The future of Charlotte media is digital and niche

Plus: YMCA unveils plans for Steele Creek; Deadly shooting at the Epicentre overnight; Would you eat vegan N.C. BBQ?

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With its parent company in financial trouble, Observer cuts Saturday paper delivery; smaller players experiment and collaborate

Everybody knew this moment would come some day, and this week, it did: The Observer’s parent company announced it will no longer print newspapers seven days a week. Next year, it’s cutting out the Saturday paper in Charlotte and in other cities.

By itself, it’s a small event. But it speaks to larger changes in Charlotte’s media landscape. As the Observer shrinks, local residents are turning to other sources of information — blogs, social media and a crop of new options. But they tend to be online and smaller.

The most immediate cause of the print cutback is the financial trouble encountered by the Observer’s corporate parent, McClatchy. The company is about $700M in debt, which is a real burden if you’re chronically unable to turn a profit. Company-wide, ad revenue in the 3Q plunged 19% and money from subscriptions fell 7% — even as the company added digital subscriptions.

Bankruptcy filing ahead? More troubling, the company said it can’t pay its pension obligations in 2020 and said it is going to pursue a “restructuring transaction” with its debt holders to help ease the “significant liquidity challenge.” But the company says there are no guarantees that a restructuring will be successful and that it has also hired an expensive law firm and a restructuring consultant. That’s all business mumbo-jumbo that means there’s a significant chance of a bankruptcy filing. Investors agreed, hammering the stock to $1.40 a share on Thursday, or about half its value earlier in the week. Despite the stench of failure, a bankruptcy filing by McClatchy could actually be a positive outcome by allowing it to get rid of its crippling debt and, you know, spend money on things that matter.

For the last decade or so, Observer readers have experienced what happens when quick-changing consumer preferences collide with a company lacking the resources and imagination to navigate the turbulence. Cutbacks were inevitable, given new options for advertisers and declining interest in printed newspapers, especially among younger folks.

Nearly 40% of people ages 65+ say they often receive news from a printed paper, compared with 2% of those aged 18-29 and 8% of those aged 30-49, according to a 2018 survey. (Source: Pew Research Center)

But even people who love the Observer have been frustrated with rising subscription prices and Byzantine pricing models, inconsistent delivery and sometimes-impenetrable customer service. Mixing those troubles with an addiction to staff-written click-producing articles delving into the exploits of meth-fed attack squirrels in Alabama and horny snakes on the Outer Banks doesn’t sound like a winning business strategy — more like brand suicide.

First in its class: On its best days, the Observer can deliver in-depth, investigative journalism better than anybody else in town. Recent exemplary work includes the “Dismissed” series on the dangers of dropping gun charges and the revelation that former school superintendent Clayton Wilcox had a pattern of insensitive comments toward subordinates. That’s truly journalism that makes a difference, justifying the Observer’s #readlocal exhortations.

But it’s no longer the paper of record that provides the shared set of facts that binds Charlotte together. People miss that. Now we’re all looking at our phones at different things.

New choices: On the other hand, there are advantages to drawing information from different sources — deepening your understanding of topics that interest you and exploring fresh perspectives. People can do that now not just on blogs and social media, but with a new and evolving crop of local media that are adapting to the changed landscape. Charlotte Agenda is growing and trying to move more into news alongside its dining and entertainment coverage. WFAE, which has hired a handful of ex-Observer reporters, is bulking up and moving into podcasts and newsletters. Qcitymetro is serving Charlotte’s African American community. TV stations remain capable of strong work. There are new media focused on soccer, the local food scene, arts and culture, the Panthers.

None has the reach or influence of the Observer, which reported daily print circulation of about 75,000 at the end of 2018, about 1/3 of what it was in 2006, with many thousands more reading online. It’s working to build up its digital subscriptions, too, which have been successful for national newspaper companies such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. There’s more it could do, though it’s a tough challenge, to be sure.

Looking ahead, the Observer seems destined to be one of many local media players — maybe still dominant, just not as dominant as it once was. Other media are working to fill some of the void.

But it’s a big void to fill.

Where is Charlotte media heading?

