Former publisher reflects on the newspaper evolution and how the Greenville News thrived (2024)

Former publisher reflects on the newspaper evolution and how the Greenville News thrived (1)

Time flies. One day, you are taking a short-term assignment. Turn around, and you find yourself as the senior surviving “former publisher" of The News.

I invite you to a quick journey back in time, as The News aged from 97 to 125.

My wife Cathy and I were headed to Charlottesville and business school when we arrived in Greenville for a six-month stint in January 1971. The Greenville News was three years shy of the century mark, and the company was investigating the wisdom and economics of accepting a new form of advertising: pre-printed ad circulars.

My assignment was to determine the costs and compare the return with that of traditional ads printed on the pages of the paper. It seemed pretty simple at the time. Three months later, I had completed a deep dive into the hundreds of steps necessary to transform a salesperson's ad concept, sometimes neatly sketched out, other times not, into an advertisem*nt printed in the columns of the paper.

In the research process, I had the good fortune of working with hundreds of people who produced separate morning and afternoon papers using technology and processes almost as old as The News itself.

Analog era and automation

Sounds like an oxymoron now in a digital age. The pace of change in newspaper production was accelerating long before the Death Star challenge of the digital era and the rise of competitors accompanying it.

The only computer in the company that served the circulation and accounting departments, and the closest thing to automation, was a typesetting machine known as a linotype, which could be operated using a paper tape reader at twice the speed of a human. The speed of 14 lines per minute meant huge labor costs and inefficiencies in producing news and advertising copy for printing.

The opportunity to automate a business with 80-year-old processes was not lost on this short-timer, and when I was offered the choice of a job instead of an MBA, I took it. Working directly with and for the owners, the extended Peace family, was serendipitous timing for what would become a career. Their guidance and the examples they set on the value of the individual person, regardless of rank or department, stuck with me for life. Bony H. Peace, BH for short, was a daily guide for me, with his daily doses of wisdom that I still recognize as teaching moments.

Their family had been successful in the printing business in Greer when they got the opportunity to buy the News. The family enterprise started with one newspaper, the Greenville Daily News, and by 1971, the company owned morning and afternoon newspapers in Asheville, N.C., and Montgomery, Ala. The family had merged their company with Southeastern Broadcasting of Greenville to form Multimedia, Inc., and the initial public stock offering was in the works when we arrived. I confess that being the delivery person for important documents to Washington and NYC was an exciting duty compared to the excruciating hours of studying the time and cost needed to produce a page of lead type.

By April, the decision was made to accept preprints, and nobody looked back.

That was the day when newspapers moved from being in the business of “news” to being in the delivery business.

Over the next decade and a half, our company’s processes experienced change at an exponential rate. The advent of computerized typesetting in the mid-70s, accompanied by advertising copy, which required no production, eliminated the need for double and triple handling, typing, retyping, and typesetting, proofing, and redoing news and ad copy. The conversion from a century-old stereotype plate formed from molten lead to one produced via camera to offset plate brought still more financial efficiency from automation. It also yielded a quality of printing light-years ahead of what was called letterpress. We were the only publisher in SC to be included in the ranks of the USA Today Network.

The automation and financial savings we were experiencing were an industry-wide and nationwide trend, and newspapers became prime investment opportunities for publishing companies. Our parent company, Multimedia, acquired daily and weekly publications in Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia in the 1970s and 1980s.

Newspapers and other media companies became darlings on Wall Street. Multimedia’s strong presence in newspapers and broadcasting made our company a leader, and its stock price reflected that.

Former publisher reflects on the newspaper evolution and how the Greenville News thrived (2)

The secret sauce

While production efficiencies were a big contributor financially, we had a team of managers running the Greenville News-Piedmont Company, and Multimedia Newspaper Company, and our focus was on four basics: our First Amendment role, the needs of our readers and advertisers, the quality of our work internally and externally, and the embracing of change and innovation in all we did.

Rhea Eskew, former vice president of news at United Press International, set the stage for our team at the News. Before he became head of Multimedia Newspaper Company, I assisted him and worked with General Manager Steve Brandt and Executive Editor John Pittman. Steve led the business functions, and John led the news operation. Tom Inman and Beth Padgett were opinion editors for the News and the Piedmont and worked directly with me in formulating the papers’ opinions on everything from whom to endorse for sheriff to the explanation for readers of why we sometimes sued public figures and institutions to shed light on the public’s business which was being conducted in secret.

We were also sued, but we prevailed. A notable victory for our industry occurred when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with our assertion that newspapers had a First Amendment right to place racks in public areas of airports.

We also were competitive, and we had fun. In 1988, we threw out a spring challenge to our marketing team to grow our circulation to 150,000 by November. I promised an appearance in a Clemson-orange leisure suit, double-knit, of course, for the celebration.

Former publisher reflects on the newspaper evolution and how the Greenville News thrived (3)

As a token of the challenge, each team member received a Fungo bat inscribed by a wood burner with the words “Nov.,1988 150,000.”

This growth would require a larger audience and a strategy to expand from Greenville and the Upstate. John Pittman came up with a new Page 1 flag that dropped the identifier “Greenville’ and added the crescent moon from the Jasper flag for our new state edition.

Our newspaper friends in Columbia were not amused, nor were they when we began publishing every Friday night high school football score in the state in our first edition. We innovated to get delivery to coastal communities, even shipping bundles of newspapers on trucks delivering fresh produce to grocery stores.

