‘Local is the piece of the puzzle we can win’
April 10, 2013
Making a difference in people’s lives—Kentucky New Era forges ahead
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
For a few weeks last February, the skies above Hopkinsville, KY, turned black every afternoon when thousands of birds flocked to the small town near the Tennessee border during their annual migration.
In some places, the bird traffic was so dense, it blocked out the sun, scared pets and carpeted the ground below with excrement.
The birds have been migrating through Hopkinsville since the 1970s, but folks had never seen as many feathered travelers as they saw in their own town this year.
Residents shot flares and fireworks into the sky, and a pest control service, hired to battle the birds, fired loud propane cannons to frighten them away. They eventually left on their own, continuing their northward journey.
The bird invasion made national news, but no news outlet did a more thorough job of covering this phenomenon than Hopkinsville’s own local newspaper, the Kentucky New Era.
“We publish content relevant to our community,” said Kentucky New Era Publisher Taylor Wood Hayes. “We are part of the community dialogue.”
Even when the dialogue is about a bird problem.
Local news is Hayes’ ace when it comes to staying relevant in a world of media fragmentation and a societal shift to online news and information.
“We stay true to the roots of journalism and take a local perspective. Local is the piece of the puzzle we can win,” Hayes said. “State, national news—that’s not our franchise. We stay true to the local community, and we have a fighting chance.”
If longevity is a clue, it would be a safe bet to wager that the 10,000-circulation New Era is here for the long haul.
Throughout most of the 19th century, the area around Hopkinsville was home to 45 different newspapers. The Kentucky New Era, established in 1869, is the only one still operating, and remains the longest running business in Hopkinsville, according to a history published on the newspaper’s website.
When the Civil War came to its bloody end, it was a time of new beginning, or a “New Era” in the southern area of Kentucky. In the winter of 1869, two veteran confederate officers turned lawyers, John D. Morris and Asher Graham Carruth, published the first edition of the Weekly Kentucky New Era.
Four years later, another attorney, Hunter Wood, became a partner, and by 1881 he had acquired full interest in the newspaper, starting the family legacy that continues today.
Hayes is part of the publishing family’s fifth generation on his mother’s side.
“I scratch my head and wonder how that happened,” he said. “I guess it had to do with good leadership, plus luck and fate.”
Five other family members hold stock in the company, which also publishes three weekly newspapers.
“My great grandfather had a number of kids, but the paper ended up with me,” Hayes said. “There was no branching off of ownership early on. We were able to hold it together under a single name and a single company. We kept our number of shareholders small.”
The City of Hopkinsville, the seat of Christian County in the southwestern corner of Kentucky, was settled in 1796. It has grown to a population of 31,577, making it the sixth largest city in Kentucky.
“But that’s not saying much,” Hayes said. “Kentucky is largely a rural state.”
Known for top-ranked college basketball teams and championship horseracing, the Bluegrass State straddled the line between the North and the South during the Civil War.
Today, Kentucky is still steeped in Civil War history, yet it is a state of diverse populations. Hopkinsville’s connection to Fort Campbell Army Base and international industries makes the town a global community.
Hopkinsville is just 75 miles north of Nashville, TN. Hayes spent some of his formative there, and spent summers visiting his grandparents in Hopkinsville.
He started his career when he was 8 at the New Era, running a paper route for years. He delivered 60 to 70 newspapers from his bicycle.
The summer he turned 12, he got special permission from his parents to work a few hours a week in the paper’s office. He rode his bike from home to the newspaper and worked in the composing room, performing menial chores like wiping out ashtrays. Later he graduated to more substantive work.
He worked his way through every department at the newspaper and has fond memories of those early years.
“I remember on Saturdays sitting on benches around a table and rolling dice to see who bought cokes during our breaks,” he said. “To this day, I can still smell the ink and remember rolling those dice.”
He became publisher in 1997, after nearly three decades of non-family management.
The Kentucky New Era’s website traces the Wood family’s involvement.
After Hunter Wood, the newspaper’s first owner, died in 1920, the paper passed to his son, Alfred Walker Wood Sr., the first owner who managed the paper full-time.
The next generation brought two sons, Walker and Tom, who would serve as co-publishers of the New Era until Walker’s death in 1965.
Tom died in 1969 and Robert Carter took over management as president and publisher, retiring in 1997.
Then Hayes took over as publisher and chief executive officder.
The Kentucky New Era corporation also owns three local weeklies: the Fort Campbell Courier, the Princeton Times Leader and The Eagle Post.
The company employs 105 people who operate like a large family, said Hayes. He attributes much of his company’s success and the New Era’s longevity to them.
“We take care of our employees, and we are family oriented,” he said. “We may not pay the highest salaries, but we provide good benefits and we care about those who work for us.”
Today the staff is 10 to 15 years younger than a decade ago. They arrive for work right out of journalism school and stay two to four years before moving on, unless they marry and settle down in the area.
