With newspaper staffs shrinking and the business bleeding red ink amid tough financial times, you don’t expect anybody to launch a print-newspaper venture.
But, by late February or early March, most North Carolina residents will be able to have a new morning statewide newspaper, the North State Journal, delivered five days a week (Tuesday-Friday and Sunday).
Its top editors all are from North Carolina, and include people who most recently worked for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and a name familiar to sports fans. The Journal’s sports editor is Will Brinson, who will remain a CBSSports.com columnist and co-host Saturday mornings of “Big Game Day” on WCMC (99.9 the Fan).
Asheboro native Neal Robbins, who is spearheading the venture, doesn’t see his newspaper as competing against existing newspapers, but instead appealing to the many people — according to his research — who subscribe to multiple newspapers. He wants the Journal to be one of them, and also fill a void in counties that only have a weekly or a two-day-a-week newspaper.
“We just see ourselves existing in that ecosystem of information,” said Robbins, who is manager of North State Media LLC and is the newspaper’s publisher. “We see ourselves as having no competitors. We’re kind of capturing a macro-niche in the market between your local newspaper and your big national newspaper.”
He says the North State Journal will be to North Carolina what USA Today is to the country. This plan has led to him get many “how is that going to work?” questions that he says USA Today likely got when it launched.
“We’re going to give a lot of people in North Carolina access to something they don’t have — a statewide conversation,” said Robbins, who knows of no other venture in the country using his model. “We definitely didn’t go out and copy anybody. I wish there was [an existing model]. We tried to find that, but I can’t point to anything and say that was my inspiration.”
Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds said he doesn’t recall any recent print-newspaper startups, much less a statewide venture.
“I would be dubious about the ad base, sticker price and distribution costs unless they have some tricks up their sleeve,” Edmonds said.
Robbins is confident in his model, though.
“My hope is that we are meeting our sales goals for profitability by the time we launch,” he said. “That’s all depending on presale and how the marketing campaign goes. But we think that our lean structure and our compelling product are perfect to be profitable sooner than later. I think we would be profitable in the next year.”
The newspaper plans to use satellite printing sites so that people in all 100 counties can get home delivery or purchase copies for $2 an issue at newspaper racks. It will print in a broadsheet format with three sections and 28 pages, and the newspaper stories on its website will be behind a hard paywall.
The newspaper, which Robbins estimates will have a full staff of 60 or 70 (counting freelancers and part-timers), will have five sections: News, Business, Sports, North Statement (its opinion section) and North State of Mind (its features section.)
“I think there still is a desire out there for print, you’ve just got to do it in a way that’s successful where they want to interact with your content in print,” said Robbins, who indicated that subscription numbers, ad sales and staffing will dictate exactly when the first edition is printed.
“I’ve been focused on quality from the second I started this. I’m not going to get into a rush to deliver the first edition until we’ve got the right horsepower behind it to make it right,” he said.
Rates will range from $260 a year for a print and digital subscription to $52 a year for a digital-only subscription, and Robbins says that he’s already had people subscribe.
The newspaper is an outgrowth of two North State Media websites that launched last spring: Jones & Blount (the name comes from the fact that the state legislative building is on Jones Street and the governor’s mansion is on Blount Street), which focuses on state politics, and Chicken Bone Alley, a NASCAR site that launched earlier this year. North State Media also operates the Carolina Brew Review, a craft beer site that also launched last spring.
Its office currently is most of the basement of a building at 209 Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, but Robbins said that he is negotiating for a new location.
Robbins still is seeking investors for the project, and says it’s a challenge that has made his life “basically a daily episode of ‘Shark Tank.’ ” He said that when he explains that he is going to start a print newspaper that, “after five minutes of laughter and shock, then people begin to talk about it and talk about what print is now as opposed to what print was and what digital means.”
“We’ve got a world-class, world-renown newspaper designer creating our papers for us and I think that’s the hard-sell that it’s going to take for investors but also for subscribers,” said Robbins, referring to Deb Withey, who is from Wales and has won a Society of Newspaper Design Lifetime Achievement Award. She has worked for newspapers in Detroit, San Jose and Virginia Beach, and has designed numerous papers.
Robbins, Senior Editor of North Statement Drew Elliot and Communications Director Sarah Lindh all worked for DENR under Gov. Pat McCrory, and managing editor Donna King — who will lead the newsroom — has a background in Republican politics in addition to extensive reporting experience.
Robbins, who has a chemical engineering degree from N.C. State and a law degree and an MBA from Wake Forest, was DENR’s director of legislative and intergovernmental affairs and also was a policy analyst on McCrory’s transition team. Before that, he was an attorney.