We hit the goal of 150,000. Steve was chagrined to learn that he, too, had won an orange leisure suit.

As we grew, so did our revenues. We carefully reinvested in our news operations, added reporters and artists, and opened bureaus in Washington and Atlanta.

On the product front, we employed national research firms to conduct market surveys of readership and shopping trends of our markets and readers to help guide news and advertising efforts. Pre-internet and the ability to focus individual messages onto individual recipients, we focused on the likes and wants of people with like-minded shopping habits and lifestyles. It worked. Our researchers, led by Murray Howard, came up with a newspaper “reach and frequency” model for advertisers, which we packaged under the term Accucast, with obvious aspersions toward our broadcast friends. We pioneered the production of an alternative Yellow Pages for Greenville.

The financial world was changing in the 80s and 90s. Our parent company, Multimedia, took on a recapitalization transaction in 1985 which caught the attention of heavyweight investors like Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the then Washington Redskins, and former Treasury Secretary William Simon. By Oct. 1, 1985, MM Acquiring Corp., led by Chairman Wilson Wearn and other senior Multimedia executives, had acquired the “old” Multimedia. Our focus stayed on our core principles, but we turned our attention aggressively to meeting our financial targets.

Our oft-repeated statement was that we were fortunate that we were part of the same company and had not been acquired in a hostile takeover.

Also changing was the advertising environment. The combination of census data with computerized databases of customer addresses and store locations gave rise to a monster that successfully came after the profitable preprints which advertisers and newspapers were increasingly dependent upon. In Greenville, the loss of advertising from one of our 10 largest customers was a wake-up call that resulted in the development of the “Home Delivery Network,” a business that offered saturation coverage of geographies customized to the advertiser’s needs.

By 1993, a phenomenon known as the World Wide Web was rearing its head.

In 1994, some news execs chuckled when appeared, offering international career and employment services. We were fortunate to enjoy some months when our recruitment advertising team was bringing in a million dollars a month; we could read the tea leaves.

Change was also on the local horizon with ATT's development of the capability to transmit digitized messages, audio, and video via its wire and fiber optic networks.

Buck Rogers was not far in the future.

Remember the internet and dial-up modems?

We took real notice when the now-defunct Radio Shack began carrying home computers. So did K-Mart and Wal-Mart. Remember “Trash-80s” and "Commode-doors?”

More:Old Swandale Building formerly housed Greenville Daily News

Innovation time again.

Pittman developed our proprietary system for transmitting news, messages, and ads via the dial-up modem. We called it “The Latest Scoop,” and customers could communicate via the platform, search news columns, and our classified advertising database to look for items by keyword. This was revolutionary, particularly for a newspaper in Greenville, SC.

Telephone companies also saw the potential. They were the largest ad publisher in the U.S. with their Yellow Pages.

We thought a partnership with them could be beneficial. So did they.

We reached an agreement with BellSouth in Atlanta to develop a system for transmitting our news and information over their network in the Southeastern U.S.

In another move to increase ad dollars in the face of the internet and new competitors, our head of marketing, Tom Stultz, spearheaded the development of The Newspaper Catalog, an in-paper version of the popular in-flight magazines of the day. It was greeted with enthusiasm by national advertisers. He and I arrived in Los Angeles on Easter night for an appointment with the L.A. Times the next day. Our hotel was close to Brentwood, so we drove by O.J. Simpson’s house, stopping to gawk at the yard, only to be threatened by security people in the yard.

We got the order from the Times.

With the rise in popularity of Prodigy, Netscape, and other internet service providers, we developed and launched our own web presence, which we dubbed Greenville Online.

Then the environment changed. Multimedia was now exploring “strategic alternatives” as the stories in The Wall Street Journal reported. The company was for sale. That was certainly appropriate and the right thing to do, but it was a stunner. After a six-month process, the sale to the original Gannett was announced in August 1995. The deal closed in December.

Former publisher reflects on the newspaper evolution and how the Greenville News thrived (4)

This began the final chapter of my association with Multimedia's owners, builders, and employees, which had begun 25 years and 11 months earlier.

The transition to Gannett was smooth, time-consuming, and arduous, but it was completed without a hiccup. Gannett vice chair Doug McCorkindale called it the best transition of any ever made by Gannett.

What a tribute to the teamwork and camaraderie of the people at Multimedia, particularly those in Greenville.

I went on to a senior post at Gannett and enjoyed the challenge.

After three years, I decided with my family to start my own company, which we did in the Spring of 1999, ending a six-month stint that had lasted 28 years.

That is the year when The Greenville Daily News celebrated its 125th birthday.

We had come full circle from a family-owned company to a public one, to a leveraged acquisition by investors, and finally, to a large public entity.

We had witnessed the automation of a century-old industry and then its consolidation from thousands of owners down to hundreds. We participated in the growth through the acquisition of newspaper publishing companies and the development of new print and internet-based products. We had grown the products and the people who produced them. We had made a difference.

All were great experiences. Some were fun, some were not.

We are glad the Peace family asked us to stay in our adopted Greenville.

We had ringside seats to one of the greatest shows around.

Write us as fortunate for taking the chance to participate.

Bern Mebane is a former publisher of the Greenville News and still resides in his adopted hometown of Greenville.

Former publisher reflects on the newspaper evolution and how the Greenville News thrived (2024)
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