ROADSHOW 15: In Which Mr. Joke Returns to His Roots
Fresh from his adventures teaching community journalism in China, “Mr. Joke” (because many of my Chinese hosts could not pronounce “Jock” correctly) hits the blue highways of the Old North State with the 15th iteration of the Community Journalism Roadshow, a public service initiative of the Carolina Community Media Project at the UNC-CH School of Journalism and Mass Communication. First stop: Hendersonville.
Nothing makes an old newsroom rat (AKA: Mr. Joke) happier than to find himself in the midst of a bustling, happy and slightly gonzo newsroom – and in the good company of other enthusiastic newsies.
The 15th annual Community Journalism Roadshow kicked off with a memorable visit to the Hendersonville Lightning, veteran Tar Heel journalist Bill’s Moss’ 3-year-old start-up that has already turned heads and turned a profit — and won a boatload of awards.
With Johnny Cash crooning “I Walk the Line” in the background, I enter “the Trailer of Truth” to find Editor-Publisher-Founder-Chairman-Majority Stockholder-Janitor/Custodian Bill Moss shoving a noisy vacuum cleaner around the floor of the foyer — a fitting introduction to the realities of running your own paper.
“I do it all,” the 60-year-old Moss declares, “including the fun part,” by which he means getting out there, pounding the pavement for stories.
And stories the man can crank out at a prodigious rate.
“I can write ten 500-word stories in an 8-hour shift, no problem,” he says matter-of-factly. Not bragging, just saying. “It’s what I do.”
The result fills the weekly 40-48 page tabloid pages of his lively, fearless, scrappy LIGHTNING, a name he hopes embodies the paper’s unique character of fearlessness, speed and accuracy.
Explaining the origin of the paper’s name, Moss says, “I don’t want (the paper) to be confused with all the Times and News and Chronicles and Observers…this community is a special community and deserves a special paper.”
Once you hear the name, you don’t forget it, Moss says. “People don’t call it ‘the paper.’ They say, ‘Oh, here comes the Lightning!’” And then he adds his own cheerleading mantra:
See the Lightning
Love the Lightning
Want the Lightning.
The Business Model
Running against the grain of most start-ups these days, the Lightning is a paid circulation paper. Moss explains his reasoning thusly: folks in the western part of the state tend to look with suspicion at items offered for free. Maybe it’s the Scot-Irish in the DNA, but the prevailing local wisdom up here is “you get what you pay for.”
Moss says simply, “We think it has value, so we think we should charge for it.”
In addition to the income garnered from the weekly circulation of 2,150 (including roughly 600 in steady rack sales), as a paid circulation newspaper, the Lightning qualifies to carry legal ads and public notices, which Moss asserts is important reading for anyone closely following his/her community. In short, “legals,” in the jargon, generate revenue and readership — a win-win for the Lightning.
When it comes to circulation, the paper hits the streets early Wednesday morning (Another Moss-ism: “On the street! First light!”) and goes to readers at home through the local post office — thus eliminating the bother and worry of route carriers.
A Journeyman Newspaperman
A Chapel Hill native and a 1976 grad of the J-School, Moss’ career trajectory followed that of the classic journeyman newspaperman: to get where he is today he paid his dues — with stints at the Marshville Home News, the Thomasville Times, the Salisbury Post, the Knoxville News-Sentinel, the St. Pete Times and the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald before coming to Hendersonville in 1998 as executive editor of the daily Times-News — a New York Times regional paper at the time.
During his tenure at the Times-News, Moss raised the bar and elevated the paper to the best of its class in North Carolina. No matter, in 2010, the charismatic leader and self-proclaimed “aggressive editor” got downsized, to put it politely.
Moss knocked around, working a couple of different journalism jobs for a year or so, until a group of Hendersonville thought-leaders approached him, convincing him to “come back and take over” (my words; not his.)
After taking a short course at a local community college on business planning for a start-up, Moss marshaled his investors and launched the Lightning, first online in April 2012, and then in print the following month.
A David and Goliath Scenario
All this in the face of formidable competition. The town’s legacy publication, the daily Times-News, is now owned by the Gatehouse chain, which includes 300 papers, Moss notes with some respect.
So how can a start-up indie weekly compete with an established group-owned daily? According to Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book, “David and Goliath,” the little guy has a lot of unseen advantages.
And Moss knows that. The Lightning is a relentless local government watchdog with a style, intensity and level of coverage he thinks the competition can’t match. Taking full advantage of his 17 years experience covering Henderson County politics, you can bet your old green eyeshade this veteran city hall reporter knows where all the skeletons are hidden.
The Lightning also boasts a robust online presence. Moss estimates, “3.9 new postings every day since we started.”
Articulating the paper’s role and character, Moss reasons like this: the newspaper shouldn’t be like an all-loving, all-forgiving mother…but rather like “your loving but stern father.”
It’s that kind of insight and institutional wisdom that his readers have come to expect and value.
In last year’s NCPA newspaper contest, the Lightning won 10 awards. “The second most in my division,” Moss notes with satisfaction, adding, “And what did every winner have in common? They were all independent, family–owned!”
Long live community journalism.