Exciting Challenges Ahead for The Pilot
Back in the mid-1990s, I was fortunate enough to attend the Young Executive Institute at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School. It proved to be an eye-opening and confidence-building experience.
I was the youngest person in the class by several years, sported the thinnest resume and didn't know a balance sheet from a bedsheet. I was so inexperienced that the admissions folks required that I take a remedial accounting class before I could even walk through those ivy-covered gates.
That was a difficult requirement, but it was well worth the effort. The lessons and insights I picked up have stayed powerfully with me to this day.
My favorite professor was a gruff, hockey-obsessed, former automotive production manager named Ron Panisi who peppered his marketing and leadership lectures with hockey analogies. Panisi loved to tell the story of hockey Hall-of-Famer Wayne Gretsky and what he considered the key to his success. The Great One once told a sports writer, "When I skate, I see patterns forming and I skate to where I think the puck will be, rather than where it is."
As I think about the year we've had, as well as what's to come in 2012 from your hard-working crew here on West Pennsylvania Avenue, Gretsky's gem immediately comes to mind. The Pilot and its related enterprises have skated to where "the puck will be" in 2011. We will continue that strategy this year.
Given the ever-changing media world, that vision is particularly important. We'll make sure to heed Gretsky's admonition as we tackle Job One in the new year: hiring a new editor to succeed the semi-retiring yet indefatigable Steve Bouser.
That won't be easy. Steve's 14-plus years at the helm of The Pilot's newsroom have yielded impressive results. From making your newspaper into one of the best nondailies in America to making certain that your editorial voice continues to be the community's conscience, Steve's steady hand and independent mind have helped create the culture of caring that pervades this special place.
When Steve started here in 1997, he promised to honor the editorial traditions of the late Sam Ragan. He has more than delivered on that pledge.
Recruiting and hiring an editor has become a much more complex game than it used to be. It's hard to believe how easy - and serendipitous - it was to hire Steve. We interviewed only two candidates, and Steve started work less than a month after I first met him. He had the skills to lift the intellectual heft of the newspaper and the confidence to tell the rookie publisher when he was off base, which was often. While I'm too old now to be called a rookie, that hasn't stopped Steve from speaking his mind. Thank goodness for that.
Steve's not short-timing you. He is leaving his post on a high note. Last week, we received preliminary word that the newspaper had won a record number of awards from the North Carolina Press Association's annual contest. (Look for more details in early March.) While that's a highly subjective metric, it's a measure of your newspaper's quality as determined by journalists from outside the state.
While the newspaper is immeasurably better today than how Steve found it all of those years ago, he's the first to say that the newspaper can be - and will be - improved. As we look for a new newsroom leader, we will require that the next editor understand and respect the unique culture of our community and its newspaper. But we don't want him or her to be bound by it. That's because life doesn't tarry with yesterday. It moves forward.
Though we hate to see Steve take a step to the side of the stage, we'll make sure that the newspaper continues to progress. So your new editor will possess an enlightened vision for the future of community journalism and a healthy respect for its traditions. That means an increased and sustained emphasis on digital publishing endeavors - whether that's telling our community's stories on the website or a downloaded app or Facebook. Digital savvy is a must for our new hire.
I'd also like to see a sense of playfulness increased in our pages. Sometimes we can be a little too ponderous and serious. So we'll look for someone who can add a heaping helping of fun and levity to our offerings.
We have a couple of vacant positions in our newsroom that we've left open for the new editor to fill. Late in the year, Steve and I decided to move forward with filling these jobs. That should get us out of the holding-pattern mode we've been operating under and inject even more energy into the newsroom - not to mention lighten the workload on the staff.
The Bottom Line
This past year has been a rough time for our society. Many retailers and other service businesses have felt the full intensity of our times. Your newspaper has not been immune to this challenging economy. But we're positioned well for the year - make that years - ahead.
On an adjusted basis, your newspaper company's revenues remained even, which is uncommon for the publishing industry. Most newspapers have experienced double-digit declines in revenue and cash flow. Fortunately, the austerity measures we implemented last year have paid off and allowed us to post an improved bottom line.
Because we don't have any debt and enjoy enlightened ownership, we invested those increased profits into resuscitating The Country Bookshop, which we purchased in 2010, and creating O.Henry magazine in Greensboro. Those two investments - plus an inspired performance by the staff of The Moore County Telephone Directory - grew revenues by 10 percent. Unfortunately, they also increased expenses by a similar amount.
We're confident that in the future, these businesses will pay dividends for the newspaper and the community.
The last time that I wrote to you, Dear Reader, was last summer to say goodbye to our beloved printing press, which we no longer needed since we had begun contracting to have our paper printed in Raleigh. We've grieved the loss of our old friend long enough. Job Two this year will be to put the pressroom to some other - exciting - new use.
