Sale of paper, partnerships possible solutions to preserve Wrightsville Beach’s local source of news and information
On January 9, the Lumina News will stand at a precipice, one that could end the only local source of news for Wrightsville Beach. Unless something changes before then, namely a sale or new sources of revenue, it will likely be the last printed edition of the Lumina News, and therefore, the beginning of the end of Wrightsville Beach having a local news source. The website will remain operational for a while, but it’s unclear how long that will be sustainable.
While things at this point are bleak, there are some options for saving Wrightsville Beach’s local news source, as I will explain below. But first, I want to illustrate some of the challenges that the Lumina News faces.
The Lumina News supports its operations on advertising, and in particular, legal advertising. Consisting primarily of foreclosure notices and notices to creditors, which notify the public of the transfer of an estate following a death, these advertisements are legally required, and the Lumina News is one of only four publications in New Hanover County that is entitled to run them.
This is one of the ingrained advantages the Lumina News has, as these mandatory ads “walk through the door,” with no requirement to go sell them. They come in the form of e-mails and phone calls and are sold at a premium rate. Without them, the Lumina News would have died a long time ago.
However, there are a few caveats that go with these advertisements. The newspaper must be published in the broadsheet format (as opposed to the folio format that local entertainment publication Encore uses), it must be sold (though some copies can be distributed for free at certain locations), it must have a mailing subscription list and it must maintain a local office to conduct business. But most critically, to maintain the legal ad publications, the newspaper must print 51 times a year, essentially requiring weekly publication. This weekly publication requirement has always put a strain on production of the newspaper.
On January 9, a series of legal ads will fulfill their required four-week run. At this point, there are no ads sets to replace them, meaning the next slated issued, January 16, would have no legal ads. Over the last several years, the newspaper has struggled to attain profitability, as the requirements of weekly publication have acted like a concrete boot on the foot of a drowning man. It makes no financial sense to publish on that day and with that break in publication, it may not make sense to ever publish again.
As many of its loyal readers know, I took over as owner of the Lumina News from my position as news director in February 2017. Thrust into the role of publisher, I had to learn on the fly how to run a newspaper. It was a daunting task, but it was also a dream come true, so I threw myself into the role.
Over the past three years I have learned many things about being a newspaper publisher, but through it all, one overwhelming truth has emerged: it can’t be done solely through the efforts of one person. And for the most part, that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
While there had been some setbacks early on, including an absurd email failure that resulted in the loss of my best legal ads client, by September 2018, I believed things were essentially still under control. And then Hurricane Florence happened. While the Lumina News suffered no physical damages, the disruption has served as a lingering obstacle that has never been surmounted. Most of what I did to respond was too little and too late.
With the cessation of the print publication, Wrightsville Beach will likely fall into a “news desert,” with no source of local news. Yes, there will still be the Wilmington Star-News, along with the two TV stations and the subscription website Port City Daily. But as someone who has specialized in Wrightsville Beach news over the past five years, I’ve seen how stretched these local organizations have been. I often have local news stories all to myself. Often, I break stories that they follow, acting as something of a tip sheet for them.
These news organizations will be able to make time for Wrightsville Beach news for high-value stories, but a lot of the regular stories of local importance will be ignored or simply undiscovered. It’s not a slight on my journalism colleagues. Everyone is spread thin in this rapidly changing media marketplace.
However, while things are bleak for the future of Lumina News, there are some possible ways forwards that could help save this local news organization. Some of the possibilities include:
- Partnerships, supported by a coalition of new advertisers – While I am the sole owner of Lumina News, I’m certainly willing to consider others to partner with me. In fact, I had been exploring this option, with two potentially good candidates, each bringing their own distinct talents and abilities. However, neither has the ability to bring the necessary funding. While establishing a partnership is a viable way to operate and grow the paper going forward, there would need to be a solid commitment of new advertising dollars.
- Benefactors – Unlike some other local news sources, the Lumina News still operates a free website. It is helmed by an experienced journalist working to provide an objective, balanced source of news for Wrightsville Beach and the surrounding area. If an individual, or series of individuals, wants to help fund the operations, I’d certainly be willing to entertain those discussions. I realize that this funding could come with conditions, which I would also be willing to accept, so long as they don’t limit or interfere with the unbiased presentation of relevant news.
