Teeing up success: How a small town NC paper mastered pop-up news coverage

By Catherine Komp

Newsletter Editor

For The Pilot, 2024 is a special year — it has 13 months, as far as revenue is concerned. 

“I don’t know any news organization that said, ‘Hey, we’re going to set a goal of doing one month’s revenue during [a week-long] event,” said David Woronoff, President and Publisher of The Pilot in Southern Pines. 

That event is the U.S. Open. When it first came to neighboring Pinehurst back in 1999, Woronoff saw a big opportunity in launching a “pop-up” newspaper, Open Daily.

“The people who are coming to the U.S. Open, they crave information about golf and the U.S. Open, and so we need to provide that to them,” said Woronoff. “Because we are experts in our community, in a way that no other media property is, we’re going to give them a heaping helping of Moore County information, which we did, and that made us the go-to source all the way back in 1999 and we still are today.”

“Pop-up” newsletters, events and other products have become more common with news organizations in recent years, but Woronoff, who’s a fourth generation North Carolina newspaper publisher, seized the opportunity a quarter-century ago and has been building their print and digital products ever since, over four U.S. Men’s Opens and four U.S. Women’s Opens. And if you’re curious about that extra revenue they’re making — it’s in the six figures.

“That pays for a lot of journalism,” said Woronoff.

I thought NC Local readers might get some sparks of inspiration learning about The Pilot’s innovative approaches to serving both local and national audiences with their pop-up news products. Before we jump in, here’s a glance at what they’re publishing this week during the 124th U.S. Open:

📄 Five 64-page print editions of Open Daily, featuring the work of some of the best known golf writers and photographers, as well as Pilot staff (50% is advertising, the rest is original content). Here’s Sunday’s preview edition.

📸 A special 20-page “Images” section of the regular twice-weekly Pilot newspaper, with photography from the rounds and events.

📧 An Open Daily newsletter distributed to 100,000 people across North Carolina.

📱 Social media coverage on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok.

🎧 Two streaming audio feeds: Golf Rock & Pilot Radio with regular updates, player interviews, and conversations with journalists.

🔄 Content sharing with The News & Observer, Charlotte Observer and Global Golf Post. 

It’s a hectic week for The Pilot’s team, but David generously took some time to chat with me from a pretty spiffy looking media center, built over the Pinehurst Resort tennis courts. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

NC Local: Back in 1999 when you started Open Daily were you a golfer? 

David Woronoff: Well, I moved to Southern Pines in 1996, at the ripe old age of 31. I was the youngest newspaper publisher in North Carolina, and I’m the 4th generation of my family to publish a newspaper in North Carolina. 

As far as golf goes, it’s just so much a part of our culture here. We have 40 golf courses within 15 miles of our office. The Pinehurst area is known as the Cradle of American Golf. 

I would not call myself a golfer. But I play golf. I am a classic bogey golfer, you know? So if the moons and the planets are in the right alignment, I can break 90. 

I like to say we’re all in the golf business, whether you might be a doctor or a lawyer or a bookseller, whether you know it or not, you’re in the golf business because the cadence of our community revolves around the golf courses. 

You took a trip to San Francisco in 1998 to study the event there and get an idea for how local media was covering it. What did you realize you had to learn in order to do Open Daily successfully? 

The enormity of the event. If you go to a Hurricanes game or a Panthers game, it’s sort of like a PGA Tour stop. It’s something that happens every week. A U.S. Open is like the Super Bowl. You’ve got all of the golf media. Back then, you had a news operation of 1000 credentialed media from all over the world there. That was the first thing that took me back was just how big it was. 

And then I just didn’t think the local media were really taking advantage of the scale that was in their town. I thought they were kind of cowered by all this outside media coming in and I thought that’s what caused them to miss an opportunity. They thought well, we’ll be able to sell more of our daily newspaper so we’ll just beef up our coverage a little bit in the daily newspaper. 

And I thought, well, necessity is the mother of invention. We only published two days a week. That wasn’t going to work for us, just to beef up the Monday and Thursday Pilot. The people coming here to watch the golf tournament, they really don’t care about our editorial on backyard garbage pickup or what’s going on in our local school system. And likewise, they don’t really care what the President said yesterday or what happened to the Tar Heels or what the Yankees do, they don’t care about that. 

