The Pilot, The News Reporter and WVPB: UNC Table Stakes success stories

With the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (CISLM) now in the fourth cohort of our UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes Newsroom Initiative, we take a look back at a selection of past participants, who give us their thoughts on what the program has meant for their organizations’ growth.

The yearlong UNC Table Stakes initiative helps media organizations identify challenges and opportunities, as well as create sustainable solutions to survive and thrive in the digital age. The program is modeled after the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative.

CISLM’s first three cohorts of the initiative aided media organizations across the Southeast in achieving performance outcomes and transformative change.

Check out previous CISLM articles about the UNC Table Stakes success stories of Carolina Public Press and Education NC, and watch for upcoming articles about other cohort members.

David Woronoff, publisher of The Pilot

The Pilot is an independently owned, 100-year-old newspaper currently published twice a week in Southern Pines, N.C. The Pilot took part in Cohort 1.

Why The Pilot took part in Table Stakes:

CISLM’s Penny Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics, told Woronoff about the initiative. Woronoff, a career journalist and UNC alumnus, came to The Pilot in 1996, becoming the youngest publisher in North Carolina at that time. Woronoff and staff had worked to diversify their company’s revenue streams since the late 1990s, expanding to magazine production around the state, telephone book printing and even running a local bookstore. Woronoff saw the Table Stakes program as an opportunity to learn new ways to keep his company nimble and diverse as the media landscape continued to shift toward digital products and revenue diversification. “If you remain only a community newspaper in one town, you are imprisoned in your market,” said Woronoff, who estimates that The Pilot newspaper now represents only 30% of his company’s overall business. “We have to be more than just a newspaper. In the end, you’ve got to be a successful business.”

The Pilot’s Table Stakes challenge:

Woronoff and staff came to the Table Stakes program with the broad goal of becoming the “Best Media Company in North Carolina” eyeing plans to develop a statewide magazine. However, the initial magazine concept plans didn’t pan out, forcing Woronoff and staff to regroup and rethink their goals. Eventually, the company purchased SouthPark Magazine in Charlotte, with plans to eventually take the magazine’s circulation and content to a statewide audience. The Pilot already owns a number of other magazines around the state, including O.Henry Magazine in Greensboro, North Carolina and Salt Magazine in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Goals achieved:

Besides the purchase of SouthPark, Woronoff said that the Table Stakes program inspired him to lead his company into hosting events such as mfgCon, a statewide manufacturers conference. Events hosting now generates $500,000 a year in total revenue for the company.

Other insights:

The initiative also encouraged Woronoff and staff to think in a more calculated way about audience development, or in Table Stakes speak: “Developing targeted content for targeted audiences.” This shift in thinking led The Pilot to develop three newsletters that now generate $200,000 in revenue annually.


Les High, publisher of The News Reporter

Founded in 1896, The News Reporter publishes twice a week in southeastern North Carolina’s Columbus County. The News Reporter took part in Cohort 1.

Why The News Reporter took part in Table Stakes:

Newspaper ink runs in Les High’s veins. He grew up at The News Reporter in Whiteville, North Carolina, where his father worked as publisher and his mother in advertising. High’s maternal grandfather bought the 1896-founded newspaper in 1938. High had great reason to want to the newspaper to succeed, something that got tougher as the 2008 recession and competition from online advertising forced the newspaper’s revenue into the red in 2012.

The News Reporter’s Table Stakes challenge:

High and The News Reporter staff had the simple goal of “staying in business” when they attended Cohort 1. However, The News Reporter staff didn’t just want to keep producing a newspaper, they wanted to keep producing a quality newspaper. “Working with the initiative’s coaches brought an MBA level of expertise to our staff,” High said.

Goals achieved:

The Columbus Report is filmed by a German TV crew doing a story on U.S. news deserts.
Photo: The Pilot

The initiative helped the newspaper move its thinking toward a digital-first mindset. “Wherever our audience is, we’ve got to meet them there,” said High, who noted that the audience lives online. In February 2019, the newspaper started their first metered paywall, which to date has added approximately $40,000 in revenue. The newspaper also began a digital broadcast called the “The Columbus Report” that coincides with the newspaper’s semi-weekly release. A recent broadcast reported on a story that had real teeth to it: an alligator found underneath a woman’s front porch.

Other insights:

The newspaper’s heightened online presence proved critical during Hurricane Florence this fall, when The News Reporter’s Facebook Live updates delivered the only news many people received during the storm, as power outages plagued The Pilot’s eastern North Carolina coverage area. “We had people going to their cars in the rain to charge their cell phones and check our Facebook page,” High said. The News Reporter staff produced the reports from a local hospital, where they set up shop during the storm to take advantage of the hospital’s generator-fueled power. “We’re working harder than we’ve ever worked and that excites me,” High said, as he reflected on his thoughts about the newspaper’s future. “You’re either going to move forward or you’re going to die—we’re moving forward.”


Jesse Wright, news director of West Virginia Public Broadcasting

West Virginia Public Broadcasting broadcasts from Charleston, W.Va. WVPB took part in Cohort 2.

Why West Virginia Public Broadcasting took part in the initiative:

WVPB’s former CEO went through the Sulzberger Program at Columbia Journalism School (now called the Media Transformation Challenge) on which Table Stakes is based and alerted WVPB News Director Jesse Wright and staff to the benefits of going through such a program. Also, state budget cuts had dealt WVPB a huge blow two years ago, slicing away a huge chunk of the station’s revenue.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Table Stakes challenge:

WVPB wanted to move from a statewide television and radio network to a multi-platform media organization with a digital strategy focused on audience growth and membership opportunities.

The station also desired to diversify revenue, with a focus on digital revenue.

Goals achieved:

The station’s website audience increased by 19 percent during Fiscal Year 2019 thanks to a better coordinated and more focused staff, attention placed on breaking news and cross promotion across platforms. The station also launched an Inside Appalachia newsletter. “Among many other benefits, the UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes Challenge illustrated how important it is for us to break out of our often self-imposed departmental silos. It really is the only way to begin the kind of work culture change we need to achieve the goals we set for ourselves in the program,” Wright said.

Other insights:

Wright noted that the initiative’s inclusion of different types of media—from legacy newspapers to nonprofit digital sites—created strong conversation and idea exchanges. As a part of public media, WVPB brought a strong knowledge of relationship creation to the table, understanding that connections to foundations prove critical in fundraising, Wright said.