program began, our weekly digital subscriber revenue grew to $1,600 a week from $1,100, so that was a real “win” for us.

Each of the news organizations in my cohort of 30 publications is getting $50,000. We had to create a budget on how we would spend the money, and most of it will go to vendors to help us work more profitably.

The new vendors will include BlueLena, designed to convert anonymous website visitors to registered customers and support audience growth, engagement and monetization; Second Street, which will help us manage contests and collect and manage email databases; The Newspaper Manager, software to improve ad sales; and Pico and Stripe (through BlueLena), which will help us accept and send payments more efficiently.

For the Facebook training, we were split into two groups — larger and smaller news organizations—and we were in the smaller organization group.

There weren’t many legacy print organizations like ours in the program, which surprised me at first. Most were online-only, but all were doing good journalism and were focused and driven.

The Accelerator program has really reinforced what we’ve talked about in Table Stakes about the audience funnel, but it’s much more focused on things like being agile, moving audiences into the funnel and creating a great UX (user experience). So much good stuff through this program. But one thing that stands out is taking a critical look inward, at everything we do, and tossing aside old assumptions.

One of the things we said in our final presentation is that just because you build it, that doesn’t mean they’ll come to you. And “they” isn’t one single unified “audience.” We now have the tools at our disposal to determine how to reach and connect to and engage with our existing audiences and potential audiences to drive loyalty.

We already do great journalism and outreach. Our e-newsletter, for example, was named the best for North Carolina community newspapers the last two years. That in itself is not enough. We have to do “the other things” to deliver quality to our market in a way that creates strategic engagement, which leads to sustainability.

The “backlog” we’ve created in Accelerator — the list of things we want to do, to do differently, to test, to experiment with — is pretty long. It involves looking hard at social media platforms, testing a video news program, adding a new podcast and so much more. We don’t know what’s going to work best — that’s why we test — but we know that if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, sustainability will be out of reach.

You’ve seen average weekly circulation revenue grow and e-newsletter open rates skyrocket. To what do you owe this success?

Well, I think we have a stellar product, first of all. But I think the bulk of that growth is because we’ve focused on it and are measuring it. As the old management expression goes, “What gets measured gets done.” You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

We’re asking people to read us, to subscribe, to check out our newsletters. We are no longer just casting fishing lines and hoping for the best. We’re now more purposeful, making direct asks.

Also we’re paying more attention to how to measure our impact. We now can say our weekly e-newsletter reaches 3,800 readers, up from 2,100, because we updated our email list by adding registered website users. Our goals are to increase print newspaper sales by 25 percent, to 2,002 from 1,601, and digital subscribers by the same percentage of increase to 3,351 from 2,681. But we’re not there yet. Most of our print circulation is street sales from convenience store purchases.

One of the most common questions from participants in an America’s Newspapers webinar dealt with the differences between subscriptions and memberships, particularly the benefits from a membership. How did you explain that to other owners of family-owned or independent newspapers?

A subscription to the News + Record, whether it be print or digital, has a set cost. For us, it’s $52/year for print plus digital. We have so many people in our market who have the capacity and desire to support us financially with more than just a subscription. Creating a membership program, with benefits, allows us to tap into their desire to support good journalism in various other ways and with a higher level of financial support.

We are planning to roll out a membership program at different prices for individuals as well as companies and organizations as a result of our Table Stakes coaching.

We can provide added value, for example, through events that share expertise and provide networking opportunities. We saw success with holding events before the pandemic, and now that Chatham County is opening up more and more, we will be able to get back on track with that strategy.

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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