NC paper sets Internet record with breaking news story

July 6, 2015

By Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary

SOUTHERN PINES, NC—Three members of the Pilot’s top newsroom management team collectively log nearly a century’s worth of newsroom experience, but in all those years, not one of them has ever experienced anything close to their community’s reaction after their county school board blew up last month.

Throughout a weeklong crisis and in its aftermath, reporters, editors and the newspaper’s publisher got a textbook lesson in the power of the press. They realized how a twice-weekly newspaper in North Carolina can harness the Internet, get ahead of one of the biggest stories the community had ever experienced, and report breaking news in real time.

 

The story

Here is how the story unfolded.

On June 2, Pilot Publisher David Woronoff received a text message from a friend informing him that the board of education had told the popular school superintendent they had hired less than a year ago to pack up his office and leave.

Board members gave no reason for their decision, and because it came during a work session and not an official meeting, they had to convene a special session later in the week to officially vote on firing him.

About the same time Woronoff got the news, residents across the entire county and areas beyond had heard it too, through text messages, tweets and Facebook posts.

People were outraged.

A special school board meeting set for June 4 had to be moved from the board’s conference room to larger space in the county courthouse, where 400 people packed the pews.

And there, the superintendent was officially ousted by a vote of 5-3. The board barricaded itself behind North Carolina’s open government law exemptions for dealing with personnel matters and refused to give reasons for the firing.

After piecing together a timeline of events, the reporters and editors at the Pilot reported that those five board members had been conspiring for months and laying the groundwork to get rid of their superintendent.

Woronoff dubbed them the “Gang of Five,” and in an editorial, the newspaper called for their resignations.

By the end of the week, a state legislator had filed an injunction barring the board from hiring a new permanent school superintendent and proposed a bill to authorize an election to recall the entire school board.

Then four members of the Gang of Five resigned.

New board members were appointed quickly, and they voted to reinstate the superintendent.

 

The newspaper

The Pilot is a 95-year old newspaper with a circulation of 14,000. It is published twice weekly on Wednesday and Sunday. The Pilot also publishes four magazines throughout North Carolina: O Henry in Greensboro; Salt in Wilmington; Business North Carolina in Charlotte, and Pinestraw in Southern Pines.

The newspaper has won many newspaper awards and has risen to national prominence for its ambitious coverage of the men’s and women’s U.S. Open Golf Championships at Pinehurst and Mid Pines, part of the Pilot’s coverage area in central North Carolina.

The public interest in the school board story eclipsed anything the Pilot had ever published as long as Woronoff has been at the helm. It even eclipsed the U.S. Open Golf Championships, he said.

At the height of the school board scandal, online traffic on tThe Pilot’s website and Facebook page dwarfed U.S. Open traffic, Woronoff wrote in an e-mail to Publishers’ Auxiliary Managing Editor Stan Schwartz.

“Through the first two weeks of June, our visits are up 126 percent and page views up 80 percent from the same period last year (during the U.S. Open Championships in Pinehurst),” Woronoff wrote.

Sitting in his Southern Pines office last month, he was still shaking his head.

“I have never seen anything like this in my career,” said Woronoff, who has more than 20 years of experience in the news business.

“We’ve had our share of controversies over the years, but never anything like this,” he added. “It blew up so quickly and played out on social media.”

 

The newspaper’s coverage

The Pilot broke the story on its website and Facebook page on a Tuesday, the day after the school board informed the superintendent they intended to fire him, and followed up in print on its regular Wednesday cycle.

“Then the superintendent officially gets fired on Thursday, but we don’t publish again until Sunday,” said Executive Editor John Nagy, a former editor and digital director for the Greensboro (NC) News & Record with nearly three decades of newspaper experience under his belt.

To compensate for publishing in print just two days a week, Nagy turned to the Internet, and as the dramatic story unfolded in real time, he posted pictures and pieces of the story on Facebook as it happened.

Nagy also posted a video of the superintendent in tears as he addressed the community after his official firing.

“That little video was viewed 30,000 times, and keep in mind our newspaper’s circulation is 14,000,” Woronoff said.

