Monday, August 13, 2007

Rival sues new free daily in North Carolina

The publishers and several staffers at paid papers in two North Carolina cities have quit to start their own free daily -- but now they're being sued by the owner of their former papers.

The new free daily is called The Messenger. It started July 9 and operates five days a week, delivering to homes. The Messenger is based in Mount Airy, N.C., a city of about 8,500 people and the birthplace of Andy Griffith. Many believe the charming small town of Mayberry in his 1960s TV show was based on Mount Airy.

Many of the staffers for the new paper come from the Mount Airy News and The Tribune of Elkin, N.C. Elkin is a town of 4,100 in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains about 20 miles south of Mount Airy near I-77. Both cities are in the same county.

In June, a chain of 32-papers, Connecticut-based Heartland Publications, bought the 9,200-circulation dailiy Mount Airy News and tri-weekly, 6,000-circulation Tribune from Mid-South Management Company.

Soon Heartland began cutting staff, and on June 18 Michael Milligan resigned as publisher of the Mount Airy News and Rebel Good resigned as publisher of the Elkin Tribune after 29 years, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

Milligan is publisher of the new paper and Good is editor. One report said 14 employees of the two Heartland papers came along with them.

A July 4 story in the Winston-Salem paper said:
    Employees at The Mount Airy News say they haven’t paid a lot of attention to what Milligan and Good are up to.

    “Whatever they do doesn’t impact the notion or intention that we’re going to put out a great paper,” said Gary Lawrence, the new publisher of The Mount Airy News, who is also the chief-operating officer of Heartland Publications southern division.
Things changed quickly, however, when Heartland sued Milligan and Good, claiming the pair took key employees and information with them to start The Messenger, a July 7 story in the Winston-Salem paper said. The suit alleged that the two were planning the new paper while working at their old jobs, and that they recruited employees and manipulated the emotions of the remaining workers "so that they would walk out en masse" on June 18 in an attempt to undermine the two paid papers.

Heartland asked the court for an order stopping Milligan and Good from publishing the new paper, as well as hiring former employees of the two Heartland papers. Heartland also wanted to stop the new paper from contracting with its customers.

It appears Heartland didn't get very far in its lawsuit. The new paper has been publishing without interruption and a judge July 16 refused the chain's request to speed up the disclosure of documents in its lawsuit, the Winston-Salem Journal reported. The Messenger's attorney said Heartland's allegations are false and just an attempt to derail the new publication. The next hearing in the case is set for Sept. 10.

It's a nasty case for a town many think of as Mayberry. Where is Sheriff Taylor when we need him?

(Both photos are by Kate Lord of the Winson-Salem Journal.)