The Triad Media Wars rage on

by Brian Clarey

I remember it like it was last year: a deal brokered in a bar on Walker Avenue and through successive phone calls, each of which got me closer to the principal who turned out to be a short, barrel-shaped man with big plans and a strange speech impediment, like Daffy Duck but more earnest.

I thought it strange for a newspaper publisher to conduct a job interview after 9 p.m., in the bedroom of his condo on the edge of town, with a considerably younger and more polished, but just as eager, partner by his side.

In my mind’s eye, the man conducted the interview from his bed, even though there’s no way it could have gone down like that.

I was young, just a couple clicks past 30, and I needed the money. So I sat there for about 20 minutes, while the publisher wheezed about full-color box scores and community news with a positive spin, before I slowly gathered my clips into the portfolio I used to keep before digital became the norm, stood up and backed out of the room.

I bring this up on the cusp of the birth of another new newspaper, the Rhino Times, which is set to debut next week under new ownership but with assumed continuity in its editorial voice.

On some level, I knew this was going to happen all along — I never fully trusted news of the Rhino’s demise back in April. There was something about it that didn’t sit right with an old soldier like me. For example, it was inconceivable to me that the paper’s editor, John Hammer, could pour 20 years of his life into the enterprise and then walk away with nothing to show for it but debt and fond memories.

I figured there was still some value in the name — inasmuch as it was tied to Hammer’s, anyway. And I knew that, without the agenda-driven voice of the Rhino, there would be a vacuum in the echo chamber that’s formed — fueled largely by the Rhino’s brand of reporting — over the last two decades, one that the rest of us would be unwilling or unable to fulfill.

I even floated Carroll’s name as a potential sugar daddy in the days surrounding the last issue of the Rhino.

And now they’re gearing up for a fight.

Carroll’s brought on much of the old staff, buttressed it with a couple industry veterans and sunk some dollars into equipment and technology — or so I hear. But during wartime, all intelligence should be taken with a little seasoning.

And that’s what this is: just the latest salvo in the Triad newspaper wars that probably started way back when Bill Kennedy and Ogi Overman started ESP magazine back in the late 1980s and moved it to some old offices on Mendenhall Street, behind College Hill Sundries, probably even earlier with the Spectator, the precursor to the Greensboro News & Record’s Triad Style and whatever came before it.

Of course, the High Point Enterprise bought ESP — and then shuttered it right around the time Overman started the Greater Greensboro Observer — but not before the “Entertainment, Sports, Previews” paper took on a fledgling freelancer with a small armload of clips.

In 2000, when I moved to Greensboro from Louisiana, I had just turned 30. I was a new father — I brought my weeks-old son with me to this interview at ESP, held during proper business hours with Overman and his editor, then known as Allison King. I carried my boy in his car seat and laid him next to my chair. I may have even changed a diaper while I was there.

Overman offered me 5 cents a word — a far, far cry from what I had been making as a freelancer in New Orleans, but it was the best I could do. I had already been turned down for gigs at the Winston-Salem Journal and the N&R. I was out of options.

Back then, ESP existed in a vibrant, if provincial, print-mediasphere that included the Rhino and Triad Style, the free weekly put out by the N&R. It was whispered among freelancers at the time that the whole point of Triad Style was to ensure that an independent group would never start a true altweekly. Whether it was accurate or not, the strategy worked… for a time.

I remember my first impressions of the local print media. There was nothing like the alternative newspapers and hip glossies to which I had previously contributed. And serious cultural coverage was diluted by the work of hobbyists and boosters who had somehow infiltrated the ranks of the working press. Seasonal crops of pay-to-play monthlies and similarly schemed advertising vehicles came up — I even worked for a couple of them.

Eventually I worked for them all — I wrote a weekly column for Triad Style back when Jeri Rowe’s denim jacket was still relatively new and our hairstyles were both still relevant, and continued for its successor GoTriad. I ran the editorial desk at a monthly the name of which I’d rather not mention for about a year, and contributed to Our State and a couple other statewide publications. I even cracked the pages of the Rhino, writing real estate articles and advertising copy for a year when I really needed and appreciated the work, though no one over there ever wanted to listen to my pitches.

My tour on the front lines lasted four years, when I landed this gig in December 2004. For a short minute, I was the youngest editor in town. I was 34.

Since then, I’ve seen them come, and I’ve seen them go.

Some were doomed from the start —like that strange publication for which I interviewed so long ago, others that pulled from too narrow a base of advertisers or never really grasped the concept of journalism.

The new Rhino’s got a better shot a making a go of it than most — Hammer and his people know intimately the mechanics of putting out a weekly newspaper, the aspect of the proposition that’s most difficult for the uninitiated to grasp. And they have an audience that likely has not deteriorated so much in the five months it’s lain dormant.

I’m anxious to see what ol’ John Hammer and his new buddy Roy Carroll have in store for us next week, not because they’re competition — we’re a Triad paper; Rhino distribution covers just a fraction of our footprint — but because I believe a city is only as good as its media. And as far as that goes the more the merrier.

Competition breeds excellence — in media, in politics, in business, in art… in everything.

I also dig it in my role as the unofficial historian of the Triad Media Wars. Let the battle rage on.