Working the Revenue Side

So High postponed any decision on major cost-cutting and restructuring, and turned his attention instead to revenue challenges. Meanwhile his sister Stuart High, two years younger, was thinking of returning to Whiteville. She had earlier worked at a mutual funds company and in the advertising and marketing research departments at the Charlotte (NC) Observer. After conferring with their father, Les High asked Stuart to join the News Reporter in fall 2011 as director of special projects, coordinating and overseeing the kind of digital editorial and advertising initiatives recommended by the UNC team[16].

Working with the seven members of the News Reporter editorial staff, the two siblings first identified six “special interest communities” in Columbus County and gave each a descriptive name: Sports of All Sorts, Plugged-in Parents, Curious Citizens, Front Porch Neighbors, Texting Teens and Home for the Holidays. Les High estimated that the first three groups—those interested in local sports, parenting and local government—were the largest.

The editorial team began developing prototypes for three new “sections” that would appear in both the print and digital editions of the News Reporter, but with different content in each edition.[17] While the print edition would continue to focus on covering important issues and events twice a week, the digital version would take advantage of the Web’s 24/7 connectivity and interactivity by offering video and audio to supplement breaking news and features, as well as reader contests and contributions. By using both mediums to best advantage, Les High hoped to retain the loyalty of current readers, as well as attract younger readers to the website.

Ad packages. At the same time Stuart High, working with Greer and Dean Lewis (digital advertising “specialist” at the paper), developed new “sponsorship” advertising packages for the special-interest sections that would require local businesses to advertise in both the print and online editions. With only 1,000 unique visitors daily, S. High did not believe that had enough “eyeballs” to justify a rate increase. However, the UNC market research had shown that advertisers who used both the print and online editions of the News Reporter had increased their reach (the number of people who saw an ad) and exposure (the number of people who saw the ad more than once) by as much as 50 percent. Therefore, she priced the sponsorship package at a 20 percent premium over print alone, instead of the five percent used in the past. With a new rate structure in place, the advertising and editorial staff committed to a fall 2012 launch of the “Sports of All Sorts” section, with the next two sections (“Plugged-In Parenting” and “My Community”) scheduled to debut the following year.

But before the sales staff—which consisted of Greer, Lewis and one other representative—could begin to identify potential sponsors, Greer in May 2012 died unexpectedly of a heart attack. The High family quickly agreed that Lewis, who had the most digital experience, would be named ad director. Lewis soon convinced two important print advertisers that they should sign on as sponsors of the dual print-and-online “Sports of All Sorts” section. McDonald’s sponsored a weekly feature called “Athletes of the Week,” while a local realtor signed on to sponsor the athletic calendar. While these sponsorships did not sell at the 20 percent rate premium that Stuart had recommended, they were sold on an extended timeline (six months or more) and began to establish the News Reporter as a cross-platform advertising medium, not just a print-only one.

“Sports of All Sorts” debuted in time for the 2012 high school football season and was an immediate success. Daily unique visitors to tripled to 3,000. The inaugural sponsors were pleased with their dual exposure, which helped them connect with a new and younger reader, many of whom accessed “Sports of All Sorts” through the online edition instead of print. Next up was “Plugged-in Parenting,” which the editorial staff worked to finalize in late fall.

But Jim High learned that “someone from outside the county” was preparing to create and circulate a magazine in Columbus the following year. Reacting to the threat of competition on home turf, both the advertising and editorial staffs quickly shifted gears, postponed the debut of “Plugged-In Parenting” and scrambled instead to create a new quarterly lifestyle magazine. Titled 954 (the number of square miles in Columbus County), it would be both a print and online publication. The magazine debuted in April 2013. The High siblings considered it a success from both an editorial and advertising standpoint—an example of how the News Reporter was becoming more than just a print newspaper.

Based on the success of selling the print-and-online sponsorship package to local retailers for both “Sports of All Sorts” and the new magazine, S. High began to “dream big with the community pages.” She and her brother identified four regional and national retailers headquartered in North Carolina as potential sponsors of the “Plugged-In Parenting” page. One, a regional bank, was the largest employer in the county but did not advertise in the News Reporter.

 Over the summer of 2013, the two refined the editorial prototype, put together a “professional-looking” sales presentation kit, and identified the bank’s key regional decision maker. Confidently, the two of them, along with Lewis, made the pitch in late summer, and were disappointed at the reaction. “Why do I need to advertise with you?” the marketing executive asked. “I already own the market.” Disappointed, they returned to the News Reporter to re-group. “Obviously, we needed to up our game and make a better argument about the value of the News Reporter before approaching other clients,” says Stuart High. When two of the staff who had been most enthusiastic about the section left the paper in fall 2013 for family reasons, L. and S. High decided to postpone the debut of “Plugged-In Parenting” yet again, until summer 2014.

Website. S. High turned her attention to the website and a new template more compatible with mobile access. In the last couple of years, cellphone coverage in the rural county had improved significantly, and smart phones were proliferating. Even her father, who still used a typewriter at work, had become a fan of his new iPhone. “As I watched Dad and my children trade stories and photos, it became clear to me that mobile was an important way we were going to reach new readers,” says Stuart. “That meant it was also going to be increasingly important to our advertisers.” She settled on a WordPress template, and began overseeing a major redesign of the site.

But as the end of 2013 approached, L. High began to worry that his management attention was spread too thin between the papers in Pender and the News Reporter. He decided to sell the three Pender County papers—which he had merged into one weekly paper in 2012—and focus exclusively on the News Reporter. “We were making half of what we were making in 2006,” says Les.

I’m proud to say we’ve gotten through this without cutting anyone from our reporting staff. But with tighter budgets, I need to be focused on making sure we are spending every dollar wisely and that we’re building a paper that can survive financially in the years ahead so it can continue to serve the people of Columbus County. The economy, health, education—we know there are a lot of quality-of-life issues here in Columbus that will affect our future. And if we don’t cover them, no one else will.

[16] To see a 2011 video of Les High discussing changes he would like to make to the paper, go to:

[17] All quotes and observations from Stuart High come from Saving Community Journalism, or from extensive interviews conducted with her from Fall 2011 to Spring 2014.