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'Open Daily' by The Pilot in Southern Pines is a rare victory for newspapers in 2024

Copies of The Pilot and Open Daily sit in the media center at Pinehurst No. 2 during the week of the 2024 U.S. Open.
Mitchell Northam
Copies of The Pilot and Open Daily sit in the media center at Pinehurst No. 2 during the week of the 2024 U.S. Open.

Since hosting the U.S. Open for the first time 25 years ago, Pinehurst No. 2 has changed a bit. A restoration of the golf course was completed in 2010. Bermudagrass has been installed. There’s a campus for the U.S. Golf Association here now and the World Golf Hall of Fame has returned. Payne Stewart isn’t here, but his memory persists – there’s a statue of him now, which has moved from the 18th hole to the main entrance for the playing of one of men’s professional golf’s four major championships this week.

And the media center is less full. Many news organizations have shrunk, cut back, or vanished, and the way people consume sports news has changed, with some opting for TikTok rather than the written word.

But one constant remains: The presence of Open Daily – a pop-up daily newspaper encompassing coverage of the 124th U.S. Open from The Pilot, the twice-weekly newspaper based in Southern Pines.

You might be wondering – what, exactly, is a pop-up daily newspaper?

The 2024 Open Daily will be published five times: the first edition came out this past Sunday, and issues will follow on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. It is printed in Charlotte and each will be 64 pages, with a 50-50 ads-to-content ratio. About 5,000 copies will be distributed throughout the Village of Pinehurst, the golf resort and Moore County each day.

These days, there aren’t that many regular daily newspapers that are 64-pages-thick, never mind a pop-up one focused on a singular topic. That Open Daily is that many pages says two things: Readers are interested in its content and advertisers want to be in it.

“We set a goal. There’s a lot of power in audacity. We wanted to do one month’s worth of business in one week,” David Woronoff, the publisher of The Pilot and the founder of Open Daily, told WUNC. “When you have as talented an advertising staff as we do, you put that in front of them, they chase it and chase it hard, and they hit it. Couldn't be more proud of them. We essentially added another month to our year, because of the Open.”

Simply put, the Open Daily is successful and sustainable. This is the eighth time that The Pilot will produce it, coinciding with each men’s and women’s Opens that North Carolina’s Sandhills have hosted in the last quarter-century.

In an era where newspapers are declining rapidly, Open Daily is a rare modern-day victory for the industry. Since 2005, more than 2,800 newspapers in the U.S. have closed, according to a 2023 report by Northwestern's Medill School. An average of 2.5 newspapers closed each week in 2023, according to the study.

Open Daily and The Pilot have persisted.

“We’re independently owned, and very proudly so, and I think that makes a big difference in today’s media environment,” Woronoff said.

The risk of Open Daily has paid off in a big way. Woronoff told the NC Local newsletter that the extra revenue The Pilot makes from it is in the six figures, which “pays for a lot of journalism.”

'Nobody thought we could do it'

David Woronoff — publisher of The Pilot and founder of Open Daily — listens in to a USGA press conference on Wednesday, June 12, 2024, at Pinehurst No. 2 ahead of the U.S. Open.
Mitchell Northam
David Woronoff — publisher of The Pilot and founder of Open Daily — listens in to a USGA press conference on Wednesday, June 12, 2024, at Pinehurst No. 2 ahead of the U.S. Open.

Woronoff is a born-and-bred North Carolinian with deep roots in the Tar Heel State. He grew up in Greenville, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, and is a fourth-generation North Carolina newspaper publisher. His family on his mother’s side, the Daniels, owned and operated the Raleigh News & Observer for most of the 20th century.

In 1996 – when Woronoff was just 31, and after stints working at newspapers in Greenville, South Carolina, and Anniston, Alabama – he and four partners purchased The Pilot. At a community meeting in Southern Pines, he vowed to make it the best community newspaper in the country. A combined five times between 2002 and 2017, the Inland Press Association and the National Newspaper Association recognized it as such.

