‘If someone’s soles are worn thin, he must be doing a good job’
July 8, 2014
A fresh face on
a mature industry
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
If you told Eric NeSmith that his shoes are starting to show some wear and tear, he’d take that as high praise.
“I have heard you are always able to judge people’s work by looking at the soles of their shoes,” he said. “If someone’s soles are worn thin, he must be doing a good job.”
Eric has burned through plenty of shoe leather already in his young life. At 34, he is vice president of business development at Community Newspapers Inc., a group based in Athens, GA.
Eric’s father, W.H. “Dink” NeSmith, owns 50 percent of the company and serves as its president.
“I grew up in the back of a newspaper—running copy through the wax machine and burning plates,” Eric said. “The rule was once you were able to see over the inserting table, you were ready to go to work.”
Eric was 8 when he caught his first view of the top of that table.
He still has vivid memories of standing up on top of a Coca Cola crate to insert newspapers.
“My greatest thrill was election night because I knew I could stay up past midnight,” Eric said.
Back then, his father owned The Press-Sentinel in Jesup, GA, and that’s where Eric cut his teeth, started his career, went back to work when he had doubts, and where he has some of his best memories.
“Ink gets into your blood through your fingertips,” Eric said.
Despite the fun Eric had exploring newspaper work during his formative years, by the time he reached high school, the doubt set in.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue a career in journalism,” he said.
So he went back to his roots and talked with the publisher in Jesup about getting his childhood job back.
And for one hot Georgia summer, he found himself back in the mailroom working with the same employees he had grown up with. He worked on the press. He did some reporting and wrote his first news story.
Then a tornado plowed through town.
Eric was called into action to cover the breaking news, and he shot photos on deadline, wrote several stories and helped keep the community informed about the storm and its aftermath.
“I felt the adrenaline surge that goes along with that,” he said. “And that’s when I got it. That’s what I wanted to do.”
Eric never questioned his career choice again.
He graduated from the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia and went to work in the CNI family of newspapers.
In 2013, he was named to Editor & Publisher’s list of top 25 under 35 and last March he received the National Newspaper Association’s 2013 Daniel M. Phillips Leadership Award.
If Eric NeSmith’s shoe leather is a little thin, you could say he wore it out following in his father’s footsteps.
Years before his son got into the family business, Dink NeSmith started his own newspaper career in Jesup, selling ads for the Wayne County Press.
CNI’s website traces his career and the company’s development.
A 1970 graduate of the University of Georgia, Dink took his journalism degree and went into business. By 1972, he owned a one-third interest in the Wayne County Press and was president of the company. For four years, he competed head-to-head with the 107-year-old Jesup Sentinel until he teamed up with CNI owner N.J. Babb to acquire and merge the two newspapers into The Press-Sentinel.
Babb, who had borrowed $3,000 to start CNI in 1967, and Dink continued to acquire newspapers for seven years as partners. Eventually, Dink formed a small group of investors, started buying some of the newspapers in the company, and by 1989 fully owned CNI.
Today, Dink NeSmith and Tom Wood of Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, are CNI’s sole owners, with equal shares in the company.
Eric’s first job out of college was at CNI’s Crossroads Chronicle in the North Carolina mountain town of Cashiers, where he worked as a reporter and photographer.
“Around the Fourth of July the sales rep left, and it was pretty hectic, so I told the publisher I’d help,” he said. “I had worked retail in college and had never sold an ad, but I quickly learned that sales and reporting are not that different. It’s about developing relationships. You ask a lot of questions and must be willing to listen. About 90 percent of sales is listening.”
In 2005, not long out of college, Eric sold $125,000 worth of ads for the Crossroads Chronicle, its nearby sister paper, The Highlander, and a local real estate magazine in a single month, which set a company record that still stands.
From there, he went on to lead The Highlander as publisher for seven years before taking his current corporate job in 2013 and moving home to the company’s Athens, GA, headquarters.