The Ledger asked a number of local media folks the following question: What does the future of media in Charlotte look like? What is it moving toward? Not everybody was immediately able to answer. But here are the replies of those who did:

Ryan Pitkin of Queen City Nerve, a print and digital alternative media company:

New technologies: “We’re already seeing Charlotte media consumers move away from the reliance on one central newspaper, for better or worse, and look to nontraditional outlets that serve their interests. The future will consist of a plethora of outlets using different mediums like dedicated apps, newsletters, podcasts, live-streaming and other technology we may not even be thinking about yet. I don’t think these outlets will have a tough time coexisting in such a fast-growing city. The challenge comes in finding a way to be self-sustainable and profitable in a world where everyone expects their content to be free.”

Kristen Wile of Unpretentious Palate, a digital publication covering food and drink:

Finding a niche: “As people realize traditional business models aren’t sustainable, I think more niche, subscription-based publications (like Unpretentious Palate) will pop up. We’ve found that readers are willing to support quality, researched content and stories written by an authoritative voice that aren’t clickbait or secretly sponsored. Clickbait has been the death of legacy media, and I think getting away from that and toward quality, original content is the key to a successful media outlet.”

Glenn Burkins of Qcitymetro, a news, business and culture platform for Charlotte’s black community:

Turbulence, collaboration: “Long-term, I’m bullish on the future of news. As long as humans interact through government, commerce, war, crime, etc., they will need reliable news and information, and something will emerge (with a sustainable business model) to fill that need.

“Shorter-term, expect more turbulence. Expect more cutbacks in print, beyond those already announced. Expect more journalism being funded through membership programs and nonprofit channels. Expect more coordination between media outlets, such as the current Charlotte Journalism Collaborative. The future will belong to media companies that innovate. I like how WFAE is positioning itself. I’m intrigued by what I see coming from The Charlotte Ledger. And then there’s the question of Charlotte Agenda and whether it can really play in the news arena.”

Melanie Sill, former editor of the Raleigh News & Observer:

Experimentation, growth: “What I hope we’ll see: Growth and expansion of local outlets that focus their mission and coverage on the needs of people in the Charlotte region, and base their business model on serving those needs in ways that people want to fund (through donations, subscriptions or sponsorships). Lots more experimentation and innovation recognizing people’s appetite for coverage that’s relevant, lively and useful.

“What I think we’ll see: More disruption of legacy models, more intense broadcast competition, more pressure on chain-owned outlets for scale (which prioritizes national news and aggregate audiences over local needs), more experimentation and more push among all media for audience growth and revenue from subscriptions, memberships and so forth.”

Rick Thames, former editor of The Charlotte Observer:

Sense of mission: “While it's a loss for print-only readers, I wouldn’t infer too much from McClatchy dropping the Saturday print edition. It really is just an acknowledgment that more local advertisers are interested in digital products. …

“I believe Charlotte will still rely on the Observer for news that’s of broadest interest, but shop other places for many specific topics. The city has a growing number of emailed newsletters and websites serving niche audiences. Many are doing very good work, and some are also finding their financial footing. …

“The key is for newspapers to inspire their readers with the same sense of mission that public radio and public television inspire with their audiences. Readers will need more than a subscription. They will need to believe they are part of that mission to keep quality journalism in their community.”

Rick Thurmond, former editor and publisher of Charlotte magazine:

Encouraging signs: “We’ve spent several years focusing on the challenges of the media that we all grew up with: the newspaper. Those are obviously real and significant challenges, but during that time, while some were talking about the problems, others were doing something about it. I feel like we have right now the beginning of a really strong media ecosystem developing. I would put that up against any other city our size in the country. There are a lot of places where people are trying different things.

“What defined media for years was ruthless competition for ad dollars. Now, it’s much more about cultivating the audience and understanding you can share an audience with somebody else, and there will be different ways to monetize that.”

Ju-Don Marshall of WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR station:

More collaboration: “Despite the challenges facing local media nationwide, Charlotte media are finding new ways to serve our community. One of our strengths is our willingness to place collaboration above competition, which a decade ago was more of the priority. That’s not to say that we each aren’t invested in building sustainable business models, but it does show that we recognize that by coming together we can better serve our community and in the process achieve our own goals.”