- Sale of the paper – The Lumina News is currently one of only four newspapers in New Hanover County to accept legal advertising. This is an ingrained source of revenue that can currently covers the costs of publishing the Lumina News. It must still find new advertising or revenue sources to grow. However, with these ads, there is a foundation from which to build. I have always believed that there is opportunity in publishing the Lumina News, and will continue to believe this is the case. Simply put, while I still have ideas that I believe can make the newspaper successful, I’m running out of the time, energy or funding to execute them. But perhaps someone else possesses these things. There are several ways a sale could be executed, depending upon how much training is needed and other conditions.
Some may ask, correctly, that if the newspaper struggles as a business, why should it be saved in the first place. It’s a fair question, but I still strongly believe that only newspapers have the ability to deliver certain types of vital information in a media age increasingly dominated by noise and distractions.
Over my time as owner and publisher, I’ve seen how the media marketplace has changed, what the Lumina News has to offer and how it can remain relevant in this new landscape. What was most noticeable is how difficult, as a weekly, it is to remain relevant on imagery. With Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms becoming so prevalent, many people have become something akin to their own news platforms, and not always with great results.
But the rise of social media also demonstrates the need for publications like the Lumina News. A great example is the criminal case of the man who was recognizable by his frequent walks around the Loop (I’m not naming him again, this is only mentioned by way of example.) Arrested on drug charges, his face was pictured on Wilmington mugshots website, with many people quick to share his picture, including the charges.
However, there was much more to the story than the charges. He chose not to respond to my efforts to reach him, but nonetheless, my interviews with police sources brought more clarity to what happened. While everyone was able to share the photos, only the Lumina News brought forth the details, and then later followed up on the conclusion of the case, where several of those charges were dropped.
Another example of this changing landscape was when a rainbow sprung up over Wrightsville Beach. I got several text messages from friends alerting me to the happening and while I was able to get out to the beach and shoot some photos of it for the paper, it reproduced poorly. But it made no difference, since by the time it ran two days later, most people had seen it all over Instagram anyway. In the “old days,” a newspaper report on the rainbow over the beach would have been interesting and possibly the only way some people were made aware of it. But in today’s social media age, it was old news and in print, it didn’t carry any of the brilliance of the social media posts from days earlier.
But while some of the old functions of the newspaper have been ceded to social media, the medium’s core offering — clear, concise, objective writing and reporting — is as relevant as ever.
While it’s easy for social media users to share video of hundreds of bikes lining the street from Jimmy’s Wrightsville Beach, only the Lumina News captured the details of this incredible story.
Social media users may capture the rainbow, but they won’t be able to summarize the issues addressed through the town budget or report on the details of the latest arrest.
Recognizing this trend, I recently converted the newspaper to black and white, significantly saving money in the process. After all, it’s the words, not the image, where Lumina News offers the greatest value. But while helpful, this change still isn’t enough to shore up the underlying issues plaguing the print publication.
Some may ask why the Lumina News doesn’t address its labor issues through the use of interns. While interns can add value to the publication by taking on some stories, they don’t have the experience, knowledge, or frankly, motivation to properly report on difficult or challenging stories. These are exactly the kind of assignments that take an experienced writer who knows how to properly organize the facts and present the issues. The Lumina News has often taken on interns, and as a writer, I’ve greatly enjoyed teaching them my craft. But they are here to learn and can provide value. But they aren’t a substitute for experienced, paid staff.
Regardless of what happens over the next month, the Lumina News won’t be totally dead. The website will continue to operate in some form and, perhaps, it can be rebuilt as a news organization. But without a solid print publication behind it, I fear that Wrightsville Beach will soon be heading into its own “news desert.”
I don’t want to let this happen to this wonderful place and have felt honored to be the town’s
“scribe” over the past three years. But the newspaper has reached the limits of what one person can do and without some outside help, it will soon vanish. I hope this doesn’t happen, but I need your help.
Please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (910) 719-9180 if you have the desire or ideas to help save your local newspaper.