Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Editor opens free daily in N. Carolina

Fayetteville, N.C. is home to the nation's newest free daily, SmartNews. The editor and publisher of this new daily is Randy Foster, a newsman with more than 20 years of experience including six years at Fayetteville's paid daily, the Observer, where he was metro editor for a year and news editor for five years.

SmartNews has been printing four days a week for six weeks now with a daily press run of 8,000. Foster says the paper has about 200 delivery points, including more than 100 rack locations. "We have another 140 racks still in the box that we are finding locations for," he says. asked Foster the following questions:

Q: Why did you leave the Fayetteville Observer?

I had grown frustrated working for other owners in environments that claimed to nurture and encourage innovation and initiative but really placed roadblocks at every turn. I'd worked for corporate-owned papers and privately owned papers, and found they are all basically the same. I am 47 and have held every job at newspapers but one: publisher. I've also consulted for other papers to help them look better, read better and be more efficient. Almost every paper I have worked for or with became General Excellence papers. Papers where I was the senior editor have all grown in circulation. I thought it was time that I put what I know to work for myself.

Q: SmartNews has been operating for [more than] a month now -- how is it going?

It has been an exciting experience. A day does not go by where we cannot observe significant, measurable growth. That's easy to say since we started from nothing. It started with just me and a friend I hired to help me establish the distribution infrastructure. Today we have 11 people working full-time, a paid intern and another 12 distributors working as independent contractors. We distribute 8,000 copies — hawked, home-delivered in different neighborhoods each day, and racks — four days a week.

On our first day, we had six people (friends, relatives and employees) and four of our five sons out trying to deliver 15,000
copies. Another six people we hired for distribution didn't show up (getting distributors to show up for the job has been surprisingly hard). We scaled back on distribution to better reflect our resources, and 8,000 copies, four days a week, has become a comfortable zone. My goal is to get back to 15,000 a day and add a Saturday edition sometime in the next six months, as we continue to grow our advertising base and our distribution force.

The paper is 16 full-color pages, tabloid. Content is a combination of staff and contributed local information and Associated Press.

Q: Who owns SmartNews (and please name names) and identify any other media outlets they may own?

Sarah and Randy Foster own SmartNews. Sarah has no newspaper experience but has written for a magazine as a technology columnist. She has a psychology degree from UNC Chapel Hill and was most recently a special education teacher. All of that is surprisingly helpful. She runs the business and advertising sides of the newspaper. I run the news, Web site and distribution sides.

Q: What has been the response from advertisers?

The first day I went out to pre-sell advertising, I sold ads to three of the first four places I visited. I figured that was a good sign. The going was harder after that, especially since I had to turn my attention to making all the other arrangements necessary to starting a newspaper from scratch (and believe me, there are was a lot to do).

We went into a dry spell the first few weeks of publication, although advertisers welcomed us and said they were happy to have an alternative. But summer is a bad time to start a paper in some ways. A lot of decision makers are out of the office, and budgets have been written in stone. A lot of our advertisers are spending unbudgeted money to be in our paper.

The bright side is that things are improving by the day and will continue to improve as we head into the holiday season.

Q: How large is your staff? Please break it down by editorial, sales, circ, etc.

    • Editorial: 2 editors (plus two correspondents, a paid intern and three stringers)

    • Sales: 4

    • Circulation: 2 (plus 16 independent distributors)
Q: In the month since you started, what has surprised you the most?

1. How hard it is to get people to do what they say they're going to do. We have had about 20 people who we hired for distributor jobs who never showed up, for example. We have a verbal commitment for a weekly full-page ad but have not been able to meet up to sign the contract and get the check. It seems every step of the way there have been dropped balls. It took me weeks just to find someone to bid on our printing, and then another two weeks to get the bids.

2. How thirsty people are for an interesting newspaper. I've been in the business a long time and have read about and written about the gloom and doom predictions for the newspaper industry. And working for dailies, I could see why people wouldn't want to pay for them. As an editor, most of the stories I read I only did so because I was paid for it. They're dull, irrelevant, arrogant, inaccessible — even among papers that say they are trying to change all that. The mantra these days is "local, local, local", but I think "interesting, interesting, interesting" is even better. We're aiming for interesting and local. And it is working. SmartNews is an easy sell. People who have read us come back for more — eagerly. So what surprises me is that newsprint is not dead; dull newspapers are.

Q: A lot of journalists reading this probably want to start their own free dailies, but haven't summoned the courage to do so. What would you tell them?

1. It's expensive. Even with a small staff, our expenses are running at about $12,000 a week, and that's without paying ourselves. So you need to make sure you have your finances ready. We're fortunate because our expenses could have been a lot higher. I didn't need to hire a design editor, or a copy editor, or a wire editor, or a photographer or even a reporter, because I could do it all myself as we get ourselves established.

2. Listen to advice, but go with your gut. No one person has all the answers, so get ideas from a lot of sources. But you're the one who has to sort it out and make the decisions.

3. Smile at the nay-sayers. No one is more resistant to innovation and entrepreneurism than your colleagues in the newsroom. Think of them all as devils advocates. Take their advice seriously, except when they say it will never work.

4. Associated Press has a lot of really good stuff. It's a great way to affordably jumpstart the content of your paper. You just have to be selective.

Q: Some critics of free dailies say they don't have the quality journalism you could find in paid dailies. What do you say to that?

My paper has less quantity, but more quality. We've scooped the paid daily and the alt weekly a few times already. In two cases, they're stories the big daily wouldn't touch because of its own baggage. A university chancellor resigned and we interviewed her; the paid daily never even tried. A TV series was based on a book by a former local reporter and we interviewed her; the paid daily never tried.

"Quality not quantity" is reflected in how I staff the paper. I pay premium wages, and I mean premium. I'd rather have a few great people than a roomful of people who don't know how to excel.

Here are some other profiles has done on start-up dailies: