A spotlight on students helped one small North Carolina paper shine

February 12, 2019

At the banquet last spring, a junior who hopes to be a doctor someday sat next to a cardiologist. A third grader, whose dad died and who maybe wants to be a lawyer, sat with a local judge who showed him how to navigate his silverware. And a young woman at the alternative high school who wants to join the military sat with a three-star general.

It was an evening with tribute videos, speeches and recognition. The (Henderson, North Carolina) Daily Dispatch was the host. And the students were the special guests.

In 2017, the Daily Dispatch started featuring students in a locally sponsored project they call Student Spotlight.

In its first year, staff featured 17 kids nominated by the Vance County School District. Facebook Live videos and produced videos featuring the winners brought in twice as many video views as there are people in the county, and the project broke even. In its second year, it’s set to double its revenue and actually bring in a profit. And in that time, the newspaper increased digital subscriptions by nearly 20 percent: from 189 to 225, said publisher Nancy Wykle.

“We see that as a pretty big increase for a market that, four or five years ago, wasn’t really looking at digital as an opportunity,” she said.

The project shows both measurable and immeasurable benefits of finding new ways to engage with your community, not just as a watchdog, but as a stakeholder.

The 105-year-old Daily Dispatch has a staff of 14, including two part-timers and the guy who drives nearly four hours round trip from the newsroom to the presses and back with the day’s papers. The Dispatch publishes every day but Mondays, and it’s owned by Kentucky-based Paxton Media Group.

Henderson, 45 minutes north of Raleigh-Durham, is rural, said Wykle, and in one of the poorest counties in the state. In the past few years, new school leadership brought in significant progress with standardized testing results, but the Daily Dispatch wanted to tell stories beyond the numbers.

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The newspaper participated in the University of North Carolina’s Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, also known as Table Stakes. (Disclosure: The Knight Foundation helps fund my coverage of local news.) Staff wanted to work on a project that helped raise the community’s vitality.

Around that time, education reporter Miles Bates asked Wykle if he could hang around the school and look for great stories. No, she said, they didn’t have the luxury of that kind of time, but they could build on that idea.

The Daily Dispatch approached the public school foundation about sponsoring recognition of local students, and an area businessman who sits on the board offered $1,000. The public school foundation also agreed to sponsor the project.

In August of 2017, the Daily Dispatch got balloons and school supplies and headed to one of the schools.

The newspaper didn’t want the wonderkids, by the way. They wanted kids doing extraordinary things just by being there – kids who were working through obstacles and still showing up.

Both the newsroom and the ad department work together on Student Spotlight, Wykle said. They recognize the sponsors in ads and the Facebook Live videos, but the ideas come from the district and the newsroom controls the content.

They stream the surprise announcements on Facebook Live, shoot an individual photo and class photo for an ad that includes the names of the sponsors, and then sit down with the student who’s featured to find out more for a short video.

After a few spotlights, members of the the local Kiwanis asked if they could help. They started laminating the certificates and coming along for the big surprise. And the businessman sponsor wanted to do more, so last summer, he rented a charter bus and sent all the kids to Washington, D.C,. to meet with North Carolina’s senator.

One day, a newspaper carrier stopped by the newsroom. You’re going to keep doing this Spotlight thing, right? he asked.

Wykle sits on a board with the president of the community college, and she felt the same. This Spotlight thing, Wykle remembers her saying, I really like this. You’re going to keep doing it right?

The Daily Dispatch staff took a kind of ready-fire-aim approach to Student Spotlight, and they’ve learned a lot from its first year. Those lessons include things you can measure and things you can’t.

They had no idea how to get sponsorships, Wykle said, and got just enough money to cover their expenses. Throughout the year, they kept track of social media metrics and website engagement.

Those numbers made it much easier to get sponsors for year two because they could show the reach and impact, “not just, hey we think this sounds cool, come join us,” Wykle said.

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Their videos brought in a total of 94,000 views. (“Our county has 44,000 residents,” Wykle said.)

Those videos helped staff get used to shooting videos, and the community, Wykle said, “has been very forgiving as we’ve learned what we’re doing.”

It got Daily Dispatch staff out of the building and into the community; helped the ad staff, circulation and editorial work together; and helped them all learn to be much more agile.

Last year, Wykle said, “I was worrying about the banquet menu in October.”

Now that it has launched Student Spotlight, the newsroom realized it could do more stakeholder work. There’s a leadership gap in Vance County, Wykle said, and big concerns about losing young leaders to bigger nearby cities.

So she reached out to the Chamber of Commerce and partnered on a project that would feature 10 emerging leaders under 40. The Daily Dispatch asked for submissions but had a reserve of 10 just in case no one was nominated. They got 100 nominations. They narrowed that pool down and renamed their project “15 under 40.”

Other newsrooms can learn from the Daily Dispatch by making time to think beyond the news cycle, Wykle said.

“Table Stakes really helped focus on the value in setting aside that time,” she said. “You will find the time if it’s important.”

This newsroom now has two projects that give it a platform to advocate for its community, the confidence to pull off ambitious projects and the skills they need to do more.

And the best part: “The community embraced it.”