Pondering the future of newspapers

Much as I dislike posing the question, here it is: can you imagine a future without newspapers? Would it be a dark day or good riddance to a biased blight upon the information landscape?

Well, if you’re reading this you’ve likely got an opinion. It means you’re a newspaper reader. It’s part of your life, something you can’t imagine living without. But it’s past time for nostalgia. That warm fuzzy about holding a newspaper in your hands as a cup of coffee tickles your nostrils won’t pay the bills for printing, for staffing, and for distribution if not enough people choose to read.

Make no mistake: newspapers are in trouble. Most have heard about the closings of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Rocky Mountain News. We know that a host of other large dailies are limping along. They’re being battered by the tidal wave that is the Internet and the unexpected and lingering depth of this recession, which is slashing advertising revenues.

So what does it all mean?


If I — or anyone else — knew the future of the information and journalism industry, it would be a Bill Gates opportunity. Figuring out how to make money on gathering and packaging information in an age when most of us are completely overwhelmed with information is proving difficult.

Here’s what I do know: the traditional printed daily newspaper business model is broken. It was built on three streams of revenue: subscriptions, retail advertising, and classifieds. Well, classifieds have gone online or to all classified papers (Iwanna, in our case). Paid home delivery subscriptions have been declining for almost two decades, and it doesn’t appear much will change.

So daily papers are left to depend on two revenue streams that will continue to decline — classifieds, home delivery — and are having to rely more heavily on advertising to pay the bills. Trouble is, many businesses that used to buy those newspaper ads are looking at alternatives to the very expensive daily newspaper rates. Those alternatives include weekly newspapers like ours, television and local cable companies, radio, direct mail, and billboards.

And, of course, the Internet.


What about papers like ours?

I tell many people that, unfortunately for dailies across the country, we are part of their problem. Free distribution weeklies with unique content like ours, Mountain Xpress in Asheville, the Independent in the Triangle, and the Rhinoceros Times in the Triad are chipping away at the advertising revenues the big dailies used to monopolize.

But we are also suffering during this recession. We depend solely on advertising revenue, and that has declined steeply. We are being forced to invent new products to help advertisers, take on smaller jobs, and generally morph into a broader media and publishing company that has a newspaper as its flagship.


For our business, local advertising is the key. Another question, then, is how will the local businesses get their information out to readers?

Google is spending millions trying to figure that out, but many businesses tell us that print advertising in a local newspaper is still their best source for getting customers in the door. As the web becomes bogged down with information — search “smoky mountains” on Google and 2.4 million entries come up, while “smoky mountain real estate” will get you 163,000 entries — many advertisers who go solely to web are finding it a “needle in the haystack” gamble.

In the future, that haystack is just going to get astronomically larger. As blogging and social networking spiral out of control, navigating the web gets unwieldy.

So local papers still have a future, and that is what many analysts are now saying. Our news and our advertising still are unique and original, stuff that in many cases won’t be found anywhere else — at least for now.


Everyone who goes online for news or turns on the televisions for news still depends primarily on newspapers. The most popular Internet news sites are papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The Huffington Post and the Drudge Report pick through newspaper sites, as do Rush Limbaugh, Anderson Cooper and the writers for Jay Leno and David Letterman. They put their own spin and their own reporting into it, but almost all the stories originated with newspaper journalists.

Local television news depends on a region’s newspapers for their stories. I can’t tell you how often we’ve watched WLOS reporters hit the newsstand at our office early Wednesday morning, only to see one or more of the stories show up on the news later that day. CNN has a staff of probably a dozen reporters in Washington, while the Washington Post has several hundred.

Make no mistake, those in power — whether that is in government, business, politics or wherever — will be much more insulated from public scrutiny when all the newspapers in this country are gone. No one consistently does the type of reporting we do every single day.


But what about the stories, the information we provide? How can we continue investing in those type stories as information seekers migrate toward the web?

