Pilot Marking a Milestone
David Woronoff still has the memo that Tom Bryant sent him in May 1995.
It suggested that he look into buying The Pilot in Southern Pines.
Bryant, who grew up in Moore County, is now The Pilot's advertising director. At the time he wrote the note, he was a regional sales manager for Business North Carolina magazine in Charlotte, which Woronoff's family owned.
Woronoff was director of business development for the magazine.
"I heard on the radio that morning that (Frank Daniels Jr., Woronoff's uncle ) had sold The News & Observer of Raleigh to McClatchy," said Bryant, who happened to be traveling to Moore County that day.
He stopped by The Pilot to see Sam Ragan, the editor and publisher of the paper, and pick up a rate card.
"I knew the area," Bryant says, "and I knew Sam Ragan. I thought it would a great opportunity.
"The market was so good, and I knew the history of how the Daniels family ran a property. I guess the stars and the moon just lined up the day I sent that memo to David. He and Frank got together, and the rest is history -- great history."
The date of the memo was May 22, 1995. It would take Woronoff, who had just turned 30, a year to pull off the deal -- the seeds of which his uncle actually began sowing a decade earlier.
It came to fruition on July 1, 1996. The Pilot had new owners: Daniels, the former publisher of The News & Observer of Raleigh; his son, Frank Daniels III, who had served as executive editor of The N&O; Jack Andrews; who managed The N&O's subsidiary nondaily newspapers; Lee Dirks, who brokered the sale of The N&O to McClatchy, among others; and Woronoff, who became The Pilot's publisher.
In those 10 years, they have overseen the transformation of a small-town newspaper into a multi-faceted information source that continues to grow and evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of the community.
Last week, The Pilot announced the launch of free Internet service for Moore County's "public spaces." The new venture will provide Wireless Fidelity (WiFi) Internet Access. This initiative precedes a subscriber-based high-speed wireless broadband service, which will be launched later in the year. On Saturday, The Pilot debuted its redesigned and improved Web site.
Over the years, The Pilot has started telephone directories, serving Moore and Lee counties, purchased Whistle Stop Press, and started a direct mail operation, Carolina Mailing Solutions.
Along the way, there was a major expansion and renovation in 1997, which included a new press with color capability, a typographical redesign and the addition of a third issue and a Sunday paper.
While the possibilities seemed limitless 10 years ago, no one dreamed so much would happen in just a decade.
"We were just trying to figure out how to get a paper out on that old press," Daniels says. "I knew there was tremendous potential in Moore County. I didn't know how much."
For Woronoff, the timing in 1995 could not have been better.
"Two things happened almost simultaneously" he recalls. "I got this memo from Tom Bryant saying I should buy The Pilot and run it. I wasn't fired up to work for McClatchy. Within two days, there was a two-page Q&A in The Charlotte Observer with Sam Ragan (then editor and publisher of The Pilot). He was a contemporary of my grandfather and was a former executive editor of The N&O."
Woronoff talked his wife, Fredanel, into making an impromptu trip to Southern Pines. They got out the map and discovered that Southern Pines was centrally located to where their parents live, his in Chapel Hill and hers in Shelby.
"She indulged me," Woronoff says. "I was sort of grieving the sale of the paper (N&O). When we got to Moore County, I was hooked. We fell in love with the area, and I loved the feel of the paper."
Woronoff and his wife were both from small towns. (He grew up in Greenville and she in Shelby.) Their daughter, Jenna, was 1 at the time. Daughter Freddie was born a year later, just before the family moved to Southern Pines.
That first visit made quite an impression.
"It was very much spur-of-the- moment," Fredanel says. "We absolutely loved it. I couldn't get over how quaint and charming the area was. I had never been there before. On the way home, we kept asking ourselves, "Can you see us living here?' We both thought it would be a wonderful place to live and raise our children.
"It felt like such a pipe dream to think this would really work out. When it did happen, it almost seemed surreal."
David Woronoff says, "I thought every day about how could I buy The Pilot. I knew my uncle had been interested in buying it."
He went to see his uncle in Raleigh. Daniels had talked with Ragan in the 1980s about whether he would be interested in selling the paper.
"He consistently said he would not sell to a group," Daniels says. "After we sold The N&O, five of us got together. David called him (Ragan) and must have made a good impression on him."
Says Woronoff of his conversation with his uncle about buying The Pilot, "He should have laughed me right out of his office. I was six years out of college. He told me not to get my hopes up."
Woronoff will never forget that first meeting with the tall, white-haired Ragan, who was a literary icon in North Carolina and the state's poet laureate.
"I came to make the sales call of my life," he says. "He reminded me so much of my grandfather. They have such a gentility about them. He probably should have laughed me out of his office as well.
