Q&A with Justin Smith, incoming publisher of The News Reporter

Justin Smith addresses staff of The News Reporter Friday afternoon. To his right is Stuart Rogers. To his left are Les High and Becky High. Staff photo by Grant Merritt/The News Reporter.

The News Reporter in Whiteville, North Carolina is a legacy newspaper that punches above its weight. After covering the rise of the Klu Klux Klan, the paper won one of the first Pulitzer Prizes for Public Service in 1953. The Thomson-High family has owned the paper for three generations, and just won the Tom and Pat Gish Award for excellence in local journalism. On Aug. 1, The News Reporter announced current editor and UNC Class of 2007 graduate Justin Smith will take on the publisher role, currently held by Les High, who recently started the nonprofit news outlet Border Belt Independent. CISLM’s Sarah Vassello spoke to Smith about his new role, his love of Whiteville and more. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

CISLM: Congratulations on this new role! How are you feeling about becoming a new publisher?

Justin Smith: I’m feeling great. I grew up here in Whiteville, and The News Reporter was always a part of my life. I’m a fourth-generation resident of Columbus County, so I can see mentions in our archives of my great-grandfather on to the present day. So, I really appreciate the role that the paper serves as the newspaper of record and look forward to continuing that tradition.

It can be challenging as well because part of our role here is to celebrate this community, but part of it is to hold public institutions and officials accountable — and I know a lot of those people. So you have to separate personal from professional, but you got to be fair to people because you know that you’re going to run into them in the grocery store, or at church, or wherever. And so you’ve got to be able to justify and explain your decisions.

CISLM: Yeah, just developing that mindfulness of respecting your neighbor, but knowing that your neighbors have to respect each other as well.

JS: Yeah. You know, community journalism is kind of its own niche. And one of my favorite classes I took (at UNC) was community journalism, by Jock Lauterer. He just really had such a great way of articulating the role that community newspapers play, and so I’m just so thankful for that class. I mean, I just think about those lessons — every day, really.

CISLM: As the publisher, you’re inheriting this huge, celebrated legacy of this newspaper. How do you hope to carry that moving forward?

JS: We’re celebrating our 125th year this year. And I really, when I make decisions, one of the North Stars for me is going to be, how is this going to help us get to 150 so that we can continue to serve our community. I think that’s going to coincide with the rest of my working career in terms of my timeline, and then hopefully, we can find somebody else to carry it on from there.

But I think it’s going to be, more specifically, continuing to serve audiences in the way that they want to consume news and information. Right now, we’re serving at least three broad audience groups. We’ve still got a significant share of our readers who only consume our work in print, we’ve got some folks who are digital-only, and then we’ve got some people who are in the middle and they still pick up that paper on Tuesdays and Fridays when it shows up in their mailbox. But they also appreciate the breaking news and the digital-first stories that we put out every day on our website, and our app, and our social media outlets.

I think it’s just going to be a continuing part of the focus to serve those different audiences. And we’ll be doing that I’m sure through platforms that we’re either not on currently or that may not even exist yet.

CISLM: With your history working at The News Reporter, especially working with the Thomson-High, family, what’s the biggest lesson that you learned from them? Or from your time at the paper in general?

JS: I think it’s commitment more than anything else. When you look at the Thompson-High family, Les (High) and Stuart, his sister, they were third-generation owners of this paper. Through thick and thin, you know, it wasn’t easy, and they had to adapt and they had to overcome both business challenges. And (they experienced) tough times when it came to reporting the news, in situations where they really had to show courage and tenacity. This newspaper, with the Tabor- Loris Tribune, was one of the first community newspapers to win a Pulitzer Prize, and that was for (reporting on) the KKK. And so I think back to how challenging it must at the end for the publisher at that time, Les’s grandfather, to make that commitment to uphold that commitment to the community to cover the news, even though he faced threats to his personal safety and threats to the bottom line of the paper. I think the lesson is going to be to just carry forward with that commitment to the people of Columbus County.

I think that elected officials sometimes behave differently if there’s a reporter in the room versus not. And so, I think that goes back to the commitment. Sometimes, we know that those sorts of run-of-the-mill, local government stories don’t get the same kind of engagement that some other types of stores do. But you’ve really got to have that commitment to make that a priority.

CISLM: Why do you think the timing for this transition works out now?

JS: I think the timing worked out well for the sellers. And for me, I think that they had spent, Les specifically, an entire career here and was looking to maybe refocus his energy. He founded the Border Belt (Independent), the independent nonprofit news organization, that we’re already benefiting from their work — we publish some of their work in The News Reporter. So I think the timing was right for them. And the timing was right for me because I want to continue living here in Columbus County. But I wanted to own a business, I felt like that was going to be the best path for me. And I wanted to be in a business that kind of had that double bottom line, you know, that had the actual profit of the business, but also was able to serve the community in an important way. And so owning and running a newspaper is a way to do that.

CISLM: This means that The News Reporter will still be independent, too, which is so rare in the United States now.

JS: Yeah, yeah, it really is. And that comes with its challenges that I’m learning to appreciate more and more every day, just in terms of some of the back-office work, some of the administrative functions, just Payroll and Bookkeeping. Some of those advantages, really, that maybe some of these chain newspapers have because they’re doing those things at scale. And so we’ve really got to look at ways that we can make sure that the processes are really efficient for the bottom line. And to make sure that we are serving our customers and our subscribers in the best way that we can.

CISLM: You clearly have deep ties to Whiteville. What makes it so special to you?

JS: It was just always part of my life. I have lived here almost my entire life, aside from when I was in Chapel Hill for school, and then I worked a brief time, right after college, at the Chamber of Commerce in Fayetteville. But I really like our community. I think that we have such great people who really care about each other. And we are a resilient community. Just in recent years, we’ve been through Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence — just to see the way that people came together to help each other and to help rebuild the communities.

I think there’s so much potential here to take advantage of our proximity to Wilmington to Myrtle Beach, coastal areas that are really booming. But at the same time, you know, we’re still trying to find a way forward from economic blows from decades ago with the loss of tobacco and textiles. I think that we’re living in a really dynamic community that has a lot of potential. I think to be able to play a role in that sort of trajectory of our county is exciting.