Well, several efforts are being tried. One of the most original is for local papers to all adopt the National Public Radio format and register as nonprofit organizations. Revenues would not be taxable, and donations would be tax-deductible.

A few days ago Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Maryland, introduced into Congress the Newspaper Revitalization Act, which would allow newspapers to operate as nonprofits for educational purposes. Cardin argues that since newspapers are doing so badly, the government would not lose any revenue. He says the bill is aimed at local papers, not chains or conglomerates.

Another model is to begin charging for the online news. Many papers adopted this model, then switched to free access. Now many are switching back, putting a value on their news.

Could we get, say, $45 a year for people to access all our news and advertising?

Or, could we use another business model known as micro-payments, where a program is set up to charge someone’s credit card 5 cents for every story accessed on a Web site?


Or will newspapers simply go away at some point in the future?

In researching this article I came across this nugget: “Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; ‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!’ has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?”

This particular writer, Clay Shirky, threw up his hands, admitting he did not know who would perform that function or how society would find a way to benefit from the work now done only by newspapers. His conclusion is that society needs good journalism, not newspapers, per se.

It’s safe to say we’re living in an information revolution. To the victor goes the spoils.

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

A tax break for one business is not a plan

Before Haywood County commissioners approve a request to cut property taxes on a business that plans to build an $8 million solar farm near Canton, they need to get serious about developing a long-term green collar industry incentive package. One break for one company seems more like a handout, which in this day every other company could find fault with.

On the surface the request seems almost inconsequential given the relatively small amount of money involved, about $32,000 over five years. In this economy, however, many will be watching the commissioners very closely. A whole lot of local, long-time businesses are struggling to keep people employed while paying their taxes in full.

FLS Solar Energy is planning what is billed as the largest solar farm in the Southeast on an old landfill in Canton. It will install 3,200 solar panels on seven acres that will produce enough electricity to power 1,200 homes. The company has signed a 20-year agreement to sell the electricity to Progress Energy. The utility giant must, under state law, start producing an increasing percentage of its power from green sources.

The announcement late last year that Haywood would be chosen for the solar farm was met with near universal excitement. Although the project won’t produce any long-term jobs, it is being hailed as a coup for Haywood County and Western North Carolina. Row upon row of solar panels will track the sun from an old landfill, proving that this region cares about energy production and global warming, perhaps providing some intangible benefits when it comes to business recruitment. It’s difficult to gauge the economic development benefit of having the largest solar farm in the Southeast (though it’s likely a larger facility somewhere won’t be far behind), but most believe that benefit is more symbolic than tangible.

FLS, for its part, is asking for help to make it through its first five years in opration. The $32,000 it wants Haywood County to forgive amounts to 80 percent of its business property taxes for the first five years it is in operation.

But here’s the rub: even though the request has the endorsement of the county Economic Development Commission, it doesn’t meet existing criteria for the tax break. Specifically, to get the 80 percent tax break the county’s guidelines say the project needs to create 100 jobs and have an investment of at least $10 million. This project is expected to employ 12 as it’s built and no one after it is up and running, and it already qualifies for the federal government’s 30 percent solar energy tax break.

Projects like this are appealing for many reasons, one of which is the “coolness” factor. That line of thinking says if you support green projects, you are cool and everyone will want to join in. But that’s a weak foundation for county policy.

If Haywood wants to become an epicenter of green energy and environmentalism, giving a one-time handout to a solar farm won’t get it there. Instead, county leaders need to develop an array of tax breaks, grants and incentives for new businesses engaged in green technology and for existing businesses that become energy efficient and recycle. In this case the fact that old landfill property is being used is probably more significant than the solar energy aspect of the project.

The green initiative being led by Haywood Community College President Rose Johnson and flourishing under the auspices of HCC and the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce should be encouraged and embraced. The county’s effort to get methane energy from the old landfill is also worth touting. The role of the Commission for a Clean County should be expanded and officially endorsed by the county.