New Steele Creek YMCA identifies itself

The YMCA of Greater Charlotte on Thursday announced it’s raising money to build a $9M, 14,000 s.f. facility on Highway 160, south of Sledge Road, in the Steele Creek area. It will be called the Gill Family YMCA, named after CPI Security founder Ken Gill and his wife, Malinda. The Y will include “group exercise studio(s), cycling studio, wellness center, Y Kids drop-in childcare facility, family fitness lawn, sports fields, locker rooms, and an outdoor aquatic center, which will feature a lap pool, splash park and wade pool.”

In brief

  • Epicentre shooting: Two people were shot outside the Epicentre uptown early Friday, one of them fatally. “Two people came out of the Epicentre shooting at each other around 2 a.m. Responding officers told the subjects to drop their weapons but were fired upon … and that’s when police shot back.” (WSOC)

  • New supermarket: Lidl plans to open its first Charlotte supermarket on Dec. 4 at 9318 Monroe Road in Charlotte, near Sardis Road North. It will be open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. “The first 100 customers will be presented with a special gift card ranging from $5 to $100 each,” the company said.

  • Big park envisioned, but… : Architects and developers are making plans for a 220-acre park near NoDa that would be twice as big as Freedom Park. But before you get too excited, it’s on a rail yard owned by Norfolk Southern. Railroads are notoriously difficult to deal with, but there’s some optimism. Organizers are calling it “Queens Park.” (Agenda)

  • Wells former interim CEO leaving: Allen Parker, who served as Wells Fargo’s interim CEO for about six months this year, plans to leave the bank in March. New CEO Charles Scharf took over last month. (Wall Street Journal)

  • Farm to hospital: The City Council is holding a public hearing on Monday on Novant Health’s request to rezoning the Hall Family Farm site at Johnston Road at Providence Road West in Ballantyne. Novant has said it wants to build a hospital there. The Council is also scheduled to vote on a city plan to rezone nearly 1,800 acres along the light-rail line.

  • Predatory towing: A Mecklenburg County judge OK’d WBTV to air an investigative story alleging a towing company attempted to tow and sell the car of a soldier deployed to the U.S.-Mexican border. The company, SL Recovery, had sought a restraining order barring the story by reporter David Hodges from being broadcast. (WBTV)

  • Renovation cam: Blackhawk Hardware at Park Road Shopping Center has set up a website where viewers can watch the store’s expansion into its 12,000 s.f. basement in real time. (Charlotte Five)

Food and booze news

A weekly wrap-up of the week’s eating and drinking developments

  • Airport food: The airport opened a few new restaurants at the intersection of the D and E concourses this week. Openings included “a bar anchored by North Carolina-based Wicked Weed Brewing” and “Auntie Anne’s pretzels, Bojangles’, Potbelly Sandwich Shop and Shake Shack.” (Biz Journal)

  • And now the other Terrace Cafe closes: Terrace Cafe has closed its Ballantyne location, just a few days after closing its spot in Piedmont Row in SouthPark. (CharlotteFive)

  • Impossible BBQ: A Cornelius company is developing a vegan version of North Carolina barbecue made out of soy and wheat. “We created a pulled plant-based barbecue that is very similar in taste and texture to North Carolina pulled pork barbecue,” says Lee Cooper, who started a company called Barveque. The company’s website says it is “crafted in small batches using Non-GMO soybean protein; wheat and vegetarian seasonings. It is basted with our tantalizing Barvecue® sauce and smoked ‘low and slow’ over a select mix of pecan & apple wood, creating a scrumptious, chewy delicacy.” (WSOC)

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The Charlotte Ledger is an e-newsletter and web site publishing timely, informative, and interesting local business news and analysis Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, except holidays and as noted. We strive for fairness and accuracy and will correct all known errors. The content reflects the independent editorial judgment of The Charlotte Ledger. Any advertising, paid marketing, or sponsored content will be clearly labeled.

The Charlotte Ledger is published by Tony Mecia, an award-winning former Charlotte Observer business reporter and editor. He lives in Charlotte with his wife and three children.