Under the Dome

Former DENR employees plan newspaper startup

Newspaper companies have taken a financial dive because of major shifts in advertising, readers’ habits and other market forces over the past decade. But that isn’t deterring the founders of a new statewide newspaper – yes, as in newsprint.

“I think it’s an interesting time to start a newspaper,” Neal Robbins, publisher of the new North State Journal, said Monday.

The newspaper, which of course will also be online, is the project of former N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources officials under former Secretary John Skvarla, who now heads the state commerce department.

Skvarla often criticized news coverage of the environmental agency, but this won’t be his personal platform, Robbins said. Robbins declined to say where the start-up funding is coming from, other than to say:

“Me playing a game every day of ‘Shark Tank,’ with people across North Carolina…. The only person I will say is an investor is Neal Robbins,” Robbins said. “John Skvarla has absolutely no involvement in this paper.”

Robbins was the environmental agency’s legislative liaison. Drew Elliot, the agency’s former chief spokesman, has been working as a reporter at a related political news website startup called Jones & Blount since this spring.

Sarah Lindh left the state agency this summer to go to work for the newspaper and its publishing company, North State Media, as the communications director. The parent company also has started the online publications Carolina Beer Review and Chicken Bone Alley, a site for NASCAR fans.

Robbins said the newspaper will be presented in a traditional format with news, business, sports and opinion. Robbins said Jones & Blount was an experiment that showed there is an appetite for inside political news, but in order to survive a paper must be of general interest.

Jones & Blount will eventually fold into the newspaper and not be a separate website, he said, as part of its state capitol coverage. Journalist Donna King has been working with Elliot as the site’s other reporter.

The launch date is in February, and Robbins says subscriptions and advertising are expected to be the revenue sources. Arrangements will be worked out with printers and local carriers for morning delivery, he said.

Robbins, who graduated from N.C. State in 2001 with a degree in chemical engineering and later became a lawyer, says he isn’t dissuaded by the state of the newspaper industry because it offers an opportunity to produce something that readers want rather than need.

“We want to craft a truthful and beautiful newspaper that will meet that market demand,” he said.