Yes, Haywood County could benefit immensely by becoming a leader in all things green, and businesses and people in the mountains have been embracing this philosophy for decades. But there is a competition out there. Local governments across the nation are also trying to grab this mantle. Haywood needs a long-term plan and a real investment to get there. Helping this company might be symbolic of where the county wants to go, but approving this tax break isn’t really all that progressive. In fact it is simply applying an old-style economic development model to a new industry.

We wish FLS great success, and solar energy is a crucial component for meeting future energy needs. From Haywood County’s perspective, however, approving this tax break at this time is like putting the cart before the proverbial horse.

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

Special moments, a spoonful at a time

You hear it often, mostly from those of us who are guilty. I’m talking about making a promise of spending “quality time” with someone we care about, a precious and valuable experience in these hurried and harried times.

And a few weeks ago I was going to do just that. I planned for dinner and a football game night with my son, Liam. Just us at the house, a huge pizza, him slurping cold milk out of a frosty beer mug and me filling my glass with something a little tastier. He’s 10, and at this age a passion for sports has become something we share. In a household where the only men are the bookends — I’m the oldest and he’s the youngest, with a wife and two daughters in between — we seldom get several hours to do indulge our passion.

On this night, I hatched a plan for the girls to do a movie in Asheville. They took the bait, and we looked forward to the game. An hour or two prior, though, he found a better offer.

“Dad, can I spend the night with Jack and Mason?” he asked after spending the afternoon playing hard with his buddies.

That’s how quick a plan for that elusive “quality time” can disappear. That game and our pre-game dinner had been the most looked-forward-to event on my calendar that week. But that’s also why I’ve learned over the years that the search for that special time — more times than not — is a recipe for disappointment. You can’t run through the week and neglect a son or a wife in hopes that some hyped-up special event will make up for what you’ve just sprinted past. Doesn’t work that way.

I should have known this. It’s a mantra I preached over the years — only in a different set of circumstances — as I became accustomed to driving my daughters to swim practice at 5 a.m. three or four mornings a week. Friends and family would hear about the early morning practices and tell me how bad I had it, how crazy I was for letting my girls get that caught up in swimming.

I would shake my head and tell them they were wrong. Those five minutes around the house before the sun rose and those 15 minutes in the car became a precious commodity. Some mornings there would hardly be a word as we listened to NPR or the girls just dozed. Others we would have conversations about everything from the news on the radio to boys to school to how they should treat their little brother to some crazy family story about one of my brothers or one of Lori’s sisters. Those 20 minutes added up to hundreds of hours spent together, forging ties that will never be broken.

But my oldest has had her license for half a year now. I’m not needed as the chauffeur for the early morning swim practices. That lesson about time had been replaced with me looking forward to that special Saturday night with Liam. Yeah, I was disappointed when he picked his friends over me, but just like that, he reminded me of a lesson I had too quickly forgotten.

Saturday is errand day for us, as it is for many families. This particular morning — prior to the big game — the plans included a trip to the dump, to the dreaded Super Wal-Mart, to the shoe store, over to Ingles and back to the house. The idea was to rush and get the chores done and get things in motion for the night.

And so we were off. The trash takes twice as long with my son helping, but he’s learning how to break down the cardboard and how to get it in the green trailer properly. That’s his job, and so we muddle through it. At Wally World we tried to get in and out fast, but he wanted to trade in a Christmas gift card for a toy, and so we were there quite a while as he figured out which toy gun was the best. Shoe shopping was taxing, but we finally got just what he needed. And so it went. Suffice it to say the errands took longer than I’d hoped.

On Sunday, after the football game disappointment, Lori and I went to the lake for a walk, and Liam wanted to come along. As we walked, he became a Star Wars clone warrior, protecting our perimeter, running, rolling, flipping, hiding and shooting. All around the lake we went, rubber bullets flying, us getting dirty looks from those who think kids and toy guns are a bad mix. You can tell when children are just having fun in their escape mode, when the game becomes reality and to hell with what most of us consider the real world. He was in that zone.

