Thursday, July 18, 2024

NC trend: Two Burke county loyalists start a paper

Publisher Allen VanNoppen and Editor Bill Poteat smiled like proud papas as they waited for the first run of their new baby, The Paper, to come off the press on the first Friday in February.

Editor Bill Poteat

As newspapers shut down at an alarming rate, VanNoppen, a marketing executive, decided to launch the weekly in his hometown of Morganton, a Blue Ridge Mountains foothills town of 17,500. He pulled Poteat out of semi-retirement to help.

“It’s something that I have thought about doing, dreamed about doing and talked about doing for four years,” says VanNoppen, while waiting at The Charlotte Observer printing site as 3,000 copies rolled off the press. “My wife finally said to me, ‘If you don’t do this now, you’re going to regret not doing it.’”

The Burke County natives would each grab 150 papers before leaving Charlotte for the twilight drive home. Starting at 8 the next morning, they began distributing their allotment of The Paper at places where locals hang out like Timberwoods restaurant and Sain’s Barber Shop in Morganton’s downtown.

The two describe their venture as a “Back to the Future” attempt to bring an old-fashioned newspaper into a world dominated by digital media. Since 2005, the country has lost more than a fourth of its newspapers (2,500) and is on track to lose a third by 2025, according to a report published last year by the Northwestern/Medill Local News Initiative.

Publisher Allen VanNoppen

Forty-one North Carolina newspapers have shut down during that time, says Penny Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, who led the Journalism and Digital Media Economics program at UNC Chapel Hill from 2008 to 2020. The most recent closing was The Belmont Banner in Gaston County, which last printed Nov. 10 after 86 years of publication.

“It was the best paper in the land. Everyone was very sad when it went out, me included,” says former Banner Managing Editor Alan Hodge. “I poured my heart and soul into it for 16 years. Now there’s a huge void of local news in this community.”  

The country has 6,380 surviving papers: 1,230 dailies and 5,150 weeklies, but they are disappearing at a rate of more than two per week, the Northwestern report states. Newsroom staffs have declined 60% in that time. Circulation numbers have decreased significantly as revenue and profits evaporate.

Three things will help a newspaper to survive, Abernathy says. The paper’s leadership must be able to respond quickly to its community, the circulation area needs to be growing in population and affluence, and the backers must have sufficient capital to survive for about five years, she says.

Burke County has about 88,000 residents, a decrease of around 2,500 people from the 2010 census. Those residents have been getting their news for more than 130 years from The News Herald, which still prints six days a week in Morganton. Like many newspapers, The News Herald has undergone several corporate ownership changes and is now owned by Davenport, Iowa-based Lee Enterprises. Lee owns 77 papers in 26 states. Seven others
are in North Carolina, including Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Hickory.

Lee Enterprises fought off a hostile takeover bid last year from New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital, but its financial struggles have worsened. Axios reported Lee Enterprises started telling some newsroom employees on Feb. 13 they would have to schedule an unpaid, two-week furlough by the end of February.

The Paper and The News Herald will compete for readers and advertising dollars. VanNoppen and Poteat believe an appetite exists for more local news, and feel local ownership can make a difference. Local ownership has been a strength of newspapers that continue to thrive, says Abernathy.

“Inside The Paper, there’s 32 pages of local news, 40 bylined stories,” says VanNoppen of the first edition. The Paper will only cover news in its county. “Burke County News. Burke County Owned,” states the masthead.

“A promise we made to our readers was that they would not see a word about Hickory, Atlanta or Afghanistan, on our pages,” says VanNoppen. (Hickory is about 20 miles east of Morganton.)

In The Paper’s first edition, Poteat tells the story of a reunion of the 1965-66 Morganton Lady Wildcats, who won a state basketball championship in the first year Black and white students attended school together. Another story profiles the county’s principal of the year. On the front page of sports, readers were introduced to the new Patton High football coach and learned of a high schooler who competed for a state wrestling championship in the 100-pound class in her senior year. (The female wrestler, Freedom High senior Jeulenea Khang, won the title.)

VanNoppen was a reporter at The News Herald for a few months when he met Poteat, who joined the paper as a reporter in 1980. VanNoppen would leave for a job at the Greensboro News & Record, while Poteat stayed in town and later became editor for 18 years before leaving in 1999 to teach English at a local high school.

Poteat retired after 18 years of teaching, and worked as a part-time columnist for The Gaston Gazette, now owned by Gannett, owner of hundreds of newspapers in 45 states, including USA Today, and headquartered in McLean, Virginia.

VanNoppen left reporting in 1985 and became a furniture executive with Hudson-based Kincaid Furniture, owned by La-Z-Boy, and Century Furniture, based in Hickory. In 2001,
he founded VanNoppen Marketing in Morganton, which he still owns.

The two men reconnected last summer. VanNoppen had been meeting with people in the community for a year about his plans to start The Paper when he asked Poteat to lead the newsroom. The Paper  has nine employees, including five in the newsroom.

VanNoppen declined to detail his investment, but says that costs from inception through March will total around $150,000. He expects The Paper to break even within a couple months of its launch.

The Paper operates as a limited liability company with a couple of 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsors. It is VanNoppen’s intention to form a purpose-focused 501(c)(3) to accept grants and donations that are designated for local journalism efforts.

Eventually, VanNoppen wants to distribute part of the ownership to investors, employees, and, through membership subscriptions, to readers. 

“It’s a sense of ownership, much like the (NFL’s) Green Bay Packers are owned by the community,” says VanNoppen. “That was our model of ownership, so subscribers will have a say of who is nominated for the board of directors, who is nominated for the 25-member editorial community committee.”

An annual subscription to The Paper costs $225 for home delivery and online access, and $119 for digital-only. Subscribers can pay an extra $70 per year, or $295 total, to have a voice in the direction and content of The Paper.

Van Noppen’s goal is to achieve 3,000 paid subscribers. Advertising revenue in initial editions have exceeded his original projections.

“The launch and related community response has been extraordinarily awesome and complimentary,” he says. “We are ahead of budget on all fronts ­— subscriptions, ads,
community engagement.”

Kevin Ellis worked at The News Herald from 1988 to 1996. Poteat later worked as a part-time reporter and columnist at The Gaston Gazette, where Ellis was the editor.        

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