DAVID WORONOFF: Not a Bad Year -- Knock Wood
Every time I pick up The Wall Street Journal or turn on CNN, it seems there is another worrying update on the impending demise of the American newspaper industry.
All of that media coverage has prompted plenty of folks around town to ask me how business is faring at The Pilot. My typical reply, given with tongue only partly inserted in cheek, is that since we didn't participate in the boom that the metropolitan daily newspapers enjoyed during the go-go Nineties, we're hoping we can also sit out the worst of the bust.
We can always do better. But we're cautiously encouraged by the company's performance this year, and we're knocking on wood and keeping our fingers crossed as we head into 2009.
Since we have an optimistic story to share, I'm grateful that Editor Steve Bouser asked me several years ago to start this tradition of writing to our readers in the year's first edition regarding The Pilot's operations and hopes for the New Year.
The cynic in me suspects that Steve is motivated more by a wish to fill space on a traditionally slow news day than eager to have me enlighten our readers on how things are doing here on our stretch of West Pennsylvania Avenue.
In a nutshell, circulation and advertising revenues have increased -- albeit ever so slightly -- from last year. This comes at a time when most newspapers I know about have been posting double-digit declines in both categories.
So I can categorize 2008 as a good year for us. And I'm convinced that our community's -- and likewise, your newspaper company's -- best days are ahead of us.
At the same time, the economic recession has forced us, like everyone else, to take a hard look at some aspects of our operation and make some difficult yet prudent decisions. More about those a little further down.
The Pilot's core purpose remains the same: to serve this Eden in the Pines by producing a top-notch all-local product. I'm proud of our performance this year, which has been as much a testament to the vibrancy and vitality of this special community as it is a reflection on the management of your newspaper.
Earlier this year, one prestigious trade organization, the Inland Press Association, named The Pilot as the best nondaily newspaper in America.
It's the second time we've earned this coveted designation in the past six years. While your 70 hard-working staffers care much more about what our readers have to say about our work, it's nice to field kudos like this from our ink-stained peers.
Our relentlessly local style of journalism continues to pay other dividends for us. A few weeks ago, we completed our first readership survey in more than a decade. The results were gratifying. An astonishing 40 percent of the sample group responded, which is about twice the national average. Also, we learned that nearly eight out of 10 adults in Moore County read this newspaper in the previous week. Those two statistics are important measures of the community's engagement with the paper.
We pride ourselves on being a forum for civic debate. Even though I wish that debate were more civil, we've fulfilled that mission. In doing that, we have created a marketplace where our local merchants can sell their products and services.
As long as newspapers continue to bring buyers and sellers together at a fair price, we happen to believe they will both thrive and prosper -- allowing us to say, in the words of Mark Twain, that the reports of our death are "greatly exaggerated."
This summer I was fortunate to attend a weeklong seminar at the U.S. Army War College. One of the important lessons the professors conveyed was the need to analyze problems from different perspectives. "If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail," professor after professor reminded us.
I realized that we at The Pilot had been unconsciously competent in pursuing that strategy of diversifying our operations over the past 10 years.
When we decided to launch PineStraw, your monthly arts and entertainment publication, as a glossy magazine this summer, we utilized those lessons. We also employed that timeless coaching gem of playing to your strengths. How many publications in this great country can boast a magazine editor -- in your case, Jim Dodson -- who has written several best-selling books and earned numerous national journalism awards? With Jim's masterful storytelling and Creative Director Andie Stuart Rose's thoughtful and innovative designs, PineStraw has found a devoted and rapidly growing readership.
To wit, PineStraw increased its circulation 25 percent to 10,000 copies and regularly goes through all of those copies by the third week of the month. Our goal with the glossy format is to tell your community's stories in a different medium, with passion and literary insight, as well as to provide our advertising customers with a great new avenue for marketing their products and services. So far, we have received rave reviews from readers and advertisers.