Elliot, who has a master’s degree in journalism and a bachelor’s degree in history from UNC, was DENR’s communications director. He also was a legislative assistant for Republican Richard Burr, from 2001–05 when Burr was a congressman, and for eight months in 2005 after Burr became a U.S. Senator. He’s also worked in public relations and covered state politics for publications.
“We want to give our readers the whole story when it comes to the major topics of the day, and to let them share their ideas to improve our state and nation as well,” Elliot said.
Lindh was the former staff development specialist for training & development for DENR. She has a communications degree and a master’s degree in public administration from N.C. State.
King, who earned a degree in mass communications and journalism from N.C. State, was the press secretary for Republican U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell for two years, and has worked with the majority leader in the N.C. General Assembly. She has been a reporter on Capitol Hill for Reuters, America’s Voice, PBS and NewsChannel 8, and covered the state legislature for WUNC’s “Stateline.”
“Our team is working to find reporters, columnist and photojournalists from across the nation to make North State Journal the go-to newspaper for North Carolina residents,” King said.
Elliot and King have been the main writers for Jones and Blount.
Jennifer Wood, a lifelong writer about state culture and history who has a bachelor’s degree in communications from N.C. State, is the North State of Mind editor.
“I can’t wait to show everyone the true breadth and depth of our remarkable state,” Wood said.
The News & Observer has featured liberal opinion pages for years, and conservatives often criticize its news coverage. McCrory has even come out with an “I don’t believe the Raleigh News & Observer” bumper sticker.
Although the types of recent jobs in government held by some of NSJ’s top people might make some wonder, Robbins says that the newspaper isn’t positioning itself as an alternative to The N&O’s political coverage.
“I don’t see us being a foil to anything,” Robbins said. “Certainly, I’ve had conversations [with people] seeing it as a potential conservative white knight. I think they’re going to be disappointed.”
Robbins clearly doesn’t like the sort of reporting he sees from the existing media.
“As far as political coverage, I think the jury has already come back long ago that bias reporting is not a good way to go when it comes to journalism. We’re going to focus on two big issues: truth and delivering a beautiful product,” he said.
“I think that there’s just no doubt that when we do market research, people come back and say the media is biased; they think that the opinion pages have infiltrated the news section,” Robbins said. “I think we will do the best we can, just like any newspaper — and newspapers in North Carolina try to do that as well — to maintain that balanced outlook that there are probably two sides to every story.”
Robbins says that the newspaper will be “photo-heavy.”
“Our design is really focused on delivering those high-impact photos, and you just can’t manipulate what the facts are in a photo, so I think we’re going to do that really well,” Robbins said. “That is one big design piece that we are really going to distinguish ourselves from other papers.”
He expects to use syndicated content sources to supplement staff content. It hasn’t been determined if they will use copy from The Associated Press, but the newspaper will run national and international news.
“We’ve had several conversions, which are ongoing,” Robbins said. “But I think we’ll end up with strong national commentators who will give a North Carolina perspective to national issues, and also give a national perspective to North Carolina issues.”
He expects to have at least 12 or 14 sportswriters, with at least four being full-time writers and the rest being beat-focused freelancers. There are four areas of sports coverage focus: the N.C. ACC schools, NASCAR, the three major professional teams (the Charlotte Hornets, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Carolina Panthers) and what Robbins calls the “core four” of UNC Charlotte, Appalachian State, UNC Wilmington and East Carolina.
“They don’t get any play outside of their media market, plus they have alumni in all 100 counties,” Robbins said of those four non-ACC schools. “So we are going to go after coverage in a very professional and high-level way to get those schools engaged in a statewide conversation about athletics.”
Robbins said that the Journal won’t “get into the weeds” and cover everything, and that he is including sports coverage against the advice he got from a lot of publishers and editors.
“We are building the best sports journalism in our state,” said Brinson, who has been a frequent contributor to North State’s Carolina Brew Review. “North Carolina sports teams have supporters across all 100 counties, which makes the statewide perspective of North State Journal the perfect platform for sports coverage.”
One sportswriter on staff will be former N&O sports reporter Cory Smith, who wrote frequently about NASCAR last season for Chicken Bone Alley and writes about fantasy sports for Bleacher Report.
Robbins expects deadlines to be as early as his sports people “will let us” so that the hours for his staff aren’t too crazy.
“We’re going to cover state issues, which are inherently on a tighter, shorter time frame during the day,” Robbins said. “It’s not like we’re going to be covering car accidents and things like that. So we’ll put it to bed early, and that will be good for journalists.”
Before there are any deadlines, there will be is plenty of work ahead of the day that the first print edition rolls off the presses late this winter.