Justin Smith named editor of The News Reporter

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In the ever-changing media landscape, most newspapers, television and radio stations are shrinking. The News Reporter is taking a different track: we are expanding and naming Justin Smith as editor.

Justin is a native of Columbus County and his roots here are strong. He is leaving a good job at UNC Pembroke as special assistant to the chancellor to take the editor's post.

We both believe great things lie ahead.

It's no secret that the internet and social media have caused major disruptions in every form of traditional media, and newspapers are no exception. While The News Reporter still maintains a loyal following among its longtime readers and subscribers, the younger generation prefers to get its news digitally.

Over the past 18 months, The News Reporter has worked on a long-range plan to attract new audiences, both at the paper and at NRcolumbus.com. Our mantra is, "However people get their news, we want to make sure they get it from a reliable source like The News Reporter."

In other words, wherever our audience is, we'll meet them there.

We've launched a revamped website, produced two email newsletters, The Trend and a sports newsletter, Sports Life, plus broadened the scope of digital advertising, including video commercials. NRDigitalMedia, our in-house digital agency, is gaining traction as a source for websites and other digital services.

Within a month, The News Reporter will have its own app, which will include text alerts for breaking news.

Primarily, though, The News Reporter has added talented people to execute this plan. This is in addition to a loyal and talented staff that speaks for itself.

Jenny Clore was named the company's first director of marketing, Sarah Crutchfield is our new advertising rep specializing in digital advertising and produces The Trend, and Caroline Hensley is a videographer, website and page designer.

On the news side, Jefferson Weaver has been promoted to senior reporter. Jefferson brings a unique skillset and broad spectrum of knowledge that allows him to report on everything from public safety to government to animal rescues, plus write a weekly column. No topic is too wide or too narrow for his wealth of experience.

The final piece of the puzzle is Justin, a digitally savvy journalist who understands and appreciates Columbus County and will connect The News Reporter  and NRcolumbus.com with a new generation, plus add value for our loyal readers.

Unlike past editors, his job description will be ever changing. He'll have a couple of beats, such as reporting on the legislature, but primarily, he'll have the latitude to take on in-depth stories about Columbus County -  both the positives and the challenges.

These types of stories are something we've been missing. Our opioid series last fall is an example of what we hope to accomplish, because ultimately, the goal of a community newspaper is to make its community stronger. It's difficult to fix challenges when the facts remain hidden behind a curtain.

Justin also brings a real talent for video storytelling, which he honed as a former reporter for WECT.

Justin and I have had conversations going back years about his coming to work for The News Reporter, and now, the timing is right for both of us.

One thing that's always impressed me about Justin is that he is straight-down-the-middle. He is registered as an unaffiliated voter. Even after a number of conversations about public issues, I honestly had no idea if he leaned right or left. The fact is, Justin doesn't lean in either direction; he takes the journalist's responsibility to remain unbiased very seriously.

Journalism has been in Justin's blood a while. While at Whiteville High School, he started a broadcasting club that later became a class. He and his classmates produced a live, daily newscast shown on closed-circuit television in the classrooms each morning.

He was a photo stringer for The News Reporter, as well as The Fayetteville Observer and Star News during high school. He won a North Carolina Press Association photography award for a photo of Whiteville firefighters hauling a woman out of a structure fire on a mattress.

He served on The Daily Tar Heel staff at UNC Chapel Hill, where he was an assistant photo editor and in 2004 covered the Democratic National Convention in Boston and Republican National Convention in New York.

Justin says the theme running throughout his career is the opportunity to advance southeastern North Carolina. In addition to his professional roles, he is involved in volunteerism and public service through Whiteville Rotary Club, Cape Fear Council Boy Scouts of America and Whiteville City Council.

It's that last position that makes his situation unique. Though it's unusual for elected officials to serve as editors of newspapers, it's not unprecedented. It's the one issue we had to work through.

I asked Justin if he would take the easy route and consider stepping aside during this first year of his four-year term. I was impressed with his answer. He said that it wouldn't be right to let down all the people who supported and voted him, which I respect.

I consulted colleagues, the UNC School of Media and Journalism and a trusted First Amendment attorney on the matter. The conclusion was that Justin can serve in both roles, especially since he was elected in a non-partisan race and is not involved in party politics.

We feel some of the same traits voters saw in him – fairness, accountability and passion for our community – describe the ideal editor.

But we recognize that we have to be careful and set clear and defined roles.

We determined that by establishing the proper internal procedures and communicating them to readers, we could leverage Justin's experience and leadership potential while ensuring fair coverage in the newspaper and our digital platforms.

Here's how it will work: Justin won't assign, write or edit stories involving Whiteville City Council. Reporter Allen Turner will continue to cover city council and submit his stories directly to me for editing. Justin has pledged not to discuss city business with our journalists, even over a cup of coffee in the break room. And if he is quoted or mentioned by name in a city council story, we'll add a disclaimer reminding readers that he serves as editor.

These journalistic standards are especially important in an age when information is everywhere. Given the dominance of social media and the availability of surface-level Columbus County coverage by area television stations, The News Reporter will remain relevant by adding value through research and analysis that you can't find anywhere else.

Moving forward
These are challenging but exciting times for The News Reporter.  We hope our audience will appreciate that we have chosen to meet these challenges head-on and grow our staff rather than eviscerate it. UNC journalism professor and mentor Penny Abernathy warns that some small communities are in danger of becoming "news deserts," places where small newspapers don't survive media disruption and entire areas or counties are left without a newspaper to provide checks and balances on government.

The other concern is what Abernathy refers to as "ghost papers," which are newspapers that survive, but due to corporate ownership, people relying on Facebook for their news, and sagging rural economies, the paper becomes only a shell of itself.

I'm proud to say that isn't the direction we're taking.

But we need readers and non-readers to support our mission to continue providing responsible, high-quality journalism in Columbus County.

Due primarily to the decline of advertising circulars - in the industry, we call them "preprints" – from national chains that are inserted into the paper, we are leaning more toward a business model that relies on circulation revenue.

Fortunately, we planned for this and began a transition to more digital reporting almost two years ago.  For the Highs, it's all hands on deck because The News Reporter is a family business. I've been here 34 years. My father Jim High has been here nearly 60, my sister, Stuart Rogers, and wife Becky both work here full time. Our daughter Margaret has taken a vow of poverty and wants to be a reporter. She is a senior journalism student at UNC who is interning for us this summer.

So, the plan is in place, and we need your support.

We have a good newspaper in a good county. Together, we can make both even better.

Whiteville, Smith

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