The beginning of an era

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By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

When The News Reporter hit the streets in Whiteville last Friday, the Thompson-High family had owned the paper for 83 years. On Tuesday, the masthead had a new name on top. But it’s still in the family, so to speak.

image of a newspaper front page
Justin Smith, who has been editor of The News Reporter since 2018, is now the owner and publisher.

Justin Smith, who has been editor of The News Reporter since 2018, is now the owner and publisher, having bought the 125-year-old Columbus County institution from siblings Les High and Stuart High Rogers and keeping it in local hands — something that Les High, who had been the publisher, calls “critical.”

The News Reporter, of course, is best known outside the region for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1953 along with the Tabor City Tribune for their stalwart reporting on the Klan. That was 15 years after the paper was bought by High and Rogers’ grandfather, Leslie S. Thompson, who passed the publisher’s role to his son-in-law, Jim High, in 1959. Jim High’s son, Les, succeeded him, and Rogers has been the director of special projects. Their family just won the Tom and Pat Gish Award for Courage, Tenacity and Integrity in Rural Journalism, as I reported last week.

Les High this year founded the Border Belt Reporting Center and in May launched the Border Belt Independent with a grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. The Independent does in-depth coverage of key issues in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties.

High and Rogers will be consultants to Smith for months to come. “I’ll still work here a couple of days a week,” High told me this week, “and will be much more involved in the Border Belt Independent project, which I’m excited about.”

Smith has a news staff of seven people, three of them full-time, plus stringers. The company has 18 regular employees, he said, fewer than half of whom are full-time.

men and women stand together talking
Smith, center, with Stuart Rogers, left, and Les and Becky High

Smith grew up in Whiteville and lives there now with his wife, Rachel. He had been on the City Council but resigned from that seat when he took the publisher’s role (he had separated himself from coverage of city government when he became editor in 2018).

I caught up with Smith on Tuesday to talk about his plans:

In the short term

“We’ve got a strong newsroom that is really oriented around being digital-first, and then even better in print, and we’ve got an advertising department that really has a strong connection with the local business community. So we’re just going to carry on with all of that for the foreseeable future.”

Down the road?

“We’re going to continually look to enhance what we’re doing digitally. We already have digital-first stories, almost every day of the week. We have a very active Facebook page. We’re on Instagram. We’ve got a Linktree link where we have stories, and that’s been a good way for us to reach a new audience. And we’re on Twitter. I think there’s going to be an opportunity to do more with email newsletters. Right now we have an automated feed… every weekday at 3 pm, but I see a curated email newsletter in our future.

“With print we’re going to have to continue to look at how reader demand changes. We understand that print is important because we are a rural county, and that is the way that a significant share of our readers access us.”

On the biggest challenges ahead

“I think one of the biggest challenges is just making sure that we’re serving all of the different segments of our audience, in the way that they want to be served, meaning the platform and the frequency and the type of stories that they want. I think we do a good job at that given our size and our resources, but I just think that’s going to be increasingly important.

“This is a big responsibility, and it’s something I take extremely seriously. And I’m going to pour everything that I have into it, and there’s certainly nothing that I’d rather be doing with my life right now.”

Read more about Smith and the transition in Diana Matthews’ story in The News Reporter.