We've entertained a couple of ideas but decided they weren't in keeping with the downtown's best interest. So we have 8,000 square feet of commercial space smack in the middle of downtown that's still available. We're confident that someone in town will come up with an innovative idea for this facility that can benefit the community and complement your publishing company.
While the benefits of our printing relationship with The News & Observer are many (starting with the no-rub ink and ending with the pages upon pages of full color), the downside is that we lose some control. As a cost-cutting measure, The N&O is going to a slightly narrower page width sometime this spring. That means we will have to convert to the same page dimension as well. We will work to minimize the impact of this change and will keep you apprised on the timing of this move.
The magazine division, anchored by the ever-popular PineStraw, continues to grow in circulation and revenues. Editor Jim Dodson and Creative Director Andie Rose have created a readers' magazine that boasts a relentlessly positive narrative with a dynamic storytelling style.
This publication, which won four GAMMA Awards from the Magazine Association of the Southeast last spring, has struck a chord with the community. One of our circulation staffers, Tonnie Player, joked that she should get hazard pay for delivering PineStraw. While on her rounds, she reports that she's practically knocked over by excited readers wanting to pick up the latest edition. We routinely run out of the magazine's 15,000 copies by the third week of the month.
O.Henry magazine of Greensboro, our latest creation, has been well received during its half year of operation. We're experiencing a growth arc similar to that of PineStraw in its early years. That gives us optimism that we're on the right track in Editor Dodson's hometown.
One unexpected but exciting aspect of the O.Henry start-up has been our relationship with the Greensboro-based Atlantic Coast Conference. The ACC was looking for a publishing partner. They took one look at the high quality of our magazines and asked us to produce their seven championship programs. That's a pretty heady deal for a small-town publisher, who grew up singing "Sail With The Pilot" during Carolina basketball games.
While readership and usage of thepilot.com continue to grow, we haven't cracked the revenue puzzle yet. That remains flat and produces only a small fraction of print income. The website averaged more than one million page views and 288,000 visits per month last year.
Those numbers will continue to grow - unless we decide to begin requiring some form of payment for access to this information. I've changed my opinion on this subject, and now feel that we'll ultimately need to start charging. Look for us to tackle that thorny issue later this year or early 2013.
My sense is that we'll treat your newspaper subscription like a membership pass, which will grant you access to all of our Web content. Those folks not subscribing to the printed edition will be asked to pay to read the same content.
Much information, such as the classifieds, obituaries, breaking news and a synopsis of the in-depth stories from the printed edition, will remain free of charge. But the complete stories, photographs and videos will eventually require a fee for the reader.
We have continued to invest in online offerings this year. Just last week, we launched a new section: a self-service classified advertising platform with Craigslist-type functionality. We think this is a nice complement to our highly effective and affordable print classified ads.
Your website was - once again - named a finalist in Editor & Publisher magazine's coveted Eppy Awards for best community newspaper website. I hope we don't become this contest's version of Susan Lucci, who was nominated for a dozen or more daytime Emmy Awards before finally earning that honor. Still, we're quite proud to be named among the five best community newspaper websites in America for the second year in a row.
Your staff at The Country Bookshop has worked hard to revitalize this community treasure. Thanks to the sales-tax-free work of Amazon, very few towns have an independent bookstore these days. What a tribute to the literacy and vibrancy of your community that it can support this one.
We don't need to make any money on this venture, though we're in favor of profitability. But we don't want to lose any either.
The bookshop is led by the enthusiastic Kimberly Daniels. Technically speaking, Kimberly is my first cousin once removed, but I view her as somewhere between the little sister I never had and my third daughter. Kimberly and her able crew have created a great vibe in the shop. It's a funky and fun bastion of culture.
I always say it's not a community newspaper without babies and dogs in the building. The same goes for bookstores, as you'll always find furry friends looking for dog biscuits and little ones roaming the shop while soaking up the joy of reading.
Our goal has been to restore the 58-year-old community institution to the glory it enjoyed under the late Joan Scott. To that end, we have increased the store's inventory by 50 percent and brought more than 60 authors to our community for book signings. That's paid off for us with increased sales as well as stabilized the store's operation.
This spring, we will launch a line of clothing - based on the shop's iconic mascot, Boomer the High-Steppin' Hound - that we hope will brand Southern Pines. We tested it out this holiday season with decent success. We have a few items remaining. So, drop by, give it a look, and let us know what else you'd like to see us try.
Looking back, my brief stint at Chapel Hill's business school was a defining time in my career. I learned that a strong strategy executed with enthusiasm and optimism will always trump one dependent upon talent and experience alone. I've tried to apply that valuable lesson to our work at The Pilot and its related enterprises.
With a little luck and your continued support, we're optimistic that your publishing operation will continue to skate to where the puck will be.
Contact David Woronoff at (910) 693-2495 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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