Far from the madding crowd

Being there is a key ingredient in the Cooke family’s recipe for success in running a chain of community newspapers.

By Steve Row

A high-school dropout who once sold encyclopedias door-to-door in his native Canada, John Kent Cooke Jr.’s grandfather was a millionaire by the time he was 31. Among the businesses he would come to own were radio stations, America’s largest cable-TV company, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Los Angeles Lakers (he built the Forum, where they and the L.A. Kings, the professional hockey team he also owned, played) and New York City’s quarter interest for $300,000 in 1961, the year after he was made a U.S. citizen by a special act of Congress, he became majority owner in 1974 and sole owner in ’85. “I want to be buried in a burgundy-and-gold coffin,” he said in 1992. “And when I’m gone, someone named Cooke is going to run the team. And when he’s gone, someone else named Cooke is going to run the team.”

“The Squire,” as he was called, is long gone, dying at 84 in 1997. But nobody named Cooke is running the Redskins. Jack Kent Cooke, who was married five times to four women, left most of his fortune to his foundation, and the estate sold the football team and its stadium for $800 million to a group led by Dan Snyder in 1999. The Squire’s son who had run daily operations since 1981 was outbid. He is now a gentleman farmer in Virginia, and his son and namesake, once the Redskins’ vice president of marketing, works out of a newspaper office in Eastern North Carolina.

Nothing strange about that, says that someone else named Cooke, who got to Greenville by way of the Florida Keys, where he spent most of the last decade overseeing operations of four small newspapers and affiliated publications. After all, his grandfather first struck it rich working for Canadian press baron Roy Thomson. A year ago, Cooke Communications LLC outbid a Southern Pines-based group to buy The Daily Reflector, The Rocky Mount Telegram and The Daily Advance in Elizabeth City and 10 smaller papers in Belhaven, Windsor, Edenton, Kenansville, Williamston, Farmville, Elizabeth City, Snow Hill, Ayden-Grifton and Robersonville. But with even the biggest newspapers in the nation’s largest cities losing readers and advertising revenue, why would anybody sink millions — they won’t say how many — into a place many would consider the hinterlands?

Therein lies the key to what the Cookes believe will be their success. As John Kent Cooke Sr. says: “We like the newspaper business in small towns that are isolated and away from larger metropolitan areas.”

That’s a smart game plan, according to Jock Lauterer, director of the Carolina Community Media Project at UNC Chapel Hill. “This whole thing about the vanishing newspaper needs to be put in context.” He counts 140 weeklies in North Carolina. More than half are still in the hands of families, private companies and small corporations that don’t have to answer to the whims of Wall Street. “Corporate journalism might be in trouble, and that means that corporate community newspapers are at risk, too. But as I look around the state — and I’ve been to 136 papers in my 10 years here — I see that these guys are absolutely dodging the bullet, as far as the economy goes. They’re not hurting as much. They’ve weathered the storm far better than their big-city cousins.”

The Cookes became interested in North Carolina two years ago when Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises Inc. announced it was putting almost all of its newspapers on the block to raise cash to pay down debt. Cox, which publishes the Atlanta Journal Constitution but is concentrating on its broadcasting, cable-TV and other media properties, had acquired the North Carolina papers in 1996 from members of the family that had owned The Daily Reflector since 1882. The operation is considerably larger than the one Cooke Jr. managed in Florida, with about 300 employees, daily circulation totaling about 45,000 and weekly circulation totaling about 25,000. The Key West Citizen, the largest and only daily Florida paper, has circulation of about 8,900, less than half that of The Daily Reflector.

Phil Murray of Dirks, Van Essen & Murray, the Santa Fe, N.M.-based broker Cox retained for last year’s sale, insists that there is a “relatively robust marketplace for newspapers, particularly ones that serve discrete markets like Greenville. The town is growing, the hospital [Pitt County Memorial] is growing, the college [East Carolina University] is growing. The same is true for Elizabeth City and Rocky Mount.” That’s what attracted Cooke Communications and the other bidder — The Pilot LLC, which publishes the thrice-weekly paper in Southern Pines and is controlled by members of the family that once owned The News & Observer in Raleigh and other publications (including Business North Carolina).

“Greenville is a great town,” says Pilot Publisher David Woronoff, who lived there as a boy, “and it’s a great town for publishing. And we liked the widespread aspect of the Cox operations, from I-95 to the coast. The communities where the 13 papers are situated are all very solid, and the sun will shine again on Eastern North Carolina.” Woronoff, who will step down this month as president of the North Carolina Press Association, says the papers were successful under Cox — which had kept Jody Whichard, great-grandson of one of The Daily Reflector’s founders, as group publisher — because they knew their mission. “That’s to serve the communities where they’re located. Nobody is able to cover ECU football or a Pepsi-Cola Little League team better than The Daily Reflector.”

