Don't Be Afraid of Change

November 12, 2021

There are two ways you can view ownership of a community newspaper that has existed for decades (or for more than a century, even).

One view: the publication is a community mainstay, and has to remain what it always has been because that’s what people expect.

Or you can view it the way Bill Horner III sees the Chatham News+Record: “It’s a 143-year-old startup.”

Horner worked for his family newspaper, the Sanford Herald in North Carolina, for 30 years, and learned a lot about the business during that time. He came out of retirement a few years back when he and a few others purchased two weekly newspapers — the Chatham News and the Chatham Record.

Those papers have since combined into one, but that was just the start of a transformation that Horner has enacted since 2018.

“I cut my teeth (in the newspaper business) full time in 1985,” Horner told me. “Reading newspapers was what everyone did. Now with social media and digital, you have to figure out ways to go to new audiences. That’s been hard making that shift. If you had a great product, people would find out and buy it. Now, I look at what’s happening in the industry and see a lot of bad papers.”

Horner quickly realized that the “appetite for good print journalism just isn’t there” like it used to be. With print numbers flat, Horner started innovating elsewhere to gain new subscribers and new forms of revenue.

“Bill embraces change,” said longtime journalist Dennis Hetzel, who recently dubbed the News+Record "one of the best weeklies in America."

“He realizes that things have to be different to succeed," Hetzel told me. "He’s willing to try stuff.”

Hetzel said Horner has been one of the few weekly owners around who has gone through both the Table Stakes program and the Facebook Accelerator program.

Programs like these (along with the excellent coaching by Cierra Hinton) led to the creation of a robust website (there was no website when they purchased the paper) and three newsletters, including Chatham Brew, which is sent out three times a week and includes top news and information, and The Carpool, which is “everything you need to know about parenting and education in Chatham County.” That one is sent out twice a month.

But that’s not all. The News+Record, which has a staff of 6.5, also created a new Spanish-language publication called La Voz, which is described in great detail here.

And then there are the out-of-the-box ideas, like the Chatham Brew coffee blend that was created in partnership with Aromatic Roasters. 

Originally, the breakfast blend coffee was used by the sales folks when they went out to visit clients, but is now offered as a prize for those lucky enough to win the publication’s Brew Quiz, which can be found in the newsletter. If you win the coffee, you have to go to Aromatic to pick it up — which means more foot traffic and potential business for a local establishment. Horner said they’re also working on retailing the coffee, which he describes as “a great, fruity morning blend.”

The coffee partnership is just the first. Horner also is in talks with a local brewery on a branded beer, and a collaboration with a local independent bookstore, as well.

At the end of the day, however, Horner hasn’t lost sight of the N+R’s mission — to provide quality news and information to the community. The opportunity to create a great newspaper after seeing so many in the area crumble is what drove him out of retirement. And he feels like his staff is capitalizing on that opportunity.

“We want to provide the market with a great product,” he said. “We want to have a newspaper that has some bulk.”

There are, however, some in the community that have been turned off by the change that has occurred under the new ownership, whether it be because they feel too much time is dedicated to Spanish language stories, or because of other content Horner’s staff is now covering, like a series on the remembrance of a 16-year-old’s lynching 100 years ago.

“We’ve lost some subscribers because of the reporting we’ve done,” Horner said. “I was told there hadn’t been a person of color pictured on the front page of the paper in 40 years, and now we’re covering the Black Lives Matter movement in Pittsboro.”

With all that said, however, Horner said “total readership is up significantly” since they purchased the paper, and that’s a good sign for the future. Horner knows there is still a long way to go.

“How sustainable are we? Right now not very," he said. "But we’re working on it.”

Reminder: Support Small-Town USA

Thanks to all of you who read and shared our newsletter from earlier this week on the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. If for whatever reason you didn't get a chance to read it, shame on you for six weeks. But we'll let it slide since you can find a version of it online here.

That op-ed pairs nicely with Bill Horner's story above. Yes, it is one thing to (hopefully) help your newspaper via the LJSA, but that's just the first step. The next is to do the work that owners like Horner are putting in to make sure their businesses are sustainable for the long term and that they're meeting their audiences wherever they are and are providing them the news and information that will help them live their lives.

Programs like Table Stakes and the Accelerator are wonderful, and I might also humbly suggest our own online Media Solutions and Innovation program at WVU, which can help you learn new ways to improve your relationship with your current audience, grow new audiences and diversify your revenue sources -- all in the name of business sustainability and growth. So keep that in mind if you're serious about ensuring that your publication is a mainstay of your community for years to come.