Incidentally, Jim's latest book, "A Son of the Game," will be published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill later this spring. It's a wonderfully written tribute to our community and really captures the essence of life here in the Sandhills. My hope is that it will do for our community what "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" did for Savannah, even though we don't have any cross-dressing cabaret singers.
We will be working with the good folks at the Country Bookshop and Pinehurst Resort to launch Jim's book properly. With your help, we will help get Jim his fourth bestseller.
The Moore County Telephone Directory posted another solid year. This was the first campaign for us without Marianna Logan, who passed away late last year after managing your directory division with aplomb for most of its 10 years of existence.
In her first management assignment, General Manager Kit McKinley did a bang-up job. Kit and her able crew continued to improve this important aspect of our operation. They published a valuable compendium of local information and posted strong results with growth in the top and bottom lines, which was not an easy feat.
Taking a Hard Look
Now. Let's address some of those "difficult yet prudent decisions" I mentioned above.
Because of the troubling uncertainties we as a country -- and world -- are facing, The Pilot plans to let several vacant positions go unfilled till the economy shows signs of stabilizing. We've also taken a hard look at a couple of subsidiary operations.
Three years ago, we purchased Whistle Stop Press from the West family. We have successfully grown and invested in that operation, but now feel it would better serve our customers if it returned to an owner/operator ownership structure. So we have decided to sell the company to our longtime employee Tim King, who has managed the commercial printing operation for us.
In announcing the sale to Whistle Stop's staff, I quoted the late, great 20th century poet The Who: "Meet the new boss. He's the same as the old boss." Please join me in congratulating Tim on his acquisition. I'm confident he'll do a fine job as the new/old boss.
For the past two years, we have dabbled in the wireless Internet access business. We did manage to create several free wireless Internet hotspots in downtown Southern Pines and Aberdeen, at Sandhills Community College and at the Morganton Road Soccer complex. Unfortunately, that's all we were able to accomplish. The WiMax technology that we hoped to deploy always seemed to be just out of reach and months away.
In the end, it proved to be a lot of work for precious little reward. So we will be shuttering this wireless initiative in the next few weeks.
When I apologized to my four partners, who are always pushing us to try new endeavors, for our failure on this initiative, all four encouraged us to keep trying new things. They employed a baseball analogy: If you hit a home run every time, then you aren't swinging enough. So we'll make sure to keep that bat off our shoulders and take our share of cuts in 2009.
Starting in today's edition, you will notice another addition to our lineup. We will move American Profile magazine from the Sunday paper to Friday. That's to make way for USA Weekend in the Sunday edition. We like both products. They'll give you something extra and add some bulk to the paper.
We've tried to land this popular product for years, but its publishers had refused to place it in nondaily papers until recently. Now it seems the dailies' struggles have opened USA Weekend's eyes to the wonders of community newspapers. Still, it's an honor to begin including this publication in The Pilot. Let us know what you think.
It's difficult to discuss our business without talking about the Internet, which provides us with so many new storytelling tools. Our Web strategy is to do on the Internet what we've been doing in print for the past 90 years: serve this community's information needs.
Our Web site, www.thepilot. com, continues to prosper. This summer, we added a full-time journalist to the site to update it between print editions. Your online editor, Hunter Chase, helped us create a Web-first mentality in the newsroom, which had been print-centric for years. Hunter's good work helped us to grow the site's traffic by 17 percent to 5,700 visitors a day.
In addition to Hunter's breaking news stories, look for us to start employing even more video to the Web site -- commercial as well as editorial. Our goal will be to add a staff videographer by the end of the year.
We're also putting the finishing touches on several new online products: a local search engine, an electronic edition of our weekly real estate guide and a community calendar. We're confident that these initiatives will add value to the community and continue to generate usage of our Web sites. I've always considered the Web the place where all media will converge.
While the grave struggles of our industry have an inevitable impact on The Pilot, we happen to believe we're doing just what we need to do -- serving you, our deeply valued readers. We will continue to do that in 2009.
David Woronoff, publisher of The Pilot, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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