That’s community journalism 101 or business 101: know who your audience is and give them what they want. 

What is your staffing normally and how do you staff-up in order to produce all of this coverage? 

We have a newsroom of 11 people covering a community of 100,000. We have an ad department of about 10 people and we think that’s one thing that makes us unique. For every journalist, we have a marketer because we very much believe in print and we very much believe in the power of advertising and we think that has been the key to our success. During the Open, we add nine freelancers: five writers, three photographers and two interns. 

What’s your editorial strategy, in the lead-up and during this week of the Open? 

In the run-up, it’s a huge logistical event so our communities are seeing all the structures going up. They’re naturally just interested in what’s going on so we’re writing a lot about the preparations for the championship. 

We started three months out. We had a countdown on our website. Normally if you look at our logo, it’s got a compass with a map of Moore County in it. Starting a couple of months ago, we turned that into a golf ball with a countdown, counting down the days, so 58 days, 54 days, all the way down just to get the community excited about the fact that it’s coming. 

There’s a lot of news around that. The village of Pinehurst suspended its open container laws during the Open, so they have a social district. Well, that’s a big news event for somebody who’s not even interested in golf. You can walk down the street with an open alcoholic beverage. So there’s a lot of public policy that affects local residents that goes around the event and we had a lot of that kind of coverage leading up to the U.S. open. 

Then the week of, it’s more just covering the news of the championship. We’ve got two writers who are writing what we would call a game story. Who’s the leader? Who went up? Who went down? That kind of stuff. And then we have two columnists who are providing more color. We got New York Times bestselling author Jim Dodson, who’s probably the top golf writer in the country, writing columns for us. He’s out of Greensboro. He edited our magazines for years, now he’s semi-retired and writes columns in all our magazines. Lee Pace, he’s written several books and he’s a historian of Pinehurst. He writes a daily column as well. 

I think there are 380 credential media here and we’ve got 21 credential employees out here. Eight percent of the coverage is coming from a little two-day-a-week country newspaper. I think that’s pretty special. 

What insights or advice do you have for other local news organizations thinking about how they could leverage coverage of national events or serve their communities with pop-up news products?

In our case, we just had the stroke of luck that the Open came here. But first and foremost, you’ve got to think entrepreneurially. You’ve got to be willing to take a chance and look, it might not work. Fortunately it did for us, but we rolled the dice with this event. And back in 1999 we thought it was once. We never dreamed we would get eight more over the next 25 years. We’ve got four more coming. After this year, 2029, 2035, 2041 and 2047. We wanted to take advantage of it and make a statement about our organization, about our community and define ourselves to not only our local community, but also the golf industry and we’ve been fortunate to do it. 

So I would say first of all, be entrepreneurial and baked into being entrepreneurial is be audacious. Set a big goal. You’ll be shocked at how your staff will react to that and how your community will react to that. We want to be more than just a little country newspaper. We are a small town news outlet and we’re very proud of that. We’re not a small time one and we think that resonates with our community and resonates with our staff. And look, if we can do it, anybody can do it. 

Is there something that I haven’t asked you that you want to share? 

Golf is a game, and so it’s fun and so we want our coverage to be fun. We want our staff to have fun. We want our staff to be a part of it. So we make that happen. We have all these all stars we’re bringing in and we’ve got these young staffers that we want to make sure they interact with. We have a house for the writers, but we want the young staffers to be able to interact with these New York Times bestsellers. And so we use it as a learning opportunity for them. I think that’s important to make sure everybody feels a part of it and that includes even your non-journalists. We have an ad staff of 10 who made all this possible. 

The journalism is just as good and just as strong as— you know, the old expression, “the smaller the ball, the better the writing.” Some golf writing is amongst the very best writing you’ll find. And just because it’s not about the latest shenanigans at City Hall, it’s still important to your community. I think forgetting that is a big mistake. 

All of The Pilot’s Open Daily coverage is available for free on their website. Fun fact: The Pilot also owns a bookstore! When the 70+ year old Country Bookshop was at risk of shuttering in 2010, Wornonoff took it over. Since then, they’ve doubled sales, host about 100 author events each year, produce podcasts with authors, and partner with Authors In Moore Schools.

NC Local News Workshop