So how far have we come?
Each year as summer dawns, when children begin counting the days until shoes become something they just have to keep track of and not wear, I continue a tradition started on June 2, 1999. That was the date the first issue of The Smoky Mountain News was published.
It seems like just yesterday Greg, Neil and Rachel, Lori and I went to the office supply store and loaded up a couple of shopping carts with a few thousand dollars of office supplies before heading back to our oven-like upstairs office in Waynesville. After toting a dank couch up the stairs and affixing the all-important bottle opener to the wall beside the fridge, we started arguing over work spaces while awaiting the UPS shipment of Macs so we could set up shop and get to work.
Seven years is nothing for a newspaper. We’re surrounded by century-old success stories like the Asheville Citizen-Times and The Mountaineer, The Franklin Press and the “young” Sylva Herald at 81 years.
But things are changing faster than ever in this industry. Seven years later, there are a small handful of free rags battling for readers and advertising. The strongest among them are the Asheville Citizen-Times’ Haywood County News, which is a free weekly with a variety of community news, and The Mountaineer’s Guide, an entertainment weekly.
The business model among large publishing companies, it seems, is not to focus on creating products that make their mark for their news and editorial strength. Instead, it’s all about new products, niche publications aimed at specific demographics. Each one is designed solely to grab a sliver of the advertising pie and attract perhaps a few readers, shoving the competition away from its place at the trough.
It’s always been a tough business, but now competitors are coming from every angle and every electronic medium imaginable. It would extremely difficult for a start-up not associated with another media company to come along these days and succeed.
A tough business, sure, but it’s still as much fun as it’s always been. So indulge me. This has become the one time a year when I provide myself a little room to look back to analyze where we’ve been and what we’ve become. Late Sunday night I re-read the last columns from those six previous years and the one written in the paper’s first edition. So here’s a look back at how we’ve moved along, seen through excerpts from Smoky Mountain News anniversary columns from year’s past:
June 1999: If this newspaper has a mission, it’s to help the people in this region make informed decisions. As the pace of change cascades like a waterfall upon us, we’ll need to be armed with good information if we are to make informed decisions.
(Damn, we sure started off with high-and-mighty dreams. That’s enough even to make me snicker, and I was the one who wrote those words. I guess, though, that’s what dreams are about. No one ever got big by thinking small.)
June 2000: The Smoky Mountain News is still in infancy, but we know where we want to go. We try to focus on a different kind of news than the community papers in Haywood, Macon, Jackson and Swain counties (our distribution area). Our aim is to pick out interesting stories whose pertinence crosses county lines. People in towns and counties in this region are facing the same challenges, and want to look at these issues regionally.... Independent newspapers have a freedom the community newspapers don’t — we can pick and choose what we cover. Any good community paper tries to address nearly everything in its coverage area. We look for stories we think people want to read or that are important for some reason or another. As time goes on and we are able to bring in more staff, our goal is to do more in-depth reporting each week.
(When this was written, I was the only full-time writer on our staff. I knew we weren’t fulfilling the mission that was still in my mind, but it was important to acknowledge where we wanted to go and keep the hope alive. Now we have two full-time staff writers, another regular weekly staff writer, and a dozen or so talented free-lancers who contribute on a regular basis. We struggle with schedules and workloads to give the staff writers time to do the in-depth journalism we believe readers want. I’d say we are on our way to where we want to get, but there’s plenty of room for improvement.)
June 2001: As a publisher, I’d like to think the (advertising) awards speak volumes about how we are serving our advertisers. Our sales team and our designers know we expect them to put their most creative energies into the ads. If our newspaper is to succeed, good design, quality concepts and effective advertising campaigns are a necessity. We will never succumb to a mentality of just cranking out ads without thinking about each one. I think the number of awards we won proves that.
... But I see it for what it is now. Our sales staff works with businesses to help them get what they want. The truth is you aren’t going to sell advertising to people who don’t want to buy. Those who want to buy are trying to make their business succeed, and helping that happen can be satisfying. The small-business owners in WNC are a lot like us, entrepreneurs trying to succeed and do right by their customers and employees.
Our job is to succeed at two missions — providing outstanding service to our advertisers and providing thoughtful writing about this part of the country. If we do both well, we will remain around long enough to celebrate a few more birthdays.
(Two years into this venture of owning a newspaper, my mindset began to change. I had spent a career as a reporter and editor, and it had not been my job to worry even a little about what happened in the advertising department.
Naivete can be a beautiful, innocent thing, but it can ruin a business fast. My desire to see this paper succeed helped me to understand something very American — the spirit of the entrepreneur. To keep this venture going, we had to help other businesses succeed by delivering effective advertising. It sounds simple, but for this ignorant editor it was an eye-opening revelation. Those of you who know Greg Boothroyd probably understand how this change came about.)
June 2002: Aside from the resources newspapers put into covering their communities, I think there is another good reason (newspapers) will survive. As we move farther and farther into the electronic age, I think the organic nature of our core business becomes more appealing. There is something comforting in sitting down with a paper, something you can hold, feel, fold, touch, and carry.
(This was one of those periods when it seemed every time I opened a journalism trade magazine or got on the Internet, everyone was predicting the demise of the newspaper. Inevitably, it will happen. But not anytime soon. Like businesses everywhere, we just have to adapt to changes.)
June 2003: Credibility issues remain among the most important challenges for the media, whether it is here at The Smoky Mountain News or at The New York Times. Readers must know that the information they are reading is reliable. Too often, papers and TV are more concerned with breaking a story instead of getting it right. We will always struggle to find the right balance among those competing aims.
(This column was inspired by the Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times. He was the reporter who just made up large chunks of stories, embellishing his coverage of the DC sniper case. Journalists often fret about credibility issues and how important they are. The truth, though, is that not all people have the ability to sift through notebooks of scribbled notes, official reports from bureaucratic agencies, and sometimes mundane interviews and put together compelling stories. So they lie in order to embellish their work. It sucks, and it’s the job of editors, fellow writers and the public to ferret them out. )
June 2004: Unfortunately, many people are losing faith in newspapers because all “media” are now simply lumped together by so many people. That means when someone says they don’t trust the media, we often don’t know if they are differentiating between Rush Limbaugh, Charlie Rose, The Los Angeles Times, the Drudge Report, WLOS TV 13 or The Smoky Mountain News. One asinine remark by one commentator or one newspaper and all “the media” get blamed.
(OK, so my senility is showing up a bit. If I had read the 2003 column, I likely would have changed the topic of the 2004 piece. Seriously, though, it does get under my skin when newspapers get discussed in the same breath as some of those media types mentioned above. For better or for worse, till death come upon us, we aren’t the same as those cable TV blabbermouths. No way.)
June 2005: From the inside looking out, it’s difficult to determine what kind of reputation a newspaper is earning. I can tell you that we will admit when we are wrong, but we will also continue to jump feet first into the important issues facing this region. We’re going to lead the charge for smart land use and for support of important environmental and economic causes. We’ll be out front urging people to support the small, independent businesses that separate Western North Carolina from the Anywhere, U.S.A., towns where big boxes have won the retail war. We won’t back down from any power brokers, be they politicians or our largest advertisers. We will use our resources to encourage support for our natural and cultural resources.
(That paragraph probably explains our editorial and company philosophy as well as anything we’ve written over the last few years. And with that, let the celebration begin. Seven years old and counting. Pass the party hats and the champagne.)