As Neal Robbins tells it, when he was making plans for a statewide news outlet he wanted to launch in North Carolina, he consulted with a bunch of other journalism entrepreneurs.
“They all said, you’ve got to do a website,” recalled Robbins, an attorney who worked in politics and government before moving to publishing. “And I said ‘OK, that sounds way easier than doing print. When did you start making a profit?’ And they all just kind of laughed, like, what do you mean make a profit?”
So, Robbins says, he made what seemed like the obvious move: He put a big bet on print.
The result is North State Journal, “North Carolina’s only statewide newspaper,” which debuted two Sundays ago and is already one of the odder startup stories you’re likely to encounter this year. A bold new arrival on the local news scene at a time when the industry is in need of both optimism and jobs, the project has nonetheless attracted some quick scrutiny in the Tar Heel State, with skeptical coverage noting the Republican connections of several top staffers and Robbins’ refusal to identify his investors.
For his part, meanwhile, Robbins brushes off those concerns and talks enthusiastically about “filling gaps” in state media—while outlining a decidedly retro editorial and business vision that targets some opportunities but can make him sound, at times, like a publishing version of Rip Van Winkle, just awakened from a nap he took in the 1990s.
Robbins was battling a cold—a bout of the “Carolina Crud,” he told me—when we spoke about his new venture. Like everyone else, he’s seen the decline in the newspaper business: jobs lost, newspapers folding, a slowness to adapt. “I was just reading in Editor & Publisher magazine today how newspaper declines kind of went lockstep with the decline in display advertising and classifieds,” he said. But, he says, the demand for newspapers is still around. And while many of the state’s papers still do “a great job telling the local stories,” he says, they are, well, local.
So he saw an opportunity: Raise a little capital by shark-tanking the idea, hire some journalists, bring on a few friends from his government days, rent time on presses other people own, and get down to the business of publishing a well-designed broadsheet and getting it delivered statewide. “We’re just getting everybody together and making a newspaper,” Robbins says.
The business model is traditional—advertising and subscriptions, priced at $250 a year for delivery five days a week, according to the paper’s website—and so is the basic format of the print product, right down to the Sudoku and crossword puzzles in the back. But there are a few wrinkles. On the ad sales front, the priority is brand campaigns, not spot ads. Editorially, the obvious emphasis on college sports comes with a heightened focus on programs outside the state’s marquee universities—schools that draw little coverage outside their home markets even though, Robbins explains, they have alumni all over the state. Coverage of state politics and the congressional delegation, the publisher says, is designed to fill gaps, especially for readers in rural areas. (Jones & Blount, an insider-politics website Robbins helped launch in spring 2015, will be folded in to North State Journal.) The editorial pages at North Carolina’s major papers lean center-left; North State Journal’s opinion section, consisting only of bylined columns, will emphasize free markets and individual liberty. And, of course, there is the mandate to cover the whole state—from Murphy to Manteo, the mountains to the coast.
Robbins has invested in design and in photography, and the first two print issues look good visually. A “fully-responsive web portal,” updated with the news cycle, should be live in the next few weeks, he says. For the moment, the digital presence amounts to e-versions of the print run and a smattering of social media accounts.
The plan is to scale in print, too, from the soft-launch Sunday schedule to a print run five days a week; delivery may be handled by same-day postal service in rural areas. Robbins declined to say what all this is costing, and says there’s no target yet for first-year subscription sales, but he predicts North State Journal will be profitable by the end of the year.
The managing editor is Donna King, who has worked for Reuters and other news organizations, as well as for Republican politicians. “The decision to do a print newspaper in 2016 is not an easy one,” acknowledged King, who says she personally invested in the launch.
“You can’t share an iPad around the kitchen table with your kids,” she continued. “We really miss the experience of a full newspaper, and we don’t think we’re alone in that. I think a lot of people do. There’s something about the permanency of a printed paper, of the written word in ink that we missed. We think it brings accountability to what we’re saying in that it provides a permanent record of the events of our state and it provides us more depth of understanding of the issues.”
Running the sports section is Will Brinson, 34, a senior writer for CBS Sports and a self-described digital native with more than 42,000 Twitter followers. North State Journal’s print deadlines make game stories challenging—when the latest edition rolled off the presses last Saturday evening, Duke and Carolina were still going at it on the basketball court. So instead of a preview or review, the paper ran a feature about Duke senior Marshall Plumlee nearing the end of his run. That fits the strategy of contextual stories with analysis, features, and deeper dives, Brinson said.
“I think there’s starting to be sort of a trend,” he told me. “There’s a lot of shouting and there’s a lot of noise and there’s a lot of listicles and there’s a lot of competition for eyeballs in the cheapest way possible … and I think that the differentiator here for us is that we’re saying, ‘Look, slow down, relax, read it, spend the entire weekend with this thing.’ You can set it down and come back to it later and it’s not going to disappear because some algorithm told it to go away.”
The in-house optimism is paired with skepticism from observers I’ve spoken to. “I have no clue how they are going to build a sustainable model,” says John Robinson, the former editor of the Greensboro News & Record, who now blogs about media and teaches journalism at UNC. The editorial approach, meanwhile, sets a high bar for delivering something really original. Says Robinson, “Who really wants recycled stuff that I can get with a quick glance at the web?”
In a state where partisan and ideological media has developed a foothold, there is also wariness about the paper’s political connections. Robbins worked for a decade for Republican US Sen. Richard Burr, and later in the administration of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Opinion editor Drew Elliot and several business-side staff worked in the McCrory administration, too. These pedigrees have been noted repeatedly in the Raleigh News & Observer and elsewhere, along with questions about the identities of Robbins’ investors. “A lot of this could be put to rest if they’d reveal their funders,” said Robinson.
Robbins responds that any outside investors provided only start-up capital, and that he has “100 percent control of the company.” As for the GOP connections, he says, “it’s kind of like the Bermuda Triangle, if you get fixated on it you can find a triangle in the ocean and find just as many wrecks. So I think when you’re looking for something you usually find it.”
Paul Woolverton, a reporter and columnist at The Fayetteville Observer, is one journalist in North Carolina who’s glad to see a print newspaper launch.
“But I’m suspicious,” he told me. He rattled off the usual questions about whether there’s enough subscription and advertising revenue in the market to support the cost. “Print readers are literally dying off,” he added. “New readers are online, they have been trained for more than 20 years that online news is free. More than half want news via their phones, and they discover it from social media links. Digital ads pay pennies vs. the dollars that print ads once generated, so is this for real?”