"I struck up a good relationship with him. I called him every week for a year. Sometimes we didn't even talk about his selling the paper. Everybody has a certain built-in sales resistance. I just kept chipping away. I told him that I would work for him and train under him. He would remain editor and publisher. I would be the general manager.
"I really wanted to make this happen. I didn't have any money. But I felt like if I could get the deal, then I could find a way to get the money. We mortgaged everything we had to put up my share. Eventually, Sam warmed to it."
Woronoff even told Ragan that if his second child was a boy he would name him Sam Ragan if that would sweeten the deal. Ragan told Woronoff that was not necessary.
Andrews, who had worked for The News & Observer since 1972 and had known Woronoff since before his college days at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the ownership group. His father and Ragan were friends.
"I felt like I had something to offer," he says. "I knew how Frank worked. You had to spend money to make money. I thought this was a great opportunity. I told him (Woronoff) I would love to be a part of the deal. It has been amazing to see what happened since then. I am very pleased with the way it has gone."
Ragan, who had become seriously ill in 1996, finally accepted an undisclosed offer from Woronoff's group over two other competitive bids in early May 1996. Ragan, who was 80, died two days later.
"We felt like it was fate that brought us here," Woronoff says.
'Dog Caught the Car'
Woronoff, at the ripe age of 31, was thrust into the role of publisher. His wife, Fredanel, had just given birth to their second daughter.
"I was really nervous the day we walked in here and took over," he says. "I'd wanted it (The Pilot) for so long. I felt like the dog who finally caught the car. I thought, 'Now what do I do?'"
"I took great satisfaction that Mr. Ragan selected us. In all of the changes we have made at the paper, I have always wanted to make sure that we didn't disappoint him."
During the six weeks between the day the deal was signed until the closing, Woronoff took a crash course in being a publisher. He spent time at other newspapers. The first stop was in Waynesville. The words on his hotel's marquee hit close to home for him. It read "I wasn't lucky enough to be born here, but God knows I got here as fast as I could."
"That is the way I felt about coming here," Woronoff says. "I was so fired up. I loved it. I still feel that way. I think coming to work is fun. I thank God every day that I get to do it."
Woronoff set a number of short-, mid- and long-term goals. He says he was fortunate to bring in a team of department heads that included Bryant as the advertising manager, Editor Steve Bouser, Circulation Director Dennis Lenart and Production Manager Tim King.
Bryant said he wife, Linda, talked him into accepting Woronoff's offer. He came on board in September 1996.
"I haven't regretted it one moment," he says. "It has been a great ride."
Bryant will retire in October.
Bouser, who became editor in August 1997, had spent his earlier career in daily newspapers and at first had his doubts about coming to a nondaily like The Pilot. But he soon changed his mind.
"Here's a guy who's young enough to be my son," Bouser says, "but I can't tell you how much I've learned from David. He has remarkable vision, and I think we work together very well. I wouldn't trade my nine years here for anything."
Improving the facilities and technology was one of the top priorities for the new team.
"The physical facilities were abysmal," Daniels recalls. "Because of the continued success, we've been able to upgrade the facilities and the technology."
$3 Million Expansion
The Pilot underwent a $3 million expansion and renovation in 1997 that included a new press with color capability. The Pilot expanded into a building next door that once housed such things as a grocery store and a Christmas shop and a hardware store. Ragan had purchased the building a few years earlier.
The staff, which had temporarily moved into the former Town Center Pharmacy building farther out Broad Street, returned to its new, larger home on Pennsylvania Avenue a year later.
One of the biggest feathers in The Pilot's cap came the following year when Pinehurst hosted the 1999 U.S. Open, the biggest event that had ever been staged in Moore County. Woronoff was determined that no one would come here and outdo The Pilot.
During the week of the Open, The Pilot produced a 56-page publication every day for eight days, bringing a talented group of outside writers and photographers, in addition to the then-twice-a-week regular paper.
"That was such a huge thing for us," Woronoff says. "No one thought we could do it. We knew we could. We caught a lot of people by surprise. This is our hometown. We had to do it better than anyone else."
That fall, The Pilot added a third edition, publishing on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. In March 2003, the Monday paper was converted to a Sunday edition.
The Pilot also got into the phone book business, called the Moore County Telephone Directory. It later started a directory for neighboring Lee County.
"That turned out to be a great innovation for us," Woronoff says. "It was a great community service, and it was a good fit for the paper."
During that period, The Pilot launched its Web site. A redesigned and improved Web site debuted Saturday. It will be continuously updated, covering news as it happens.
"It has become, in its own right, one of the community's top news mediums," Woronoff says of the Web site. "It has 5,000 unique visitors every day."