He considered the newspapers where he worked as laboratories, and he was willing to take chances and experiment with different formulas.
“Sometimes the experiments would blow up, so we’d try new things,” he said.
Eric came along on the cusp of the technological changes that frame the distribution of news today.
He can remember how process color changed the appearance of newspapers and opened doors to new and exciting opportunities. He was just a little boy when newspapers started using MacIntosh computers in the mid-1980s, but he remembers when they first appeared on the landscape.
That was just the beginning of a 30-year evolution that is still going on.
Eric frames it in modern techno-speak.
Newspapers 1.0 represented print-only technology. Newspapers 2.0 represented the new media revolution. Today, we are in the era of newspapers 3.0, representing social media and mobile technology.
To Eric, the changes are mostly cosmetic and have little to do with newspapers’ core mission—to cover their communities, to foster discussion and to report the news of the day.
At age 34, Eric represents the very readership demographic most newspapers are trying to reach, and he uses his own friends to gauge how consumers of his generation like to read news.
“They are still reading newspapers,” he said. “But their habits indicate they read more online.”
Technology has created opportunities to give consumers more news and information than ever, but it has also created platforms that fragment the news, leave it shallow and make readership hard to quantify.
Eric uses the Atlanta Braves as an example.
“The Atlanta Braves have their own website. They can publish their own news, features and box scores,” he said.
Virtually all other sports organizations also manage their own websites.
Anyone who wants to read about sports can get more information than ever before, but they have to go searching for it on many different websites.
Eric’s own news consumption is increasing, too. He reads many websites and subscribes to print publications, and he reckons the big challenge for newspapers today does not lie in convincing people to read the news, but in how they count their readers.
After all, the definition of readership has changed dramatically.
“For example, I subscribe to the New York Times e-mail alerts and get snippets of news, and that is still readership for the New York Times,” he said.
Today, the news is pushed out to readers using text messaging, in 140-character tweets on Twitter, and through news summaries on Facebook. Online platforms are flooding people with information and advertising, but in small bursts and a shallow format.
But Eric, who does not turn to social media to discuss his personal life, does not feel threatened.
Instead he is energized.
After all, if sports teams, civic clubs, local government, nonprofit organizations and businesses can use technology to tell their stories, then newspapers can do it, too.
And probably better.
“We’re great storytellers,” he said. “But we forget to tell our own story—what we do, who we reach. We are a credible source for local news and telling people the ‘why,’ and we need to brand that better, using the tools we have.”
Throughout history, newspapers have focused on delivering a great reader experience. By focusing on their readers’ habits, publishers can produce their newspapers, designed properly and user friendly, with good content.
“Online news needs to be treated the same way, focused on layout, content and ease of navigation,” Eric said. “Today we can reach people in so many different ways. Just look at all the things we can do. Social media and the Internet give us more tools in our arsenal.”
A large part of Eric’s job is visiting the publishers in the CNI group and helping them expand their ideas for content, advertising, and digital initiatives. He also goes after new advertising accounts and new business.
CNI is a decentralized corporation. All of its newspapers operate independently of each other, and the publishers depend on sharing ideas with each other. Eric is often the conduit. The company fosters communication among its publishers and they meet regularly to talk about what is working for them, and what is not.
“Together we cobble together plans that help us continue to thrive and strategies that make sense to implement,” Eric said.
CNI is nearly 50 years old. Many of the company’s newspapers have been around twice that long.
For Eric, who puts a youthful face on a mature industry, at the core of the business model little has changed.
“We cover local news and tell stories, and we have to have quality content, in either print or online,” he said.
Despite the quest to understand readership habits, to do more with smaller staffs, to work with a variety of tools to create efficiencies, to learn how to use social media effectively, to seek innovation and to do a myriad of new things across a vast technology-based landscape, there remains one constant that not a single publisher in any community across the U.S. has ever been able overlook or take for granted.
They still have to get the paper out.
