With community newspapers dropping like bad guys in a spaghetti Western, there’s a glimmer of hope in a weekly being transformed deep in the heart of North Carolina.
Chatham County is hotter than a pistol, whether that means a rise in population, median income or traffic jams. The question is whether the fate of its weekly newspaper, the Chatham News + Record, will be so hot.
Welcome to this tale fit for a movie script. Allow me to introduce you to the cast.
Clint Eastwood fans can Google the theme song for the epic 1967 Western “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” as that’s the perfect soundtrack for the grand entrance of our protagonist, Bill Horner III.
After following his father and grandfather as publisher of another North Carolina weekly, Horner came out of semi-retirement like a journalistic gunslinger to clean up two Chatham County towns, which had lackluster money-losing newspapers.
Now 43 years since his first newspaper byline, he girds himself each day for another street fight to find the bounty to keep his enterprise afloat.
In this version of the film, the assassin is the pandemic. Covid-19 robbed the weekly of any momentum since it achieved its first profitable month in February 2020. Before and after, the profit-and-loss sheet turned up snake eyes.
Two other main actors are Horner’s business partners, who made their money in residential and commercial real estate. In November 2018 they purchased and combined the two money-losing newspapers, The News and The Record, to create the Chatham News + Record with a redesigned website.
My role is sidekick. When I got word of this perilous caper, I called: “Bill, you’re doing God’s work. Let me help you any way I can.”
As a journalism professor who was the first to get tenure at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism under a new professional track, I am used to taking chances. Medill’s standard for tenure was straightforward: “make an impact on the industry.”
In 1993 I introduced to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in a report and an instructional video, “The Maestro Concept: A New Approach to Writing and Editing for the Newspaper of the Future.” Nearly 30 years later, I’m experimenting in a newsroom again based on two Maestro principles: teamwork and orchestrating creativity.
This time I’ve expanded Horner’s newsroom team by adding my professional contacts and me. Then I have been orchestrating creativity in coverage, yes, but always with an eye on how to increase revenue, either through grants or sponsorships.
I hope to inspire other journalism professors to get their hands dirty trying to help save community newspapers.
Back at the office, I’m trying to redefine what constitutes public service at a university by conducting “a participatory case study” of a weekly newspaper. I call this experiment Maestro, the Ivory Tower Edition. I hope to inspire other journalism professors to get their hands dirty trying to help save community newspapers.
Over the last 17 months, I published eight articles in the News + Record — commentary, news, even a film review — sketched page designs, drafted grant proposals, helped interns, created a Covid-19 art contest that went viral, brokered the donation of thousands of PPE to nursing homes with a visiting Chinese scholar, advised on reader engagement strategy, and mostly as a confidant served as a Wild West medicine man for the soul. It’s lonely at the top for a publisher and editor.
Horner introduced me to the community on Oct. 25, 2019, in an Editor’s Note attached to my commentary, “From funeral to iPad, a glimmer of hope beams for democracy — and newspapers,” which hailed the Chatham News + Record as a model worthy of a case study to help the industry.
Here’s a quick take on the case study’s results so far:
As the Chatham News + Record enters its third year of new ownership, Horner 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), including prizes in the two major General Excellence categories: Website (first place) and Overall (runner-up).
In the last year to keep his newspaper running, Horner raised more than $37,300 from Facebook and Google grants, added $18,000 from sponsorships and secured $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.
Alas, the cruel reality for community newspapers is that quality is necessary but not sufficient for profitability. Every day is a battle for sustainability.
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.
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 was greased by Covid-related layoffs, salary cuts and the resignation of a managing editor with 22 years’ experience in the newsroom. The churn 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. There’s no better sign of newspapers’ desperate times than this:
Horner, a third-generation newspaperman as former publisher of The Sanford (N.C.) Herald, encouraged his son Zach to get out of the business and take a much higher-paying communications job, with benefits, at the county health department.
Like a juggler in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Horner handled ad sales himself while managing to report, write, edit and oversee production until he found the right advertising director. The process took months of hits and misses.
While ads are designed in the Siler City office, the news pages’ layout and design are handled remotely, and the press run is off-site as well—a logistical challenge that adds to the juggling act.
Nothing like a Confederate monument controversy to turn into an ugly spectacle. But when the newspaper’s photographs turned up images of outsiders rather than recognizable locals, Horner told the troublemakers to get out of Dodge.
“We get it,” Horner began his editorial headlined, “A message to the agitators: When enough is simply enough.”
“You made your point. You came, you did your thing. Now please take your mess somewhere else.”