That is the major reason behind the decision to launch the Internet service, which will include a subscriber-based service, he says.
"We're still a newspaper," he says. "That is the engine that drives what we do. But we need to be more than just a newspaper. These ancillary endeavors enhance what we do."
The Pilot also remains committed to being "the source of all your information needs," Woronoff says.
"We want to be that information portal 24/7," he says. "Whether it is knowing what your tax rate will be or the score of a Little League game, we can deliver it.
"We have a dedicated and talented staff. We put out some great products. I still get excited when every edition comes off the press."
Future plans include acquiring other newspapers and starting a magazine.
"I did not have a clue 10 years ago that all of this would happen," Woronoff says. "We have always said we want to be the best newspaper in the country. But what really matters is what the people of Moore County think. By all indications, I think they are satisfied.
"Great communities deserve great newspapers, and we've done everything we can to make The Pilot a reflection of this place we're so glad to call home."
The Pilot is what it is today, Woronoff emphasizes, because of the benevolence of Frank Daniels.
"Most shareholders would have demanded immediate financial returns," he says. "Frank's approach has always been to invest in the community."
Woronoff has invested much of his own time and energy in the community, serving as United Way chairman, Chamber board chairman, board member at Moore Regional Hospital and FirstHealth of the Carolinas, member of the board of N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry, and chairman of the Legislative Commitee of the N.C. Press Association.
He was a founder of Moore County Partners in Progress and recently became chairman of the Boys and Girls Club.
One of The Pilot's biggest supporters and cheerleaders over the years has been Dr. John Dempsey, president of Sandhills Community College. Reached in Scotland, where he has been vacationing for two weeks, Dempsey readily agreed to share his thoughts in an e-mail.
"Can it really have been 10 years since David and his partners bought The Pilot?" he wrote. "Since he now appears to be about 28 years old, I guess that means he was a teenager then. Remarkable.
"Really, though, it was a lucky day for our community when David and his team bought the paper from Sam Ragan. When Sam died, I said we would never see another publisher who was as good as he was at using the local paper to weave together the diverse threads of a vibrant community. I was wrong. David has done exactly that, and he's actually done it even better than Sam.
"Our community is a wonderful place, and a big part of that is The Pilot. I have never seen a newspaper so interested in the success of the community it serves -- and so willing to contribute to that success. Not only is The Pilot supportive of the people and institutions of Moore County, it is perhaps our area's best corporate citizen -- always willing to lend a hand (or make a donation) to a worthy cause.
"I suppose the term 'civic-minded' is a bit old-fashioned, but it fits The Pilot perfectly. In a world where many people (and many media outlets) seem to want to tear things down, it's great to see a paper like The Pilot that seems to wish the best for the people it covers. And the simple truth is that a lot of this is because of David Woronoff. David's personality, his values and his character are all over The Pilot. He and his family have had an enormous -- and an enormously positive -- impact on Moore County."
Charles Frock, CEO of FirstHealth of the Carolinas, says it has been amazing to witness the growth and improvement of The Pilot over the years.
"I think The Pilot has continued to commit itself to community service," he says. "It serves as a wonderful public forum to debate and discuss issues. The Pilot does a great job of keeping the community informed. It is great to see the continued growth and continued response to a growing community."
'Model for the Rest'
A big coup for Woronoff and The Pilot came last year when he convinced award-winning author Jim Dodson not only to be one of the writers for its daily publication during the 2005 U.S. Open in Pinehurst, but also to stick around for a year as The Pilot's writer-in-residence while he was researching his next book. The idea was for him to write a weekly column, which has become a hit.
It has worked so well that Dodson extended it another year.
"When I walked in here the first time, I was charmed by this place," he says. "I knew the paper had this great reputation. I always wanted to be a columnist for a smalltown paper. He came up with the idea. My dad was a newspaper man. David reminded me of a younger version of my Dad. I love what you do here. It is a wonderful paper. It has been such a joy to be a part of it."
The Pilot has won numerous awards, being recognized as one of the best community newspapers in North Carolina and was even named the best in the country by one organization.
"The Pilot consistently ranks as one of the best newspapers in the country, not just among nondailies," says Jock Lauterer, a lecturer for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC Chapel Hill and director of the Carolina Community Media Project. "David Woronoff is the engine that drives the place. He has a perspective on journalism that I hold up as a model. You work hard and have fun. David and The Pilot are emblematic of what I consider enlightened community journalism.
"They took a good newspaper and made it even better. It is a model for the rest. I would put it up against any community newspaper. Moore County is really lucky to have The Pilot."
David Sinclair can be reached at 693-2462 or email@example.com.
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