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Wednesday, 19 June 2013 13:33

At 14, we’re no longer a baby in the business

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op frThere’s just not much exciting about turning 14, but that’s what The Smoky Mountain News turned a couple of weeks ago. I can keep up with our age because of the volume number on the front of this edition and because I track it by my son’s birthday. He was just shy of a year old when we started, and this summer he’ll turn 15 and take driver’s ed. 

It’s a middling anniversary, not like 10 or 15, and it seems a long way yet to 20. Still, I sometimes pinch myself or throw cold water on my face and wonder if I’m dreaming. When we hatched the idea for this newspaper more than 14 years ago, and when the first edition of  The Smoky Mountain News rolled off the presses on June 5, 1999, I had no idea whether we would survive. Way back then, it was more a dream than a well-planned business venture.

 

In a lot of ways, we are exactly the same as most small businesses. First was an idea, that of producing a paper that locals and tourists would find interesting and useful.  At that time, it seemed papers catered to one or the other but not both. Then, and probably most important, was figuring out how it could be financed until revenues surpassed costs. I may have been an English major in college, but I knew the math was important.

Finally, and most important, was finding the right people. In that, The Smoky Mountain News has been extremely fortunate. From those early times until right up to today, we have found hardworking, creative people who shared our vision. Some of those people have been with us more than a decade, and they still bring it to the workplace every day. It’s become my second family, and we fight and feud and celebrate — just like biological families.

We’re also not that different from hundreds of small business owners in Western North Carolina when it comes to looking for ways to succeed. We’re always trying to come up with new ideas and innovative ways to do what we do. What’s different, of course, is that our business is providing information for public consumption. We get to dig into issues and tell you what we find. We get to interview interesting people and tell you about their lives, whether they are community leaders or famous artists. We also get to work with businesses — like Old Town Bank, for example, which advertises on our front page — to bring you the message they want to get out. I’d like to think we help those businesses find their own measure of success.

When we were just barely out of the gate back in the first couple of years, everyone said the Internet would kill newspapers. In 1999, those warnings were barely a whisper. Two years later, it was a loud, incessant death knell for our industry. It happened that fast. 

The truth, though, is that it seems like every businessperson I talk to has similar stories about their business changing so fast it is hard to keep up with. Bankers, doctors, insurance folks, whomever, the story is the same: learn to turn on a dime and stay fast on your feet or you’ll be out of business before you can blink.

Newspapers large and small, though, have adapted. We deliver news electronically and in print, and we’re learning how to make money from our website. Newspaper sites have some of the highest readership rates on the Internet. Our Smoky Mountain News site is averaging almost 30,000 unique visitors a month, and that number continues to grow exponentially. We publish 16,000 hard copies a week, so it’s almost like two additional editions. No doubt our electronic delivery of information will continue to grow, and how we present that information will continue to evolve.

Perhaps more challenging from a business perspective for us has been the Great Recession. As business owners in the mountains suffered huge drops in sales, we lost huge amounts of advertising revenue. It was a daunting challenge to keep moving forward, and I can credit our staff with helping us get through those lean times. We adapted and became a niche publisher that now puts out more than 30 magazines a year. 

The future? Who can predict such a thing, but I like where I live and will bet on this region to continue to attract smart, creative people who want to live around others of the same character. WNC is a vibrant, popular place. There’s a heartfelt “shop local” philosophy here, one that will help the many unique, small business owners who offer products that you won’t get anywhere else. We all appreciate our uniqueness, that we live somewhere that offers an unmatched lifestyle.

In reality, the mission of The Smoky Mountain News remains the same as it was when that first edition came out. Here’s an excerpt from my first column: If this newspaper has a mission, it’s to help the people in this region make informed decisions. As the pace of change cascades upon us like a waterfall, we’ll need to be armed with good information if we are to make the best choices.

My son no longer fits in our newspaper boxes. Some things change. Our commitment to serving up quality journalism hasn’t, and we plan to be a part of this one-of-a-kind community for a long time to come.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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