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Extra! New strategies for survival by South Carolina newspapers

South Carolina newspapers evolve a new paradigm to survive
South Carolina newspapers evolve a new paradigm to survive 10:24

The historic city of Charleston, South Carolina is home to the oldest daily newspaper in the South.  Back in the days of the Louisiana Purchase, when Napoleon was making news, it was reported in the Charleston Courier. These days Pierre Manigault owns the paper (what is now called the Post and Courier) that was begun 221 years ago.

He's the latest in a long line: his great-grandfather bought into it in 1896, making Pierre the fourth generation now to own the paper.

Koppel asked, "You haven't heard, Pierre, but newspapers are done. They're finished."

"I've heard the rumor!" he laughed.

Pierre Manigault, chairman of Evening Post Industries, which owns the Charleston Post and Courier, with "Sunday Morning" senior contributor Ted Koppel.  CBS News

But instead of cutting back, Manigault is bucking the trend: hiring more staff, expanding digitally across the state, and investing heavily in, of all things, a state-of-the-art printing press. Family ownership means he can do, more or less, what he wants.

"Are you really in it any more to make money?" asked Koppel.

"No, no. The short answer to that is no," Manigault replied. "This is not the business to make money in. It once was, as you well know. These presses have printed money. But it's a different world."

One in which an estimated 70 million Americans now live in what's come to be known as a "news desert." 

News deserts: The counties in yellow have just one newspaper remaining; those in red have none. CBS News

What happens in those communities, absent a source of reliable local news and scrutiny of local officials, can lead to the spread of disinformation and corruption. Manigault said, "We see what happens when communities lose their newspapers, 'cause it's happening all around us. I think it's very important to have, not just a newspaper, but a very good newspaper."

In South Carolina, 10 local newspapers folded their print editions back in 2020 alone. And even among the ones that survive, many are shoestring operations in cities like Chester, a former textile hub that hasn't quite recovered from hard economic times. The weekly newspaper there is the News and Reporter, and one-half of its reporting staff is editor Travis Jenkins. "Myself and my reporter, Brian Garner, we're it," he said.

And what does the paper cover? "Everything having to do with Chester County," Jenkins said. "So literally, if you show up at our office and say, 'Hey, I just caught a 60-pound catfish, would you take a picture of it and put it in the paper?' We absolutely do it. But then we also kind of pride ourselves on doing more deep dig, heavy lift, investigative pieces that a lot of papers our size aren't able to do anymore."

The News and Reporter, in Chester, S.C., has just two reporters on staff. But they've joined a consortium of South Carolina papers that can expand their coverage of local news.  CBS News

Some of the local stories they covered: A county supervisor indicted for trafficking meth. A sheriff indicted and removed on corruption charges. A councilman removed from office by a judge for having a past criminal record he didn't disclose.

Koppel asked, "How do you have time to do that?"

"It's difficult," Jenkins replied. 

Head 40 miles South and you'll come to the small town of Blythewood. Barbara Ball owns the local weekly paper, the Voice of Blythewood. She manages the paper, writes for the paper, and delivers copies to businesses around town.

Koppel said, "Barbara, most publishers have got someone to do this kind of thing for them. Your vast staff is not available?"

"I'm pretty much the staff," she replied.

The family pitches in. Her husband, Keith, was up a good part of the night getting the paper ready for distribution. Her daughter, Ashley, is the paper's designer.

And Rufus Jones, the former mayor of nearby Ridgeway, gets a small stipend to deliver copies of Ball's other paper in neighboring Fairfield County.  "It just gets me out of the house," said Jones.

Koppel asked, "What is it you find in this newspaper that you don't find in The New York Times?"

"I prefer this paper, because it's the truth, and it's what's happening in the county," Jones replied. "That's why most people get this paper."

Barbara Ball delivers copies of her paper, the Voice of Blythewood.  CBS News

You won't be surprised to learn that Barbara Ball does not do it for the money. But sometimes out of the blue she gets some very generous donations. "I will get checks from people," she said. She got one for a thousand dollars. "I think most people realize that we don't make a lot of money. We don't make any money! And I think a lot of people think if we weren't here, they might not know what was going on."

Coming up with the money to pay for real reporting? That's a problem they all have in common, from the small rural communities, to the big city paper in Charleston owned by Pierre Manigault. "Newspapers were a great vehicle for advertising; that's gone," he said. "So, now you have to go back to what the roots of journalism are, and that's content and information that people can't get anywhere else."