Go local. Understand the dynamics of your specific market, and then deliver a product unavailable from anyone else. Something unique, something of specific value to this particular place, something its people want and need: local news. That’s what the Cookes have tried to do since they got back into the newspaper business in 2000. They bought the Florida properties from none other than The Thomson Corp., which had decided to sell 54 small papers in the United States and Canada to focus on its databases and cyberspace holdings. To hear John Kent Cooke Jr. tell it, ink has always been in his blood. He learned to read at his father’s knee — not Dick and Jane or The Poky Little Puppy but the sports section of the local paper. His first job out of college had been with a small paper the family owned in Colorado. His father still talks with regret about selling the weeklies they owned out West. “They were attractive properties, and we knew we wanted to get back in the community paper business someday.”

Since coming to North Carolina — his brother, Thomas Kent Cooke, is now president of the Florida operations and continues as chief executive of the floridakeys.com Internet business — John Kent Cooke Jr. has been trying to get a feel for the dozen communities where he does business and what sort of community news is wanted in each place. “We need to concentrate on the fundamentals — in football terms, the blocking and tackling. In newspaper terms, we must report news that matters to the people here. We need to deliver it on time, and we need to print it clearly. We have to go out and sell ads. We will figure out a way to do well in this kind of economy.”

A redesign of the newspapers went into effect in early February. The Greenville paper touted how it would “renew, refocus, reevaluate, redesign, reflect, rejoice, reward, revive.” Another “r” wasn’t touted: reducing paper costs by going to a narrower page, resulting in a more horizontal layout, with news briefs at the top of certain pages. That’s not something most readers are going to notice or, if they do, care about. But with the redesign, Cooke says, comes renewed commitment to emphasize local news and features on the front of each daily newspaper, though a state and national summary of important news runs down the left-hand column. “We want all local things on the front page and no wire copy. News that affects people’s lives is what should be displayed.”

In an open letter to Greenville subscribers and readers, Cooke outlined some of his views as local publisher, pledging to continue the newspaper’s role as an independent source of information: “We are not handmaiden to any special interest group, nor are we necessarily Republican or Democrat. We cover the news independently. We will no doubt ruffle some feathers from time to time, but it is our goal to get to the truth while reporting all sides of any particular story fairly, accurately and objectively.”

Al Clark, the paper’s executive editor, says, “He has come in, moved his family here and quickly become part of the community. The transition is working out very well. He has done a very good job of coming into the newsroom and getting involved. He is providing story ideas, and I’d say he’s been as much a hands-on publisher as we had under the Whichards. He makes a point to attend as many meetings in the newsroom as he can, to offer his insights, and we’ve helped him focus on what our major issues are.”

Cooke Communications has spent more than $100,000 on new equipment for its printing plant on the northeast side of Greenville, which prints all 13 papers, and Cooke wants to expand its contract printing business. After switching the dailies to their own individual websites earlier this year, efforts are under way to develop websites or pages for each of the nondailies. He is making sure that top officers at each newspaper keep up with what is happening at the other papers by meeting at least twice a month — once in Greenville and once at their respective sites — and frequently communicating via phone and e-mail.

Because newspapers “need to stop giving away their content free online,” he hopes to replicate a strategy that worked in Florida, where the Key West newspaper has about 1,200 paid online subscribers. Instead of letting anyone with a computer have access, the newspaper only lets paid subscribers read and search all the content. “We put a news story and a couple of feature stories behind a ‘pay wall,’” he explains. And rather than drive readers away, the Key West paper has “one of the highest percentages of paid online subscribers — 13% — of its overall ABC [Audit Bureau of Circulation] audited net-paid numbers in the industry.”

The Florida papers maintained stable circulation even as the population shifted and decreased, he says, and that’s the minimum of what Cooke intends to do in North Carolina. “My goals are to begin to grow newspaper circulation again. We could increase even without a growing population because there is room for growth in our core market area. I think the best way to do this is to put out a strong paper.”

For the six months ended March 31, The Daily Reflector showed one of the biggest gains for average weekday circulation among small North Carolina dailies, increasing 7% to 21,490. Meanwhile, some of the state’s biggest papers showed steep declines: The News & Observer, down 12%; The Charlotte Observer, 11%; and the Greensboro News & Record, 17%. Cooke’s Elizabeth City and the Rocky Mount dailies each saw half-precent declines — equivalent to holding steady, given the economy. The Goldsboro News-Argus showed a gain of less than a half percent to 17,245, while The High Point Enterprise fell 3% to 17,459 and The Salisbury Post slipped 1% to 19,753.

“His experience for 10 years in Key West speaks for itself,” his father says. “They are highly successful papers. He knows how to run a paper. The only thing you can read into this is that he wants to remain in the newspaper business, and so far, he’s having a whale of a time with the dailies and weeklies. Plus, there’s really nothing to ‘turn around.’ They [the North Carolina papers] were very well run, and we’ve left the personnel intact. All we’ve done is modernize the appearance and change the size of the page.”

After a year in his new surroundings, John Kent Cooke Jr. seems pleased with where he finds himself. It’s not in a suite in Jack Kent Cooke — now FedEx — Stadium, but “North Carolina is where I want to be at this point in my life.” Nor does he regret trading yellowtail snapper and conch fritters for barbecue and hush puppies. “This community has been so welcoming to my family, and I still love newspapers. I’m having a ball.”

Steve Row is a Greenville freelance writer.