SC publisher believes in the printed word
The mere mention that newspapers are a dying breed will put Steve Robertson’s engine into overdrive. And in his own corner of South Carolina’s northern coast, he’s flying in the face of that notion, publishing seven weekly newspapers with a collective circulation of 103,600.
The latest addition to his newspaper family is VISIT!, launched last summer to circulate among hotels, resorts and campgrounds in Myrtle Beach, SC. At the beginning of the 2010 summer tourist season, 70 hotels had agreed to distribute it to their guests. By the time summer had wound down, the number of participating hotels had expanded to 350. All of the campgrounds and visitors’ centers stock it, too. An estimated 40,000 issues were gobbled up by visitors each week.
“Advertisers just came on board,” Robertson said. “It was a very good launch.”
At the end of the tourist season, VISIT! converted to a monthly publication, and when the 2011 season cranks up on June 1, he’ll be stocking the publication at 500 vacation properties.
Robertson has known that he wanted a career in newspapers most of his life. He started in high school as a stringer for the local newspaper in Melbourne, FL, and worked his way through Francis Marion University in Florence, SC, covering sports. A job as sports editor for the Myrtle Beach Sun in 1973 got him back to the coast, and by 1980, he had tired of covering sports and moved on to general assignment reporting. By the time he had reached the Field and Herald of Conway, SC, Robertson started focusing on the possibility of running his own newspaper someday.
“The Field and Herald at the time was owned by the State Record Co. and was later bought by Knight-Ridder,” he said.
Robertson thought he could do a better job of covering the county, and in 1984, he and a group of partners started the Horry Independent in Conway, the county seat, and went head-to-head against the established newspaper there.
“We had a spirited competition, but eventually the Field and Herald went out of business,” he said.
As Robertson proved, local start-up publications are sometimes able to displace established, chain-owned newspapers. The Field and Herald had been in operation since 1886.
“As an independent newspaper, we were hungrier, and were able to react quickly to economic conditions,” Robertson said. “We saw opportunities.”
Robertson’s newspaper group, “Waccamaw Publishers,” has been in business for 31 years, and publishes papers in Horry (OR-ee) County, South Carolina: The Horry Independent, The Myrtle Beach Herald, The Carolina Forest Chronicle, The Loris Scene, The Horry County Business Journal, The News & Shopper, and VISIT! The Newspaper for Visitors.
Myrtle Beach is a popular vacation destination. Travel writers often rank it among the top beaches in the world. It is a golfer’s haven and a sportsman’s delight. Young people flock to the parties on Myrtle Beach’s Grand Strand, and business people look forward to their industry conventions there.
Farther inland, there are pockets of lower income areas, but most of the county is home to an affluent demographic, Robertson said.
A real key to his first newspaper’s success was setting up a home delivery system that hit every household. A $100,000 investment to install 25,000 newspaper tubes paid off in a hurry.
“We didn’t ask permission from anyone. We just did it,” he said. “We followed the principle of implied consent.”
House ads in the newspaper paved the way, and the tubes came with a note from the newspaper.
“The notes said ‘Congratulations on your new tube. It is our pleasure to give it to you,” Robertson said.
The notes also instructed residents to call the newspaper if they wanted their tubes removed.
“We took down 300 or 400,” Robertson said. “Just a small percentage.”
After the Horry Independent took off and the area started growing, Robertson made the decision to create a variety of weeklies for each new and growing community instead of expanding the reach of his flagship newspaper.
“For a community newspaper like ours, its niche must be very focused. What’s news in Conway might not be news in Myrtle Beach,” he said.
He has an editor and at least one reporter at each newspaper.
“Some staffs are bigger than others,” he said.
Ad sales are centralized, and advertisers have a variety of group packages from which to choose. They can buy space in one or two newspapers or in all of them.
And talent is abundant.
“We’re very fortunate. All of our editors have won general excellence awards from the state press association. Most are from our area,” he said. “We actually have picked up reporters from the competing daily who lost their jobs.”
He hasn’t been without challenges though.
As with other newspapers, the economic downturn made an impact on real estate advertising. Help wanted ads have been scarce, even when he offered to run them for free.
But tourism is strong, and his news reporting is solid.
Robertson advises other publishers to enter the market with the idea they’re going to provide readers with a good product that is accurate, balanced, and meaningful.
“I am most proud of our high journalistic standards. People know what they read in our newspapers is as accurate and unbiased as we can make it,” he said. “We also concentrate on what is important to the communities we cover.”
The advent of social media has added another element to the landscape, and Robertson has decided to embrace it, thanks to his younger editors.
The Horry Independent has a lively Facebook page.
“Facebook is a tremendous marketing tool, and I’m excited about it,” he said. “It took me a while to come on board, but now I see we can use social media to promote ourselves.”
Still, he’s married to print, and doesn’t see that changing anytime soon, no matter what the skeptics say.
“I still feel like newspapers are here to stay,” he said. “I’ve bet the farm on it. I just invested $1 million dollars in a new press.”
© Teri Saylor 2011
Teri Saylor is a freelance journalist living in Raleigh, NC, with a column in two community sections of the Raleigh News & Observer. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How long have you been in business? 31 years.
How many newspapers do you publish? Seven: The Horry Independent, The Myrtle Beach Herald, The Carolina Forest Chronicle, The Loris Scene, The Horry County Business Journal, The News & Shopper, and VISIT! The Newspaper for Visitors.
Collective Circulation: 103,600.
Frequency of Publication: Weekly.
Do you print all of your newspapers using a central printing press? Yes, in Conway, SC.
Mission Statement: OBJECTIVE: To produce economically sound newspapers that add to the identity and pride of the communities they serve, record the history of the communities they serve and its people, and make a difference in the quality of life for the residents and merchants. Waccamaw Publishers Inc. is dedicated to the belief that strong community newspapers are essential to a strong community.
List your top goals for 2011: Remain profitable; win General Excellence for the fourth consecutive year in the South Carolina Press Association contest; continue to increase circulation.
What are you most proud of? Winning the Reid F. Montgomery Freedom of Information Award twice.
What is your newspaper group’s most distinguishing characteristic? Local news, local ownership.
What is your biggest challenge? Overcoming the perceived idea that newspapers are a dying breed.
What we love to hear from readers: I read your paper(s) from cover to cover.
What we hate to hear from our readers: I saw a typo.
One thing we’d never change: I never say never.
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