Hayes worries about this.
“We have a lot of staff churn, and we’re looking at 75 percent staff turnover. Reporters don’t get a chance to get to know their news subjects and their beats. We are becoming reconciled that we are a training ground,” he said.
It has not always been that way.
“At a recent staff dinner, I pointed out six employees with a total of 140 years of experience among them,” Hayes said. “Years ago, we had more than 200 years of experience wrapped up in our employees.”
Technology also presents challenges, which Hayes has started to embrace.
“We think about how best to use technology to get news and information to our audience,” he said. “Technology has caused a major shift in how we consume news. It affects our overall culture. We use our print branding to make way for other things, but if you don’t work towards a digital strategy, you will be in trouble.”
In 2011, the New Era shook things up, converting from morning to evening publication, consolidating its print edition from six issues a week to five, expanding its coverage, and developing a digital strategy that includes a subscription-based website.
Much thought went into the concept of requiring people to pay for kentuckynewera.com.
“How do we create that business model?” Hayes asks himself. “Online doesn’t equal free, and free doesn’t work. Free doesn’t constitute a business model. We don’t believe in free.”
Change has not come easy.
“I have been cussed and fussed at by people,” he said.
He believes his community ultimately will pay for value. He refers to subscribers as “members.”
“We invite readers to be members of our newspaper family, and I like that,” he said. “Technology is a tool, but what is our core job? We produce news and information people need to know to make decisions. What tools do we need to do that?”
Hayes owes his newspaper’s longevity to its reputation for integrity and its content.
“Our coverage and fair reporting without bias has kept us going. Our audience trusts us,” he said.
With an allegiance to the New Era’s heritage, and a pioneer’s spirit devoted to forging ahead, Hayes relies on the core that has kept the newspaper going for a century and a half—“integrity, resolve, and staying true to what we do,” he said.
“We do make a difference in people’s lives.”
How many years has your family owned the Kentucky New Era? The Kentucky New Era was founded in 1869 by Col. John D. Morris and Asher Graham Caruth (non family members). Hunter Wood, my great-great grandfather and an attorney here in Hopkinsville, purchased interest in the paper 1873. By 1881 he had bought out all other parties.
Publisher: Taylor Wood Hayes
Frequency of publication? Monday and Wednesday through Saturday (no Tuesday or Sunday publication).
Vision Statement? ‘The Kentucky New Era will be the first choice for reliable news and information in the Pennyrile region.’
What is your role? Chief executive officer of Kentucky New Era Inc. and publisher of the Kentucky New Era. Our company owns the Kentucky New Era, Princeton (KY) Times Leader (biweekly, 6,000 circulation), The (Oak Grove) Eagle Post (weekly, 10,000 circulation), The Dawson Springs Progress (weekly, 2,000 circulation), and Pacesetter Printing. KNE has also been the publishing contractor for the Fort Campbell Courier (weekly, 23,000 circulation) since 1981.
What is your staff size? Company wide with all newspapers and our printing company: 105.
What is most rewarding about publishing a long-running family newspaper? Being good stewards of the community by producing fair and balanced, yet aggressive, news coverage and providing civic leadership on important issues to help our community understand complex issues so they can better form their own opinions. This is my home community where our actions and the decisions I make have a lasting impact and impression.
What are your goals for 2013?
• Placing greater emphasis on sales training.
• Growing our digital audience through more routine updates to the website, adding texting and creating a mobile app.
• Growing digital revenue to exceed 5 percent of gross.
• Increasing branding efforts to differentiate us from other media.
• Collecting data on our subscribers and non-subscribers throughout the region and using that data to help customers better direct their messages.
What is your newspaper’s most distinguishing characteristic? Internally, it is our family atmosphere, which creates a nourishing work environment. Externally, it is our locally focused coverage of news, sports and features.
What are your newspaper’s biggest challenges? Leveraging the competitive advantages brought about by our brand equity and connectivity to the community while trying to find a growth strategy through new print and digital products. All the while with fewer resources.
How do you view your newspaper’s role in your community? The New Era is a hub and catalyst of community dialogue on the issues, events and news makers. The New Era has deep institutional memory that gives local communities and people a context for explaining and celebrating our place in the world.
What do you love to hear from readers? They learned about ‘it’ in the Kentucky New Era, and our reporting helped shape or spur on the community dialogue.
What do you hate to hear from readers? The New Era being blamed for a problem for simply reporting the facts, particularly involving public institutions and public officials. I also cringe when an advertiser says no one reads the paper in one breath then in the next seeks to keep something out of the paper or wants us to publish one of his or her pet projects or events.
One thing you’d never change? My respect for and appreciation of every employee, their position and the importance of their contribution to our mission. Our integrity is sustained by staying true to our voice, to our standards, and being good stewards of the community by producing fair and balanced, yet aggressive news coverage through compelling local content.