VPA board members and co-owner of the Chesterfield Observer, Carol McCracken, is our Q&A this week.
She talks about the leap of faith her and her husband, Frank McCracken, took when they decided to purchase the Observer, what allows niche non-dailies like the Observer to do well even in tough times, how she got from Alabama to Virginia, what she hopes to see the VPA board and staff accomplish in the future and a lot more.
To start, can you please introduce yourself and tell us about what you do, where you do it, how long you’ve been at it and what your affiliation with VPA is?
I manage the sales and marketing side of the business for the Chesterfield Observer. I’ve been with the Chesterfield Observer for more than 15 years. I happened to be unemployed at the time and saw an advertisement for a sales position with the paper. I had no knowledge about advertising sales but I knew that I could sell (my background was electrical sales) so I applied.
I had a phone interview with Mr. Pearson (founder of the Chesterfield Observer) he sent me a media kit and a newspaper told me to review them that he was going out of town and that he would call in a week when he got back. I did not hear back from him so I started to call him every day until he agreed to give me a face-to-face interview. After three meetings with him, I was hired. A few days after he hired me, I ran into him in the parking lot. I was running late so I apologized and told him that I had stopped to get a smart tag. He just gave out the big belly laugh and said, “I guess you really are here to stay I did not want hire you because you live in the city and this is Chesterfield County.” Over four years ago, Greg decided to retire and asked if Frank and myself would like to buy it. The rest is history!
I got involved with the VPA in 2006; joining the advertising conference committee and I have judged numerous press associations advertising contest. I am currently on the Public Notice Committee, Membership Services Committee (chair), Advertising Advisory Group and Public Notice Workgroup.
So you and Frank bought the Observer from the original owner four years ago. What was it like, initially, when you two decided to purchase the paper? I imagine it had to be a kind of leap of faith on your all’s behalf.
Well, we were blindsided at first, Greg had never given any clue that he would ever sell the paper or retire. In fact, every year we would draw up a new employment agreement giving me the option to purchase the paper should something happen to him.
We decided that it was best to invest in ourselves for our future and that of our children than in the stock market.
So, it was nerve wrecking, scary and exciting all at this same time.
The Observer is one of the largest weeklies in the state and seems to have a very devoted readership despite being in the same market as a bigger daily metro paper. What do you attribute this success to? What is unique about the way you all cover and write about Chesterfield?
It goes back to the old adage: “Content is King.”
Since 1995, the Observer has served the residents and stakeholders of Chesterfield County, covering the news that’s important to them. With over 70,000 copies distributed each week, we’re Chesterfield’s only county-wide devoted news source.
Here at the Observer, we are committed to timely, accurate, truthful and unbiased coverage of the community, local government and schools. We believe deeply in the value of watchdog journalism and its role in keeping leaders honest, citizens aware and engaged and communities vibrant and connected.
The Observer works hard to build and maintain a bond of trust with our readers by adhering to strict journalistic values: fairness, accuracy, transparency, ethical conduct and attention to detail. Those same standards apply to our business relationships – advertising clients, company contractors and the institutions and people we cover.
With the help of local, relevant advertising, we will continue to be a trusted voice for the community, both in print and online. We’ll also continue to be a powerful bridge in the local economy, while giving back to the community and maintaining a respectful, dynamic work culture.
What’s it like running a paper with your significant other? Does it ever present any obstacles or hidden advantages to newspaper-ing?
Wow, that is a tough question. We both have a sales background so I have never been involved in the day to day operation. When we bought the paper we decided it was best for me to handle sales and Frank would handle the business side. Sometimes it’s hard to keep Frank out of the sales side (ha).
Seriously, it was tough at the beginning, you’re with each other 24/7 and it was hard to draw the line on when to stop talking about business. We often found ourselves at 9 or so at night looking at each other saying it’s after 5 we really need to shut this down.
Of course, we have gotten better at this but it has taken some time.
We both like to tell everyone the best thing about our jobs is that we get to work with our best friend.
“The Observer works hard to build and maintain a bond of trust with our readers by adhering to strict journalistic values: fairness, accuracy, transparency, ethical conduct and attention to detail. Those same standards apply to our business relationships – advertising clients, company contractors and the institutions and people we cover.”
We’ve found that some of our members get the question, “Aren’t newspapers on the way out?” What do you tell the occasional observer (sorry for the pun) that says newspapers aren’t viable anymore?
This is a subject that I talk someone’s ear off.
Everywhere you look some large daily paper is writing that their revenue and circulation is down, they will cut production from 7 days a week to 5 days a week, or they are laying people off. Their newsrooms have gotten so small that they cannot cover their entire market share with news that is important to a specific area. How could you not think that newspapers are on the way out?
On other hand, niche publications, like myself, that’s all we do and we do it well. Weekly papers tend to focus on their geographical area, they are focused on giving the reader prevalent news regarding their community. Weekly papers are thriving especially those that not owned by large newspaper groups.
Ours is a very viable newspaper, just look at the people who advertise within the paper, they would not be there is it wasn’t working for them. As a matter of fact, we have increased inserts from national advertisers in the last year, who we spent years trying to convince that they should be in our paper. The word has finally gotten out if you want Chesterfield County residents, you need to be in the Chesterfield Observer.
Our circulation is on the rise, in the last six months we have added 1,100 new homes in which we deliver to, not too many papers can tell you that.
Somewhere down the line, we need to get the word out that not all newspapers are dying!
As a VPA board member, what are some of your aspirations for the association? Where do you hope to see VPA in the next few years?
To finally get the law makers off our backs regarding legal notices this has been a war that we have fought for a long time. With the new public notice website in place, I would like to see that a law in in place that all newspapers must up load their legal notices to this site. I believe in doing so it will pretty much shut down the law makers who would like to see newspapers stripped from this revenue.
The VPA has a great staff in place, with that said I would love to see the Virginia Press Service side of the VPA turn into more of an Ad Agency instead of a placement service. Susan Wineland-li and Adriane Long make a great team and are going after businesses that no one has ever imaged. All member newspapers will benefit from their efforts, which means revenue for the VPA and their members.
I would also like to help build more relevant membership services that engage our members, I often wonder how many newspapers are members just to able to enter into our annual award contest.
Outside of newspapering what are some of your interests and hobbies?
I use to play a lot of golf, but since buying the paper I tend to spend my weekends trying to decompress and preparing for the next week. We do manage to take a few long weekends each year and head to Key West or going down to Virginia Beach and catch a concert. Dave Matthews and Zac Brown are my two favorites band to see down there.
And, also, you’re an Alabama native. What’s the story behind you ending up in Virginia?
Well, I was born in Alabama and all but my family still live in Alabama. My father enlisted in the Navy when I was in first grade, and the family moved to Charleston South Carolina, we were not there very long and he was transferred to Dunoon, Scotland. We spent 5 years living abroad. Our last move was to Virginia Beach, where I spent 20 plus years before moving to Richmond to take a new job with Holiday Inn. I love Richmond it is such a great town.