Reflections on ‘Sweet 16’ and the future
What’s your dream job? Recent college graduates are perhaps honing in on the difficult task of searching for a satisfying career, but I’m standing at my desk today thinking “what next?” I’m 55, and for the last 16 years I’ve had my dream job. I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather have done during that time than own and edit a weekly newspaper in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
Not that I’m moving onto something different soon (much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of many readers and some of our staff). It’s just that time of year when my concentration begins to wander off track, thinking about where this newspaper is headed and what the future may hold, both journalistically and from a business perspective.
It’s June, and that means The Smoky Mountain News is another year older. Look on the front of the newspaper and you’ll see Volume 17, Issue 1. In newspaper parlance, that’s 17 years of publication. The issue you’re holding in your hand is the first in our 17th year, so it’s the paper’s — and the business’ — 16th birthday (hold the applause, please).
When you own and operate a small business you basically have another family. It’s not just that the people you work with become like family — because they do, and I love that aspect of what I do — but the whole of the operation also assumes a personality of its own. That’s particularly true of a newspaper. We are in the business of getting into the middle of important issues, meddling into people’s lives, and putting our opinions out there. So you’re gonna love us, hate us, at least feel something.
That said, what’s the personality of The Smoky Mountain News? Well, most have heard someone talk about a family, say an imaginary family, and make a comment like, “Oh yeah, that whole crowd is batshit crazy.”
And that could indeed describe this business and those of us who work here. You almost have to be a little whacked out to stay in this industry, as we’ve been on our deathbed since infancy, and the premature obituaries just keep coming. Crazy indeed.
Just about as soon as we delivered our first issue into parts of Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties in June 1999, prognosticators everywhere began foretelling the death of newspapers as this relatively new thing called the Internet really started to take off. I attended a seminar in the early 2000s given by a professor from UNC. He set up an algebraic model to predict what would happen to newspapers given the precipitous drop in newspaper subscriptions. According to his math, the last newspaper reader would die by 2040. After that, no one would pay for a newspaper.
Luckily for us, we don’t sell our newspaper. As we’ve watched both large dailies and some small communities struggle to shore up subscription losses, we’ve continued to amass more and more readers in the 16 years we’ve been in business. Combine the Internet traffic and our hard copy distribution (which is still growing), and we have about 110,000 unique readers a month (66,000 total newspapers, 44,000 unique visitors to www.smokymountainnews.com).
Just this past Friday I was talking to an intelligent guy, a judge from Florida who happens to call this area home for as much of the year as he is able. “Has the Internet hurt your business?” he asked.
The answer is not yet. In fact, we’ve been able to offer advertisers who value an online presence a fantastic way to reach potential customers, just as we do with our print advertisers. Our print distribution has grown incrementally over the years, but our website traffic is growing by nearly 50 percent a year. I suspect sometime next year we’ll have as many or more online readers as we do for our print edition.
But our print product is still going strong. By my estimation, the future of free, small print weeklies like ours is still very viable. In this fast-paced world where everything changes at the speed of light, we practice old-school journalism. That means we work very, very hard to present the truth, to double check facts, to try and write balanced, objective, interesting stories. We take copy editing seriously and work to the best of our ability to catch typos and grammatical mistakes, though we know not even the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times are able to produce the perfect, error-free paper. We take pride in trying to do something that is practically impossible, so yeah, once again it shows how crazy we are.
We also take great pride in our long-form investigative and enterprise pieces. Those types of stories are rare these days, and in the crazy culture of this newspaper it is part of who we are. Telling those kinds of stories is important.
One last point, one relevant to us and many of the other small businesses in this region. The “shop local, produce local, consume local” movement — whatever you want to call it — has helped nurture, I think, pride in what we have right here in Western North Carolina. In other words, when those of us who call this place home find something of quality produced right here in our backyard, there’s a growing urge to support that entity. That goes for craft beer, local food, handmade products, great service and — I think — good journalism.
Call me crazy, but I’m hyped about what the future holds.
Smoky Mountain News Birthday Party/Open House
When: 5-7:30 p.m., Friday, June 26
Who’s invited: Everyone
What: Music (featuring SMN News Editor Jessi Stone and Stone Crazy), craft beer, wine, food.
Where: SMN parking lot at 144 Montgomery St., Waynesville