How small newsrooms can go big when news comes to town
In June, the community of Pinehurst hosted its third U.S. Open and fourth U.S. Women's Open Championships. The community newspaper there knew that 400,000 spectators would come through Pinehurst, North Carolina. And with all those spectators, there would be a lot of journalists.
They also knew that, with a twice-weekly publication schedule, they'd miss a lot of news during the two weeks when golf would be dominating local life. But they already had a model in place to fix that.
In 1999, the twice-weekly paper set out to create something additional -- the Open Daily. This year, with both the men and women on the same course, they created a 56- to 64-page magazine tab that ran for 18 days.
"We decided that we needed to produce a product that was every day, but we also needed to be true to our roots, which is to serve our community," said Pilot publisher and co-owner David Woronoff in a phone interview.
"We knew — this year especially with the historic nature of the first-ever back-to-back Opens — that we were part of something special," said Editor John Nagy in an email. "We set out to fulfill our unofficial motto of 'Small town but never small-time' by owning every aspect of the two-week event. We wanted to soak up as much of the available advertising revenue as there was. We wanted to be the unqualified expert source for news and information. We didn't want anyone coming in to our community and showing us up."
"We wanted to be the paper of record for the U.S. Open," Woronoff said. "We wanted to own it in a way that no other medium could, save NBC. But we didn't pay tens of millions of dollars for the right to cover it."
Here's a few ways they did just that.
1. Figure out the competition.
Staff at the Pilot knew 1,000 credentialed media were coming to Pinehurst to cover the Open. So they had to figure out what their competition couldn't or wouldn't do, he said, "then you figure out a way to do it."
The Pilot saw publications such as Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf Week as their rivals, and they knew there would also be journalists in from newspapers in the region. They anticipated how their competition would cover the event, and knew that none of those places would be giving away their news.
"So we said, well, lets give ours away," Woronoff said, and they sold enough ads to pay for the whole thing. (More on that in a bit.)
"Audacity is a powerful tool, and so we used that to motivate ourselves," he said.
"The quote that I loved was we may be small town but we'll never be small-time," said Jock Lauterer, a journalism teacher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a former photographer for the Open Daily.
The Pilot paid attention to the competition, he said.
"Turned out nobody was gonna put out a bust-ass daily newspaper, relentlessly local, about the U.S. Open."
2. Figure out your resources.
The Pilot had to take a sober look at what they could and couldn't do, Woronoff said. Yes, they had the infrastructure to produce the Open Daily.
The paper didn't have staff with expertise on covering big-time golf tournaments, Woronoff said, so they recruited nationally and used the existing newsroom to supplement.
The Pilot has an editorial staff of 13, so they opted to bring in freelancers to round things out. They recruited Jim Dodson, who helped cover the U.S. Open for The Pilot in 2005 and is now the editor of three of the publication's magazines. (Dodson also wrote Ben Hogan's bio, Arnold Palmer's autobiography and is a New York Times' best-selling author.)
The key was putting their assets on the table, Woronoff said, and then seeing what else they needed.
"I was like Tom Sawyer, just getting people to help me paint the fence."
"The Pilot has always approached an Open with an 'all-in' strategy," Nagy said. "That is, every person in our entire operation, regardless of their 'day job,' had a role to play."
In all, they brought in 15 extra journalists to cover the championships. Then, they took care of those people.
"Your people matter," Nagy said. "We kept everyone fed and watered. We brought in chair massages for the staff. We had a special ice cream truck stop by. We made sure people got rest and time off when and where they could to avoid burnout."
Included in resources, of course, is how to pay for the whole thing. At The Pilot, ads paid for 100 percent of the total product. Advertisers couldn't just take out ads for one or three or five days, either. They had to commit to a package deal, running ads each day of publication for either the men's or women's championship. Many chose to advertise for both.
"It was not an easy sell, but that's how we sold it," Woronoff said.