The newspaper’s Facebook page shows the video was shared 947 times.

In the week the drama had unfolded, the Pilot had published just one printed newspaper—its Wednesday edition. There would not be another print edition until Sunday.

On Thursday, when the superintendent was officially fired, the Pilot editorialized on its website and Facebook page, calling for the Gang of Five to resign.

By Saturday, four of them had done exactly that.

Their resignations coincided with the Pilot’s Sunday deadline. The edition had already been designed and was ready to go to press. Springing into action, Woronoff, Nagy, along with opinion editor Steve Bouser and other staff members worked their sources, re-wrote the lead story, tore the front page apart and put it back together with the latest news and the front page editorial before sending it to the printer and posting it online.

By the time the print edition hit the stands on Sunday morning, the news of the resignations was already on the newspaper’s website and social media channels. Nagy had posted stories on his personal Facebook page and on other Facebook communities whose followers are also stakeholders in the issue.

“We didn’t want to just wait for people to discover the news on our site,” he said. “We put the news out to where readers are.”

Some newspapers would not be so generous with their news and give it away before it had a chance to hit their own print editions. But Woronoff is OK with having the Pilot scoop itself. He saw that as the only way the twice-weekly newspaper could fulfill its role as a community leader.

If this had happened 10 years ago, the newspaper likely would have been on the tail end of the breaking news week, but thanks to digital publishing and social media, the news team found a way to get ahead of the story, reporting it as it broke, and establishing the Pilot as a leader in the community’s conversation.

Woronoff believes if it had not been for the Pilot’s coverage, including its call for the school board members to resign, the superintendent likely would not have been reinstated.

“We’re setting the agenda, and we’re driving the community discussion on this highly important issue, and I think that’s what newspapers are supposed to do,” he said.

The Pilot racked up astounding numbers.

“At our peak, we normally average 7,000 to 9,000 page views a day on our website,” Nagy said. “Thursday, June 4, the day the superintendent was officially fired, we logged around 34,000 views.”

The newspaper’s Facebook page gained almost 700 new “likes,” and had scored 5,000 comments in that single week of coverage.

 

Lessons learned

The Pilot’s coverage of the county school board actions was the perfect marriage between the digital media wave and classic newspaper values and sensibilities.

Bouser, who had previously served as the newspaper’s executive editor before taking partial retirement three years ago, remained with the Pilot to edit its editorial page. The school board debacle and its ensuing public outrage left the 50-year newsroom veteran shaking his head.

“I have covered some big local stories, but this stands alone in its impact,” he said. “The social media thing absolutely built on itself to a degree that the emotional power of this thing was surprising.”

Nagy, whose career has been in daily newspapers, witnessed the hunger readers in his community had for constant updates on a story that mattered to them.

“The larger lesson for us as a newspaper, especially when you are only two days a week, is you are always in the business of providing news to your community by whichever format you can provide it,” he said. “Will this translate to more subscriptions down the road? I don’t know. Will it translate into more single copy sales? I don’t know. But I do think that people who may not have had much of an opinion of the Pilot in the past now have a positive view of it.”

For Woronoff, the goodwill the Pilot earned is priceless. Readers were almost unanimous in their praise and appreciation for the newspaper’s coverage.

“Not one person criticized us for being too hard on the school board or that we were being unfair,” he said. “There has been an overwhelming amount of good will for the newspaper, to the point that it’s almost embarrassing.”

He believes a story like this could break anywhere.

“Everybody’s got a school board, and everybody’s got these little political machinations that go on, and it is just a matter of being a watchdog and doing what we do, which is to cover our community,” he said.

Nagy offers advice to other community newspaper publishers and editors:

“Don’t be beholding to your publication schedule. You are as much a 24/7 media outlet as CNN,” he said. “You have a community responsibility to report the news anytime day or night and it doesn’t mean it has to come off your printing press.”

Based on feedback and comments from readers, his community heartily agrees.

To read the Pilot’s original editorial, go to: www.thepilot.com/news/our-editorial-gang-of-five-should-resign/article_b7228950-0b0a-11e5-b9f7-e75a6b6656eb.html

terisaylor@hotmail.com

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