In the state’s journalism circles, there are a handful of publishers and outlets that really stand out as innovative. The Chatham News + Record, serving the small but growing Chatham County community just west of the Triangle, is one of them.

So when CN+R’s editor Bill Horner III tweeted about a special section in this week’s paper covering the crisis in Ukraine, it was both unexpected and in character for the weekly paper.

We traded emails this week to talk more about what it’s like being an innovative but small newspaper today.

A Q&A with Chatham News + Record’s Bill Horner III

The Assembly: This week you’ve published a page and a half in print on the crisis in Ukraine. On Twitter you called it “something unusual for a little community weekly paper in rural N.C.”

Horner: We throw the term “hyper-local” around a lot in our industry, but I like to think about news and reporting in terms of relevance and whether it’s worth a reader’s engagement. So what we did was unusual because obviously Ukraine is a long way from Chatham County — but the Russia story is really relevant to all of us, whether we realize it or not. And it’s news, and we’re a newspaper, so … We have a former ambassador and diplomat, Bob Pearson, who retired with his wife Maggie (also a retired diplomat) to Chatham County, and they’re very active in Chatham and still so in tune with what’s happening in Europe. (They shared a byline on a story they wrote for us after the Afghanistan withdrawal, by the way.) And I have a good friend who, with her husband, is on the front lines (metaphorically speaking, but they’ve been in the fray in their hometown of Kyiv) in Ukraine. And I’ve been to Ukraine four times and know these people, these incredible people who have such a history of suffering. So after reading more this past weekend about what Putin is doing, I thought: let’s leverage those connections to share with people in Chatham County why we should care about what’s happening in Ukraine. I reached out to both Maia Mikhaluk and Bob, and they happily did the work. Plus Maia’s an incredible photographer; her pictures really added something to the package. I think we would have been remiss not to do that, given the fact that both were so ready and willing to share what they know and what they’ve seen. I don’t know how much traction the stories will get, but I firmly believe we had the responsibility to put it out there because it’s important.

The Assembly: CN+R also stands out in NC local news for the extent to which its coverage is translated into Spanish.

Horner: We started our “La Voz de Chatham” project with a Facebook grant in the late spring of 2020. It was designed to be a 12-week project to serve an underserved population. Chatham is 13.6% Hispanic, but the percentage is much higher in western Chatham, in the Siler City area, and they’ve been largely ignored in the past when it comes to having their news, their stories, told. Obviously, we used up our Facebook grant funds pretty quickly, but we’ve kept it going — covering that segment of our county, reporting about them. Those stories are published in English in our print edition and in English and Spanish on our website, in front of our paywall, and then we also translate other key English stories into Spanish as well for the website, too. And we added a free distribution (2,500 copies mailed, 2,500 copies hand-distributed) Spanish-language edition last year; it’s now a quarterly publication. We’ve gotten additional grants, too, and we’re keeping it going. It’s important work, work that transcends ROI, although the ad revenue from the print publication has been doubling with each new edition.

The Assembly: You’ve got a reputation for being pretty darn innovative. Among your revenue streams is a local coffee line. What are some of the out of the box things CN+R is doing to thrive?

Horner: Our Chatham Brew coffee came about as a branding idea, not a revenue idea. But it’s becoming popular. Again, it was all about leveraging relationships — we have a world-class partner in Aromatic Roasters in Pittsboro, so why not help them and help us by getting together? And why not retail it? I wish I could rattle off a long list of innovative things we’re doing, but these days, you gotta toss a lot of stuff out there and see what sticks, and look around and see what ideas you can steal from your friends in the industry. I’m fortunate to know some really innovative publishers and they certainly inspire me. But the reality is we have to innovate in order to be sustainable. It’s about audience and connectivity points and mattering to them and doing work that earns you loyalty. I see some small daily newspapers around me just acting like they’ve given up, but then I see David Woronoff in Moore County and Les High, with his new Border Belt Project, out of Columbus County, and I see some of the really great work the News & Observer is doing in Raleigh — and I see The Assembly, and Scalawag, and Southerly — and I think: no reason we can’t have just as much fun as they are, and no reason why we can’t bring similar value to people in Chatham County. Our e-newsletters have done well, we have a podcast, we partner with a lot of nonprofits and agencies in Chatham and we try a lot of things. Our “Carpool” parenting newsletter, for example, which Hannah McClellan does — it’s just remarkable. We have a review of sorts of “The Matrix” co-written by a Kentucky journalism professor and a Chinese educator, in this week’s paper. We have a weekly Q&A with a newsmaker in our market. We have pictures this week from four different photographers who do work for us. We’re doing a joint reporting project with Southerly on Chatham’s water issues. We’re gearing up for a “What’s Next, Chatham?” project in the wake of Chatham’s 250th anniversary that could really be a game-changer in a very divided county. We give our readers a lot. The reality is we’ve done about 1/10th of the ideas we want to try and test, or maybe 1/25th. The work of putting out a paper keeps getting in the way, but we’re moving forward, and that’s what counts for now. We just need more people to read and subscribe.

The Assembly: Your email signature reads “Keep journalism alive in Chatham.” How close have things come to the brink? Was there a low point where the paper could have been sold or folded?

Horner: We’re always on the brink, but I have incredible business partners in Kirk Bradley and Chris Ehrenfeld who believe in the mission. Honestly, I have low points every week, really low points, when I look at our numbers, especially our market penetration. Then we put the paper to bed and everything is right with the world. We had a 32-page paper this week with 32 — I just counted, 32! — locally produced story elements. What other weekly newspapers do that week in and week out with a tiny staff like ours? I know we’re putting out a great product, especially for a market our size. But the diversity and fragmentation of our market has made it really, really difficult to get traction. We’re doing good journalism — the best I’ve ever seen in a newspaper our size. That’s why I’m constantly saying — keep journalism alive in Chatham County. We’re delivering in Chatham now, but we need just another 10% of the households in our market to subscribe to keep it going.

Kyle Villemain is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Assembly. He is a former speechwriter who grew up in the Triangle and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill.