Greater than good: The State Port Pilot

June 24, 2008

State Port Pilot staffers assemble for a group portrait in their skylighted entrance atrium: clockwise, from front and lower step, Colin Campbell, writing intern from UNC-CH; Lisa Stites, staff writer; Jonathan Spiers, staff writer; Lee Hinnant, news editor; Ben Brown, staff writer; Suzi Drake, features editor; Ed Harper, editor and Hilary Snow, staff writer. Not pictured, Bret McCormick, sports editor, Jim Harper, photographer and Terry Pope, associate editor. (Photo by Jock Lauterer)
In a day and age when we hear so much doom and gloom about the newspaper industry, it’s a pure pleasure for this old newsie to hit the road each summer to lead workshops at quality, thriving community newspapers.

Maybe you’ve been reading about the buyouts, layoffs and shrinking news hole at McClatchy-owned papers and could use a dose of optimism.

To do that, you might want to take to the “blue highways,â€? where all-local community papers, including small dailies but especially independently owned weeklies, are holding their own, and then some.

For starters, I wish I could pack the whole glum bunch of professional media funeral mourners into my car and take them to the State Port Pilot of Southport.

The gold standard.

That’s what I call The State Port Pilot. This profitable, innovative, growing, family-owned broadsheet weekly consistently wins annual state press awards for news and advertising by the boatloads.

A GOOD NEWSPAPER IN A GOOD COMMUNITY

It’s no accident. The Pilot is a zesty, vital, all-local, visually striking example of what a community newspaper can and should be.

Their understated motto, “A good newspaper in a good community,â€? could be more accurate with a couple of greats substituted for those goods.

I give long-time editor Ed Harper much of the credit for crafting this paper into a legendary winner, though Ed will tell you he simply stewards the work of his parents, the late James M. Harper Jr. and the redoubtable Margaret Harper, 91. After years of 70-80 hour work weeks and a heart attack, Ed has wisely begun taking more time for his personal life, yet he still “pilotsâ€? the ship with a sure hand.

OUT FRONT ONLINE TOO

And they’ve been way out front in the e-world too. Since the mid-`90s, the online version of the Pilot has been an industry leader. Check it out for yourself at stateportpilot.com.

You’ll see readable section fronts, with a simple rail on the right with hyperlinked listings that will connect you to your beach rental options. Very useful and very cool. And since nearby Oak Island is “my beach,â€? I’ve been using the stateportpilot.com as my real estate portal for years.

Oh, and be sure to check out the State Port Pilot Webcam for a panoramic live view of the harbor. Not to shabby for a weekly, huh?

And now, Pilot print version subscribers get to view every online page free in PDF version (for the annual in-county print subscription cost of $18). I think that’s exactly the direction community papers should be going.

LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION

For those folks who’ve never been to the charming harbor town of Southport, it’s ideally situated about 45 minutes south of Wilmington on the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Like most attractive coastal communities, Southport has experienced boom-time growth in a robust local economy that has been the financial engine for the Pilot (though Harper says the real estate market has cooled somewhat). All the same, the 10k circulation Wednesday weekly is still chocka-block with real estate ads. The two editions I perused were both a hefty 84 pages. All local. All locally produced. Not a shred of canned copy. Drop-dead photos by brother Jim Harper anchor the paper visually throughout.

Instead of sending their profits to Sacramento, the Pilot plows earnings back into the community: The staffbox lists 23 employees, including four editors, a general manager, photographer and FIVE WRITERS.

That’s more reporters than many small dailies.

And back in the height of the ’01-02 recession, Ed built a gorgeous 6,000-square-foot newspaper building smack-dab in the middle of Southport. To my mind, the Pilot’s office, with its sky-lighted atrium entrance, is a real testament to the past, present and future of community journalism.

But the Pilot is not without competition. The Landmark-owned Brunswick Beacon of Shallotte, a hefty and excellent weekly in its own right, stakes out western Brunswick County, while the newest entry into the Brunswick circulation wars is the Wilmington Star News‘ “Brunswick Star News,â€? a zoned edition that Harper maintains has had no impact onthe Pilot‘s bottom line.

And since turnabout is fair play, Ed recently launched “The North Brunswick Pilotâ€? that contains a lot of original content from the high-growth Leland area.

A SUMMER TO REMEMBER

Little wonder then that I wanted to place a top-drawer UNC J-schooler at the Pilot for a summer internship.

My pick was Colin Campbell, this year’s Batten Community Journalism Award-winner. A rising senior from Charlottesville, Va., Colin excelled this past spring as co-editor of the Carrboro Commons, the lab e-paper produced by the Community Journalism class.

So I was sure Colin would be a solid addition to the Pilot staff, while at the same time learning from the likes of real world “perfessersâ€? Harper, veteran Associate Editor Terry Pope and News Editor Lee Hinnant (the latter of whom earned his press cred from eight years at the Tampa Trib and 14 years with the High family’s excellent News Reporter up the road in Whiteville.)

In my book, it’s no accident that the best community papers are “teaching papers,â€? with newsrooms where enlightened editors realize and embrace their multiple roles of editing, leading, managing the paper AND teaching young journalists.

IN THE CATBIRD SEAT

My hopes were confirmed during my visit last week at the Pilot where it was obvious that Colin is having one unforgettable summer. He’s getting to do a little bit of everything, including “more photography than I expected,â€? he says — which is exactly whey I stress basic photo in both my newswriting and community journalism classes.

As Colin is finding out, sometimes he even beats the competition with his little point-and-shoot.

Along the way this summer Colin has done a variety of stories, including the usual DBI stories (Dull But Important) like coverage of the town budget – but also stories that he’ll long remember. His favorite is a piece he did about a free medical clinic staffed by local volunteer doctors and nurses who spend up to 10 hours a day helping folks who otherwise might go untreated. One woman told Colin that the New Hope Clinic had saved her life.

THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’

The skyrocketing gas prices have slapped everybody in the wallet (the Roadshow too!) and newspaper folks everywhere are looking for creative ways to handle it.

Pilot staff writer Jonathan Spiers, who covers many stories in the northern end of the county, a 30-minute drive from the newsroom, saves time and money by working out of Internet coffee shops.

And Ed has instituted a flex-time policy that allows his reporters to work from home one day a week, saving time and gas and keeping his campers happy.

No doubt about it, yet another reason why folks love working at the State Port Pilot. I’m sure Colin will come back to Chapel Hill in August with a scrapbook full of great clips and memories.

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