3. Figure out your focus.
Three Cs guided their coverage, Woronoff said -- contestants, course and community.
"We also weren't afraid to take an unorthodox approach," Nagy said. "We knew early on that we didn't possess the sheer number of people or the intimate golf knowledge needed to be the undisputed expert source. So we took an approach that you virtually never see: we teamed up with Global Golf Post, the digital-only golf publication, for a content sharing arrangement. We immediately had access to some of the most experienced professional golf writers in the business, and they had access to our talented columnists and extensive local knowledge. We also had a prior relationship with a renowned international golf photographer, Joann Dost, who had worked with us during the last U.S. Women's Open. Joann came back, but this time brought two equal golf photographer heavyweights: Matthew Harris and John Clouse. Matthew, based in London, had shot more than 100 major golf championships in his career. John had recently retired as the head of Nikon North America and was a veteran golf photographer."
The course itself was just as much part of the story as the contestants and the community. Pinehurst, considered the third best course in the world, is 115 years old. So The Pilot decided to tell its history. They brought in Lee Pace, the resort's official historian and a monthly golf columnist for The Pilot's local magazine, to write a daily column about Pinehurst.
They also wrote about the community, the players and the people who came to see the Open. They wrote about public safety, medical infrastructure and they told local stories.
"The vast majority of them are local," Woronoff said of readers, "so you're telling their stories."
4. Figure out how you're going to get it into people's hands.
The Pilot identified anyone who was a spectator at the U.S. Open as a potential reader. And there are 43 golf courses within 10 miles of The Pilot's newsroom.
"There's literally a golf course on every street corner," Woronoff said.
And they wanted to get the Open Daily into the hands of all those people. Publications were available all around town, Woronoff said, but they also knew that 3,000 hotel rooms had been booked (years in advance) and so every hotel room in Moore County got a copy every day. They also delivered to hotels outside of town and to homes people rented out (which they knew about because local real estate agents were also advertisers.)
The Pilot also got issues into people's hands with the help of 60 newsies. In 1999, a local Boys and Girls Club was created after a half a million dollar gift from Pinehurst after the U.S. Open. The Pilot had kids from the club dress us as newsies and sent them around town with red wagons to give out papers. The paper then donated $10,000 to the club.
"The kids loved it because they were helping earn money for their club, so they were motivated and into it," Woronoff said.
5. Figure out the tech stuff.
The last time The Pilot reported on the U.S. Open was in 2007 with the Women's Open. In the last seven years, a lot had changed.
"During our first U.S. Open 1999, we processed film at a local one-hour Kodak booth, for God's sake," Nagy said. "In that time, technology had changed dramatically. We spent a bit of time studying our work flow processes from prior Opens and then redesigned our work to incorporate modern technology."
So instead of waiting for the USGA's 9 p.m. player-by-player score update each night, staff used a Google Docs spreadsheet and tracked scoring.
"It was on the page ready to go within 20 minutes after the final putt," Nagy said. "Several staffers coordinated by filling in the spreadsheet as players moved through the course. Simple, but not something we did seven years ago."
They used DropBox and other cloud services to keep everyone connected, showing the staff in the media room how pages looked in design and also sharing photos.
"Social media also wasn't around in 2007, so this time we had personnel responsible solely for updating Facebook and Twitter feeds, in addition to updating our website with real-time results and stories as they came in."
There may be one more thing to add to this list -- figure out if your company has enough money "to risk this 'big hairy dream,'" Lauterer said.
In 1999 when The Pilot first tried a daily production, they'd never done anything like it.
"You do have to be pretty bold to do that as a publisher," Lauterer said.
This year. profits from the ads sold during those two weeks generated a month's worth of revenue, essentially adding a 13th month to the year, Woronoff said. But the motive wasn't just profit, he added.
"It mattered to us. News is like a hurricane -- the closer you are to the middle of the storm, the more important it is to you."