Teri Saylor is a writer and communication specialist in Raleigh, N.C. Contact her at email@example.com.
Company name: Community Newspapers Inc.
How many newspapers does CNI own? 25.
Total circulation: 171,315.
How many years have you been in the newspaper business? If we truly started at the beginning, I would have to say 26 years. I received my first paycheck for working in the mailroom when I was eight—$14.65. I thought I’d hit the jackpot. My career with Community Newspapers Inc., started in July of 2003, so almost 11 years now.
What is your job title and what do you do at CNI? Vice president of business development. I work with our publishers and editors to help strengthen our products in each of our communities. I also work to develop new business relationships with companies that need to reach CNI’s many markets.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job? There is nothing in the world that I would rather do than work with community newspapers. Helping our newspapers serve their communities is my job’s most rewarding aspect.
What are you most proud of? While at The Highlander, we ran a series on prescription drug abuse in our community. The series started a community-wide conversation and initiatives were started to help curb abuse among our community’s youth. Newspapers play such an important role within a community. When we shine our spotlight on a need and then use our editorial page to point toward solutions, we can be a part of moving our communities forward.
During your years working at community newspapers in North Carolina, what did you learn that influences what you do now in your job at CNI headquarters? I learned that what we do matters. Strong newspapers build strong communities. As a publisher and editor of a community newspaper, you are on the front line. I always knew that when we reported on a particularly hot community topic, I could expect a phone call or visit. And I always figured if I received calls from those on both sides of the topic, I was doing a good job with coverage. I also knew that if I wrote a hard editorial on a particular issue, I would see members related to that issue at the grocery store or sit next to them on a church pew on Sunday. For this reason, I learned to take the extra step to ensure I fully understood the issue. This experience gives me the insight I need to work directly with our publishers and editors to provide them with the support they need to move their newspapers forward. It also makes it hard for me to sit quietly when a potential advertiser says something such as, “no one reads a newspaper anymore.” Having personally answered the many phone calls as a publisher and editor, I am acutely aware that our newspapers are well read.
What are the biggest challenges facing newspapers today? Our biggest challenge is packaging our content efficiently in ways that are both desired by readers and attractive to advertisers. With all the technology available to us now, we can easily spend all of our time funneling content through so many different avenues. With smaller staffs, we have to step back and focus our efforts on what makes the most sense for our market. This is our challenge—deciphering which avenues are best to reach readers and support advertising.
From your experience as a young person who often talks with others your age and younger, how do today’s youth prefer getting the news? From what I’ve seen, it’s really mixed. A lot of content is being absorbed these days, but the way in which it is consumed is very fractured. Some follow Twitter, others (whether they’ll admit it or not) rely on Facebook. Some like text and e-mail updates, others go online. Many read print. I’ve also noticed that many college students today are not paying for cable or satellite service. They are choosing to stream what they want to watch to their laptops, tablets and TVs.
How can newspapers maintain their role as media leaders? As a publisher, I often looked at my newspaper as a laboratory. Some experiments were successful and others not so much. I was careful to be aware of the potential damage an experiment gone awry may cause, but the thought of failure did not prevent me from trying something new. If you look back at our industry, we have always been innovators. We’ve incorporated new technology in how we produce our products from the implementation of offset printing to pagination to computer to plate to digital editions. As our industry changes along with readership habits, we, too, must evolve and change. Although the options for how our readers consume information have increased, our staffs have decreased. We’ve had to learn to do more with less. In moving forward, we will have to continue to figure out ways to use the technology we have to reach our readers efficiently, but never change the tradition of providing quality journalism and information. Whether someone picks up one of our newspapers, magazines or visits one of our websites, they should be able to have a good experience. The information should be of quality, well organized and presented in a user-friendly format. We should then use all of the digital tools we have to efficiently enhance our print publications, further our brand, aid advertisers and reach readers. In doing so, we’ll fulfill our role as leaders.