On the way home he was was tired. He sat quietly in the back before telling us that Saturday morning had been one of the best he could remember. It was fun doing all that stuff together with dad, he says.

And so it was, and out the window once again went the pompous idea that anyone can really measure out planned teaspoons of quality time, like there’s a recipe that adds meaning to time spent together. It comes when you least expect it, amid all those hurried and harried moments we call life.

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

This time, WCU passes academic integrity test

This time, WCU passes academic integrity test

If you want a messy issue with lots of overtones, then let’s talk about academic integrity and the role of corporations on college campuses. It’s a big ol’ Pandora’s box, already open and opinions on the fly everywhere.

Last week our cover story focused on banking giant BB&T’s recent donation to WCU. It seems BB&T’s CEO is a huge Ayn Rand fan. Rand is a philosopher and novelist who emigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 1925 when the Bolsheviks and their rabid, violent form of communism had taken over that country.

Her book, Atlas Shrugged, espouses unfettered capitalism, small government and taking actions mainly for self-interest (let me admit not having read any of Ayn Rand’s books, but I have done some studying of her writings over the last several weeks).

But the big debate here is not over the philosophy of Rand and the thoughts she espouses. It’s about academic freedom and this mountain university that people in this region hold near and dear to their collective hearts.

The million-dollar gift came with a few stipulations. The new Distinguished Professorship of Capitalism at WCU would work closely with the Ayn Rand Institute and “have a reasonable understanding and positive attitude toward Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.” The agreement with the bank also required that Atlas Shrugged be required reading in at least one course and that a free copy of the book be distributed to juniors.

This is what drew the ire of some faculty. Philosophy professor Daryl Hale was among those who criticized the university’s partnership with BB&T, and he became a spokesperson for other disgruntled faculty. “The idea that any donor could have conditions that effectively dictate specific textbooks or course content is something touchy to a lot of folks,” said Hale.

According to WCU officials, the faculty concerns led to the creation of a committee to study the agreement. If the new professor was required to have a “positive attitude” toward Rand, how could they be expected to be critical of someone who is considered a fairly controversial philosopher? And what would that mean in the long run, for a public university to require a professor to have a particular view of any controversial thinker?

The faculty concerns led to some backpedaling by university administrators. No book will be required reading simply due to the donation, and the new language in the agreement with BB&T does not mention the Ayn Rand Institute. In other words, the most controversial aspects of the agreement were removed.

Colleges and universities are facing new funding challenges, and it’s certainly not unusual for businesses and individuals to offer scholarships or to set up endowed professorships. A business major who succeeded is certainly within his right to set up a grant that pays for a low-income student to study abroad. A really wealthy alumni may set up a professorship in special education because he or she suffered from some learning disability. These are accepted forms of philanthropy.

But dictating curriculum is completely over that line. WCU needs to invite corporate support without selling its soul. In this case, the modified agreement seems to accomplish that. But there will be continued pressures to bow to corporate influence, and it is this long-term issue that trustees and administrators — as well as faculty and student leaders — need to remain vigilant about.

(Scott McLeod is the editor and publisher of The Smoky Mountain News. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Here’s to a swift kick to the trash heap for 2008

The new years toasts are over, and we’re a week into 2009. If hindsight is 20-20, then it’s time to feel pretty confident inpassing judgment on 2008 — it sucked.

Ever want to just drop kick a time span into oblivion? In more ways than can be said here, that’s how I feel about a lot of last year. Nothing’s all bad, but the balance sheet for 2008 ends up on the negative side. Good riddance.

And this is coming from someone who considers himself an optimist, one who can find the jewel in an avalanche of slime. In this job we often have to wallow in the mud with the power-mongers and the self-righteous, the pitiful and the abused, but we do it in hopes of making things better. So instead of letting bad news drag me down, typically it’s a springboard to look at what could be or how good I’ve got it.