Then Horner hit them with both barrels:
“And we know who you are. You’re opportunists. You’re angry. You’re soldiers of circumstance. You’re looking for a fight. You live in an agitated world of rabble-rousers, of troublemakers.
“You yell. You curse. Some of you even spit, push, shove, trespass, confront, harangue, insult, threaten, belittle, accuse. You’d like nothing more than to throw an elbow — proverbial or literal — into someone, anyone, who has a different worldview than you.”
The Confederate statue controversy was not Horner’s first or last brush with racism. In 2019 he won a press association award for a two-part news series on Chatham County’s ugly history of lynchings. But no good deed goes unpunished. His newspapers were shown the door from three convenience stores, like a cowpoke thrown through a saloon’s front windows.
More recently, a longtime subscriber made her way to the Siler City newspaper office, pointed to a front-page story celebrating Black History Month and said, “I don’t want to read any of that. Cancel my subscription.”
An article I wrote with a former student at an international high school in China, “Feeling safer back home, UNC’s Chinese students ride a pandemic roller coaster,” solicited this comment when it was posted on the newspaper’s Facebook site:
“We don’t want to hear about Chinese college students. They’re all spies.”
Headed for a Final Roundup
The newspaper once had two offices in the Chatham County towns of Pittsboro (population 4,195) and Siler City (population 8,078), which sit between Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
If you think the competition between those two basketball powerhouses can grow tense, get this: During the lead-up to the November election, Horner’s commute took him from the Trump 2020 signs in nearly every yard in Siler City to the Black Lives Matter signs scattered across Pittsboro.
Chatham County is divided more ways than a roulette wheel: politically, racially, socioeconomically, even linguistically. But Horner is taking a gamble on trying to unite the community.
The last election showed a virtual 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans. According to the last census, Chatham County is 71.6% white, 12.7% African American and 12.5% Hispanic with others accounting for about 3%.
In the southwest quadrant of the county, 98% of students at one elementary school receive free or reduced lunches. In the northeast quadrant, close to Chapel Hill, some of the wealthiest residents in the state have homes that list for $1 million or more.
A $30,300 Facebook Journalism Project grant allowed the News + Record to give voice to a voiceless Latinx community on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their lives and to begin to build trust in an often-neglected segment of readership.
The growth in contacts and story ideas has led to the first Spanish-language edition of the newspaper, which will be mailed to 2,100 Spanish-speaking households in the market. The paper, which will be at least 14 pages, was made possible in part by an $8,000 Chatham Hospital sponsorship. Horner hopes to renew and double that sponsorship in July.
Inspired by my work with the Kettering Foundation, Horner is taking a chance on trying to bring his community together with a series of “What’s Next, Chatham?” deliberative dialogues on the county’s future.
He hopes the forums will coincide with Chatham 250, a 250th anniversary celebration making the county 5 years older than the United States itself.
It’s a gambit as large as his Table Stakes Performance Challenge: closing a $100,000 revenue gap. With Table Stakes, a Knight Foundation-supported initiative, Horner has a posse of change consultants meeting regularly with him and a cohort of print, broadcast and online journalists from five states in a yearlong program.
This is make-or-break time for Horner. The trends for community newspapers are grim.
His individual coach meets weekly with him to set short-term goals around one big idea—transition from subscriptions to a membership program—and other initiatives, including a parenting newsletter. The newspaper now has a metered paywall, set at three free articles before closing.
This is make-or-break time for Horner. The trends for community newspapers are grim.
“The for-profit print business model that sustained local newspapers for two centuries has collapsed,” Medill visiting professor Penny Muse Abernathy said. Over the last 15 years, she said, the country has lost a fourth of its newspapers, or 2,100, and all but 70 of them weeklies.
She said the pandemic has increased the likelihood of communities becoming “news deserts,” where residents have very limited access to critical local news and information.
“To date, the vast majority of communities that have lost newspapers have been struggling economically,” said Abernathy, author of a 2020 report on the state of local news.
But over the last 20 years, the trend lines in Chatham County are the reverse.
Population has grown 56%, to an estimated 77,156 from 49,329, and in that same period, the estimated median household income has risen 59%, to $70,258 from $44,269.
The exciting conclusion to this tale is yet to be written.
Abernathy makes the challenge for Horner clear: “Successful newspapers will adapt and transform their journalistic and business models to meet the changing needs and expectations of residents and businesses in their community. That is the key to long-term profitability and sustainability.”
Either Horner will ride his county’s wave triumphantly into sunnier days with profitability and sustainability, or he’ll get baked in the sun watching his community turn into a news desert.
Maestro, cue the cliffhanger music.