Saturday, June 15, 2024

Upfront: Rising stars

About five years ago, our former colleague Taylor Wanbaugh mentioned how much her younger brother enjoyed the zany YouTube videos of a 20-year-old guy from Greenville. We looked and were amazed at the creativity of MrBeast, so Taylor wrote a short story about his popularity.

My hunch was that Jimmy Donaldson, who then had more than 1 million YouTube subscribers, would extend his 15 minutes of fame for a bit longer, then move on to more conventional pursuits.

Wrong, like usual.

MrBeast keeps getting more popular, churning out a steady stream of bizarre, entertaining videos of mind-boggling competitions and charitable efforts. For a couple of years, we wanted to produce a strong story on the MrBeast phenomenon, but we struggled to find a writer enthused enough to take a deeper look at the creative Pitt County resident, knowing that he probably wouldn’t talk with us. Profiles in Rolling Stone and the New York Times in the past two years included some negative comments that evidently made him more distrustful of the media.

Fortunately, our columnist and part-time UNC Chapel Hill journalism instructor Dan Barkin connected us with a talented writer with an unlimited future. Noelle Norene Harff is a Colorado native and a sophomore at Chapel Hill with a passion for journalism and finance. As one might expect of a sharp collegian, she has a keen understanding of the internet. Like Taylor, she has a younger brother who grooves on MrBeast, apparently like almost every other teenage boy in the world.

Noelle produced this month’s cover story, which delves into how the graduate of Greenville Christian Academy became a global YouTube celebrity attracting millions of dollars in marketing support. A key reason, Noelle reports, is that Donaldson, 24, has remained rooted in eastern North Carolina and passionate about helping others.

He says he wants to be the next Elon Musk. Go for it, MrBeast!


Two veteran North Carolina journalists have joined our team, bringing loads of experience and wisdom. Kevin Ellis comes aboard after a lengthy career at The Gaston Gazette, where he had been editor since 2019. Kevin is a UNC Asheville graduate with a passion for sharing news stories, finding new places to walk with his wife, Amy, and his first grandchild, Ellis, who was born in October.

Ray Gronberg is editor of our North Carolina Tribune newsletter, which provides subscribers with exclusive news on legislative and political affairs. Ray is the former editor of the Henderson Dispatch, which covered Granville, Vance and Warren counties for the past five years, after spending most of his career at the News & Observer in Raleigh and Herald-Sun in Durham. He’s a UNC Charlotte graduate who a longtime Raleigh insider describes as “deeply experienced, widely knowledgeable and smart as hell.”

So much journalism is now rooted in partisanship, with organizations having distinct or fairly covert points of view. That’s OK, because journalists at those groups produce some important stories. But Kevin and Ray embody Business North Carolina’s mission to be unbiased, nonpartisan and respectful of a wide variety of viewpoints. They have quickly picked up on our privilege of writing about MrBeast, furniture makers, golf influencers, thieves, and many other people and organizations across our amazing state. 


David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at

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