"Do you actually think that anybody cares anymore?" asked Koppel.

"I think they do."

"How do you know?"

"Well, we opened up a fund through the community foundation where people could pay for the newsroom expenses associated with our investigative journalism," Manigault said. "We set a goal of $100,000 in 100 days. And we raised about five times that."

Five-hundred-thousand dollars, from readers who wanted to support the work of award-winning investigative journalists in the Post and Courier newsroom led by Glenn Smith, the special projects editor. He has a team of five reporters, including lead project reporter Tony Bartelme.

In 2021, it occurred to Bartelme and Smith that they could use a part of the donated reporting fund to help some of those small, struggling newspapers in other parts of South Carolina. They could collaborate, to everyone's mutual benefit.

Their pitch? "We came in with a lot of humility and said, 'Hey, we're putting together this project.  We're calling it Uncovered. And what we'd like to do is do investigative stories. And you can collaborate with us, if you can and if you want to,'" said Bartelme.

The Uncovered project was launched in 2021.  CBS News

Travis Jenkins, from the Chester News and Reporter, was the first reporter they reached out to: "Tony Bartelme told me, 'Hey, we're about to drop this story and we do mention Chester's sheriff. And I don't want you to feel like we're invading your turf or trying to bigfoot you. So, here's literally everything I've got from where we investigated Chester's sheriff.'"

Smith recalled, "Later on, where the sheriff was going to trial, we had some trouble staffing that trial, and [Jenkins] was going to that. We shared reporting on that. Then the pieces that we produced were so much better for the collaboration."

The "Uncovered" project ultimately involved 19 community newspapers across the state; two papers have since folded. The stories ran in Charleston's Post and Courier, and were available to all of the local partners, including the Voice of Blythewood.

Smith said, "Barbara Ball, her local school superintendent had basically taken over the narrative in town: 'I'm not going to deal with you.' She wanted to see his financial spending records, and came to us."

Ball said, "Some governments are just great, they're very open. And then, there's others that do have things to hide. And it's very hard to get information."

"She'd been quoted, I think it was $300 for these records," said Smith. "And she didn't have that. And so, we offered to pay for that, and they ended up just giving it to us when we got behind her – and got a really good story out of it."

Koppel asked Ball, "What is it they provide, other than money and muscle?"

"For our story to be on the front page of the Charleston Post and Courier was huge," she replied. "It substantiated that we're a good newspaper, that we turn out good work."

An Uncovered investigation into expenditures in a local school district was reported by the Voice of Blythewood and Fairfield County, and the Post and Courier in Charleston, the largest newspaper in South Carolina. CBS News

Smith said, "I don't know some of these towns. I don't know anything about them. But these people do. So, why don't you take the best of both worlds, put 'em together, we all get content, raise the alarm, and hopefully make our state a better place?"

According to Tony Bartelme, "In the last few years our corruption work has exposed a half-dozen public officials, from sheriffs to prosecutors. It's triggered more than 10 state investigations and audits, more than 100 stories that have exposed conflicts of interest and cozy deals. And it's really that cumulative effort that ends up creating that culture of deterrence that prevents future misconduct."

And readers seem willing to pay for that extra effort: over the past two years, Pierre Manigault's Post and Courier has raised more than $1.7 million to fund their investigative work and local partnerships.

Koppel asked him, "Ten years from now, are newspapers gonna be a thing of the past?"

"Time will tell," Manigault replied, "but I think that there's a second life for newspapers. I think that we'll survive this. It's an evolution, and newspapers just need to evolve to the new digital world. And I think we're well on our way to doing that."

Travis Jenkins has a different measure of success. His readers can renew an annual subscription of his paper for $29.99. One of them returned the offer with an editorial comment:

"In-between the spaces on our little mailer it said, No, I do not want to. And I'll have to do a little judicious self-editing here. I do not want to subscribe to your bleeping paper. Y'all are the most up-in-everybody bleepin' business newspaper I've ever seen in my whole bleepin' life.  Didn't sign it. Didn't put a return address.  I wish he had! 'Cause I wanted to write him and say, 'Man, thank you! That's the best compliment anybody's ever paid us!"

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Story produced by Deirdre Cohen. Editor: Ed Givnish. 

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