Pilot Group Has Made the Most of 2010
I 've always believed that you can find the most profound thoughts in the sports pages of the newspaper.
That happened to me a couple of weeks ago. While preparing for this annual letter to you, Dear Reader, I happened to read a profile of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.
The Wizard of Westwood is credited with coming up with this gem that applies to your personal lives as well as your newspaper company's year: "Things work out for the best for those who make the best of the way things work out."
That's exactly what we tried to do here on West Pennsylvania Avenue.
Rather than bemoan the effects of the Great Recession and the less-than-robust recovery, we decided tomake the best of it, invest in our community and improve our products this year. We think the best antidote for the recessionary flu is a hearty soup - not watered-down broth.
To that end, we upgraded the quality of the printing and doubled the amount of color pages in The Pilot, added a great new business section, expanded the number of pages in PineStraw magazine and offered it in a broader size, redesigned our website with reader interaction as the key component, and preserved the community treasure that is The Country Bookshop by acquiring it.
Most local and national media companies have hunkered down for the last couple of years. They are well on their way toward committing the cardinal sin of any media organization: irrelevance. Your hard-working crew is determined to remain relevant to the wonderful community we're so fortunate to serve by offering a vibrant and vital newspaper, magazine, phone book, website - and now bookstore.
We think that counterintuitive approach paid off for us with an ever-so-slight improvement in your company's financial performance this year. Going up against the weak comparable of 2009, we will post a small gain in revenues of 2 percent.
We had hoped to do a little better than that, but we're grateful for any improvement to the top and bottom lines - particularly since most local and national media companies are reporting continued declines in their revenues, resulting in the implementation of draconian expense controls to balance their budgets.
We have avoided those drastic measures in large part because we have no debt. We think our revenue growth is a testament to the sophistication of our community and our decade-long strategy of diversifying our product lines.
We want to build you a better newspaper - one of America's best, in fact. To make that happen, we needed to make a difficult decision. So we decided in July to shut down our printing facility here in downtown Southern Pines and arrange to have the paper printed in Raleigh at The News & Observer. Because of that, we said goodbye to a dozen trusted colleagues, many of whom had worked here for years.
While it was a painful choice, that move has enabled us to deliver to this special community a superior product. One that's teeming with color-filled pages, and printed with instantly drying water-based ink that doesn't rub off on your hands, clothes or furniture.
Editor Steve Bouser, Circulation Director Darlene Stark and Ad Director Pat Taylor did a bang-up job managing this vital transition with minimal problems for our readers, advertisers and staff. As part of this transition, we added color to the front of all four sections in each of our three weekly editions. Two-thirds of The Pilot's pages now appear in full color.
In the future, we think every page will have color. We live in a colorful world, and your newspaper should reflect that. However, that improvement will come at a price for the advertiser as well as the reader, and it won't come that quickly.
It is because of the press configurations involved in the switch to Raleigh that we were able to initiate our weekly business section, featuring the able reporting of veteran Sandhills business writer Ted Natt. So far, we have received nothing but positive reviews.
We'll be selling our printing press. Once we do, we'll be seeking a creative new use for our 8,000-square-foot pressroom. One staffer has semi-seriously suggested a piano bar, another a micro-brewery, and a third a concert venue. We will entertain any other ideas y'all might suggest.
Next year, we will continue to improve what many folks believe to be the finest opinion section of any newspaper in North Carolina. We'll do that by adding even more voices from all points across the political spectrum to the editorial columns and offering more locally produced cartoons.
We continued our trend of superior customer service this year. I've always believed that wet papers, missed deliveries or papers delivered through vacations irritate readers much more than any strongly worded editorial. So we have invested heavily in recruiting, retaining and training our 34 carriers. Through November, we have posted a service record of .29 complaints per thousand deliveries - only two errors per edition on average.
That service excellence, coupled with our product improvements, has helped us grow our home-delivered circulation this year. I don't know of many newspapers able to make that claim. Unfortunately, our single-copy sales have dropped off. It's our belief that some occasional readers have migrated to our website.