But many times during the last year, that was hard to do.

Of course there is the bad economic conditions that waddled into our lives in 2008 and just sat there, a huge gorilla with its arms folded and a nasty snarl on its face, squatting there in the middle of the room and refusing to leave. It’s been tough. In our business we’ve had to cut people’s hours, have layoffs, and hold the line on all spending. And there may be more to come. We’ll see how the winter shapes up.

Every business owner has a similar story. No one is happy with sales and profits (or should I say losses), and everyone is getting a little desperate. When business is bad and salaries are cut or workers are let go, lives are screwed up. These are scary times.

And if the recession wasn’t enough to scare the bejeesus out of you, what about the newspaper industry in general? This business is changing so fast it’s hard to keep up, and a good part of that change is eliminating resources going into the gathering of news. All across the country, newspapers are cutting back. We who believe in the value of professional reporting to analyze and interpret the news are, I’m afraid, fast becoming relics. Our industry is changing, but no one can see where the future lies. That uncertainty is unsettling.

On top of that, we’ve had too many health issues here at our business. People I care about are dealing with tough stuff themselves or problems afflicting loved ones, and of course it affects their work. How can it not? And how, as a boss, can you not feel sympathy toward their plight? Never mind that it happens when you’re trying to squeeze blood from a turnip, so that these personal problems run up against bad times on the business side.

There was also my own private nightmare in 2008. My mother-in-law battled through a tough summer with a major illness, and then my mother became unexpectedly ill and fought like hell for almost three months before passing away. Losing a mother you’re close to — besides having to dealing with the grief — is like cutting the last tether holding you to the life raft, and suddenly you’re out there in the middle of the ocean on your own emotionally. No matter your age, it just takes time to regain your balance.

A friend of nearly 30 years also lost his mom this year. He’s one of those guys who makes proclamations that stick in your head, a blue-collar philosopher who thinks hard about life. I got him on the phone when he was driving back from visiting family after she died, and he had been on the highway alone for more than 10 hours. “No one said the journey was going to be easy, that it wasn’t going to get rough at times,” he said. “You just got to keep moving.”

And so we do, keep putting one foot in front of the other, get out of bed, get dressed, get the kids to school, go to work, go through the routines of our life. The little things will lift you up, the unexpected silly email from the co-worker, the stories about my wife’s students, the declarations of omnipotence from my 10-year-old during breakfast, the angst of my 13-year-old, the sunny smile of my 16-year-old who is too wrapped up worrying about school and sports but who just can’t help being a ray of sunshine in whatever room she’s in.

I can’t stand whiners. They get under my skin real fast. If you feel the same, you’ve probably read enough of this. Too much damn grousing. Time to move on, one foot in front of the other, heading forward. Here’s to 2009.

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

Forgive yes, but first a look at HRMC’s recent past

The healing power of forgiveness is at the top of the list of things in which I believe strongly. It’s the best drug on earth, doing more good for more people than anything a doctor ever learned in medical school.

Forest Service should let boaters on the Chattooga

The U.S. Forest Service is about to release its opinion on whether to allow boating on the Chattooga River. It’s been a long and complicated battle, but here’s hoping that American Whitewater’s attempt to open the river to kayaking is successful.

Letter writers take me to task twice in one week

Fair’s fair, so I’ll print an anonymous letter I received over the weekend. We usually don’t print anonymous submissions, but this one raises important issues. Don’t stop reading before the last paragraph.

Tis the season of politics and lies

The truth is that, at the state level, no one is giving Pat Smathers a chance to win in his bid for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. The Canton mayor and attorney is trying to run a statewide race with low-budget campaign, and so the odds are stacked against him.

Next president has abig hole to dig us out of

“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

— Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson believed in a strict code of ethics and morality that was Christian-like, and judged according to that belief. When I came across this quote the other day while reading the Washington Post online, it seemed relevant to our situation today.

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