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Sunday, July 14, 2024

New Burke County weekly rolls off the press

I’m an old newspaper guy, so I have to admit I was more than a bit excited when I witnessed the birth of a weekly rolling off the press for its first edition in early February.

Three thousand copies of The Paper began hitting the streets of Burke County in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains on Saturday, Feb. 4. Editor Bill Poteat and Publisher/Owner Allen VanNoppen smiled like proud papas as they waited for the first run of their new baby to come off The Charlotte Observer press the night before.

Charlotte Observer press manager Roger Wright, left, hands a copy of The Paper to its publisher, Allen VanNoppen, on Feb. 3, 2023. This is the first edition of the Burke County weekly.

“It’s something that I have thought about doing, dreamed about doing and talked about doing for four years. And my wife finally said to me, ‘If you don’t do this now, you’re going to regret not doing it.’ So we pulled the trigger on it.”

The two Burke County natives would each grab 150 papers before leaving Charlotte for the twilight drive home that Friday night. Starting at 8 a.m. Saturday they began distributing their 300 copies of The Paper themselves at places where locals hang out like Timberwoods restaurant off Interstate 40 and Sain’s Barber Shop in Morganton’s downtown.

The two describe their venture as a “Back to the Future” attempt to bring back an old-fashioned newspaper to compete in a world dominated by digital media that has been particularly unkind to print. 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.

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

Bill Poteat, editor of The Paper, a new weekly in Burke County, looks over the first edition of the paper soon after it came off the press on Feb. 3, 2023.

Burke County now has 88,000 residents who have been served for more than a century by The News Herald, which publishes six days a week in Morganton. Like a lot of newspapers, The News Herald has undergone several corporate ownership changes in the past few years and is now owned by Lee Enterprises, based in Davenport, Iowa. Lee owns a total of 77 papers in 26 states, and seven other newspapers in North Carolina, including ones in Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Hickory and Statesville.

When I worked as a reporter at The News Herald for more than seven years in the 1980s and 1990s, Poteat was editor and remains my friend.

The Paper and The News Herald will compete for readers, advertising dollars and news stories. VanNoppen and Poteat believe an appetite exists for more local news, and feel local ownership can make a difference.

“Inside The Paper there’s 32 pages of local news, 40 bylined stories,” says VanNoppen as he flipped through the pages hot off the press. The Paper will only cover news in Burke 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.

In the first edition, a front page column by Poteat tells the story of a recent reunion of the 1965-66 Morganton Lady Wildcats, which 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 get introduced to the new Patton High football coach, catch up with a basketball player now playing at the college level, and learn of a high schooler who will compete for a state wrestling championship in the 100-pound class in her senior year.

VanNoppen had been a reporter at The News Herald for a few months when he first met Poteat, who joined the paper as a reporter in 1980. VanNoppen would leave for a reporting job at a bigger paper, the Greensboro News & Record. Poteat would become editor of The News Herald, a job he held for 18 years until leaving in 1999 to start teaching English at East Burke High. After retiring from teaching after 18 years, Poteat worked alongside me for several years until 2022 as a part-time reporter and columnist for The Gaston Gazette, now owned by Gannett. I was the editor this time.

VanNoppen left reporting in 1985 and found success as an executive with Hudson-based Kincaid Furniture, owned by La-Z-Boy, and Century Furniture, based in Hickory and part of the eight companies owned by Rock House Farm Family of Brands, a family-owned company. In 2001, he founded VanNoppen Marketing in Morganton, a company 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 come out of retirement to lead the newsroom. The Paper has nine employees, including five in the newsroom. 

VanNoppen is the sole owner of Morganton Media Group, LLC, which owns The Paper. He declined to detail his investment, but says that total costs from inception through March would total about $150,000.

That financial estimate would pay for everything from building renovations to computers, salaries to marketing and professional services. 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 stand alone 501(c)(3) to accept grants and donations that are designated for local journalism efforts.

VanNoppen also expects to receive support from charitable foundations.

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, which is going to give us continuous feedback.”

An annual subscription to The Paper costs $225 for home delivery and online access, and $119 for just online access. Subscribers can pay an extra $70 per year, or $295 total, to have a voice in the direction and content of The Paper and have the chance to nominate a person to the board of directors and editorial board.

Van Noppen wants to build circulation to as many as 3,000 subscribers and believes he will hit an early goal of 500 subscribers by the end of February. The Paper has also exceeded its advertising goals.

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

You can reach Kevin Ellis at 704-201-7016 or email him at Kellis@BusinessNC.com.

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