We have a vigorous continuing debate internally about how to address that trend. One solution is to charge for access to the news on our website. I'm not convinced that's the way to go. But as more and more newspapers go to a paid Web model, we'll give it increasing scrutiny.
Our website, thepilot.com, has allowed us to stay current on news between printed editions and gives us much more flexibility to tell the community's stories in several different media, many times simultaneously.
As we have learned how to harness this technology, we have posted some impressive numbers. Through November, we have averaged nearly 290,000 visits per month, and those people viewed on average 1.1 million pages monthly. That's a 50 percent increase in visits and 33 percent increase in page views. Correspondingly, we have grown our website advertising revenues by 32 percent.
We attribute that growth to the redesign of your website, www.thepilot.com, which we unveiled last January. The new, eye-catching look features more photo slide shows, blogs and videos. The most important design element, though, is reader interactivity. For the first time, we allowed the community to comment on every letter, column, news story and editorial. And comment you have. To date, we have registered 6,300 users, and those folks have posted more than 25,000 comments.
While we've had some issues with a few overly rambunctious commenters who have behaved badly, we have dealt with them swiftly and are pleased with this new forum for civic debate. We want the website to become the community's town square, and we're encouraged that we're well on our way to achieving that goal. Our hope for the New Year is that this civic debate will become more civil, however.
Your site was honored by Editor & Publisher magazine, the Bible of the newspaper industry, as one of the top three community newspaper websites in America. We entered the Eppy Awards on a lark and were shocked to reach the finals. While we didn't win it all, we're heartened by all of the positive feedback we've received from the community.
We plan to launch an exciting new feature to our website in the coming weeks: an online coupon program. You will be able to log onto the website and purchase a gift certificate for goods and services from local retailers for half price.
Your magazine division has gained quite a bit of traction and expanded significantly during the past 12 months. The hugely popular PineStraw magazine, which is edited by best-selling author and Pilot essayist Jim Dodson and art-directed by the creative Andie Rose, really came into its own this year.
The magazine format allows us to tell the community's stories in a compelling and dynamic way. Your staff's affection and enthusiasm for the community is obvious with every edition. Those traits have created a very strong bond with our readership and advertisers that will only grow stronger in the coming years.
In July, we changed printers, redesigned the magazine, increased the number of pages and made the book significantly wider. Those changes propelled the growth of this sophisticated product. The magazine, which has nearly doubled its advertising revenues in the past year, is such high demand that our circulation staff can't keep it in the racks, and we frequently run out of copies by the 10th day of the month.
To keep pace with this impressive demand, we plan starting immediately to increase our circulation by another 15 percent to 15,000 copies every month. That's welcome news to our advertisers, who can use the extra market penetration, as well as readers who don't grab a copy quickly enough.
We successfully launched your first spin-off publication this fall: PineStraw's Home & Garden, or PHG as we've taken to calling it. This new magazine was based on the popular "Story of a House" feature in every edition of PineStraw. In the coming year, we will expand again to produce a spring and a fall edition of PHG.
Just as PineStraw has become "the art and soul of the Sandhills," we want The Country Bookshop to become the community's cultural hub. The 57-year-old bookstore located in the heart of downtown Southern Pines is a community institution in its own right. We plan to pay homage to that long history. In fact, we hope to enhance and expand on that foundation in 2011.
While there will be change, it won't be quick and it won't be drastic. In the coming months, we expect some minor renovations to allow for open space, seating and, of course, more books. We plan to expand the inventory by about 33 percent to include authoritative sections on military, golf and equestrian literature.
We're well down the path of rejuvenating the shop's website, which will feature the ability to purchase printed editions as well as e-books. That work should take another couple of months to complete.
We were pleasantly surprised at the enormous turnout for our raffle on Christmas Eve. The store can hold 75 people, and more than 250 folks showed up, causing us to conduct the drawing on the sidewalk. What a testament to the importance of the bookstore to the community and the effectiveness of The Pilot's advertising.
By following Coach Wooden's admonition to make the best of any situation, your newspaper company has scratched out a good year. Thank you for all you do to support us.
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