Statewide paper’s publisher remains optimistic after slow takeoff

Statewide paper’s publisher remains optimistic after slow takeoff

Many North Carolinians say there are too few journalists to cover all the news in our fast-growing state, so Neal Robbins did something about it.

Almost a year ago, he started the North State Journal as a weekly newspaper distributed on Sundays, with a plan to distribute a five-days-a-week paper statewide.

Now he has a 10-person staff based in Raleigh, assorted freelancers, a website and, starting last week, a second day of publication. Adding Wednesday will boost interest in the paper, he says, and push paid circulation from 3,000 today to 10,000 by the end of this year. At $100 per annual sub, circulation revenue would be in the $1 million range.

While there are no definite plans to add more frequency, Robbins says his paper will prove wrong the doubters who question the financial feasibility of a statewide print newspaper. U.S. daily newspapers have reported sharp declines in print-related advertising revenues, with gains in digital not significant enough to stop continued newsroom layoffs.

Robbins won’t provide specifics on his finances or ownership. “We are right on the line each month to being cash-flow positive. That is why I am bullish on 2017. We will have sustained cash flow and will have a profitable 2017.”

As for who put up the money, he says he is staying silent to keep the focus on the paper’s journalism. The business “was created with small amounts of money from a Shark Tank-style environment and from people who believe in the business opportunity.” His investors are patient, he says.

Most editions of North State Journal have included seven to nine ads per week, he says. The most recent 28-page edition included the equivalent of about five full pages of ads and three pages of legal notices. To succeed, the paper needs to cover news that isn’t already published elsewhere, he says.

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Robbins, who earned MBA and law degrees from Wake Forest University in 2007, worked for a Greensboro law firm before his own firm in 2010. Two years later he closed the business to join the Department of Environmental Quality under former Secretary John Skvarla.

After the November election sparked the demise of the McCrory administration, Skvarla has joined the Nexsen Pruet law firm in Raleigh to specialize in economic development. He led the N.C. Department of Commerce after leaving DEQ. Robbins has also joined Nexsen Pruet and cities his ability to attract clients and make connections.

But most of his time will be spent on the newspaper, he says. While he lives in Asheboro, Robbins says he makes the 75-minute commute almost every day. (A lot longer than 75 minutes if there’s a Interstate 40 traffic jam, he adds.)

Developing the paper requires the drive of an entrepreneur, Robbins says. When there was a glitch in delivery of the first Wednesday edition in Greenville, he drove to Pitt County at 11 p.m. to personally drop papers at subscribers’ homes. He got home to Asheboro at 5:30 a.m.

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