Not long after buying the paper, Woronoff began thinking about what was to come in 1999 when the U.S. Open would be played at Pinehurst No. 2.

That this tournament – what many describe as the national championship for golf – would be played in the Sandhills of North Carolina, was a very big deal. Since its inception in 1895, the U.S. Open had been played in the South just once, in 1976, when the Atlanta Athletic Club hosted. The 1999 Open at Pinehurst represented not only the tournament’s long-awaited return to south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but also the first time it would be played in the rural South. The population of Moore County is about 100,000 people, which pales in comparison to the density of metro Atlanta.

“Nobody thought we could do it,” Woronoff recalls.

When the U.S. Open arrived, Woronoff wanted his newsroom to be prepared to own the coverage of it. So, in 1998, he traveled west to San Francisco, California, for that year’s tournament at the Olympic Club to get a feel for how it all worked and to see how the San Francisco Chronicle was covering it. In short, he wasn’t totally impressed by their effort and thought that he and the staff of The Pilot could do better. He then went to a San Francisco bar – where a bartender eager to serve up a unique microbrew was bewildered by this man with a southern accent that ordered an ordinary Budweiser – to meet a friend to talk about they had learned.

“I always joke that the best ideas are born in a bar, and the Open Daily is no exception,” Woronoff said with a laugh.

Woronoff struck up a conversation with bartender, which led to her asking, “What are you here for?” Woronoff told her, “Well, the golf tournament.” She had no idea what he was talking about.

And then it all made sense to him – the Chronicle’s coverage wasn’t all that encompassing because there’s so much more going on in California’s Bay Area. At that time, two NFL teams, two MLB teams, an NBA team, on and on and on. Folks didn’t care all that much about a golf tournament nestled near the Pacific Ocean. Woronoff knew that wouldn’t be the case when the U.S. Open came to North Carolina.

“You weren’t going to be able to get off the plane at RDU and not know the U.S. Open was here, much less do anything in our community,” Woronoff said. “It takes a village to put on an Open … and our coverage has got to reflect that, and we can’t do that with a two-days-a-week newspaper. So, I came up with the idea of a pop-up daily newspaper, which I thought would adequately reflect the importance of this civic event.”

Woronoff then went about assembling a staff for the Open Daily, not only utilizing his own newsroom, but also soliciting the help of freelancers and experts around golf and North Carolina. The edition of Open Daily seen in Pinehurst this week is the collective work of more than 20 people – The Pilot’s newsroom staff of 11 people, plus contributors ranging from writers to photographers. This year’s Open Daily features the work of New York Times bestselling author Jim Dodson, longtime golf writer Lee Pace, and official Pebble Beach photographer Joann Dost, among others.

Planning for this Open Daily began not long after the Women’s Open at Pine Needles in 2022. That’s when Woronoff went about securing his supplemental freelancing staff.

'We believe you have to be more than just a newspaper'

Copies of The Pilot and Open Daily sit in the media center at Pinehurst No. 2 during the week of the 2024 U.S. Open.
Mitchell Northam
Copies of The Pilot and Open Daily sit in the media center at Pinehurst No. 2 during the week of the 2024 U.S. Open.

Of course, Open Daily has evolved and changed a bit over the past 25 years since launching in 1999. The Pilot considers itself a digital-first newsroom, which means its website, online readership, and promoting those stories on social media is its priority, and everything that appears in print has likely already appeared online. The Pilot is also producing a twice-daily e-newsletter during the week of the U.S. Open, and all its online U.S. Open coverage is free to readers and outside of its paywall. Additionally, The Pilot is sharing all of its U.S. Open content with the Global Golf Post, the Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer.

The Pilot also publishes magazines, operates digital radio stations and owns a bookstore.

“We believe you have to be more than just a newspaper,” Woronoff said. “Our goal is to be the most robust media outlet the U.S. Open has ever had. We think it’s important. (The USGA) moved their second headquarters here and our coverage needs to reflect that affiliation.”

He added: “We are relishing our moment in the spotlight, because we're a rural southern community. And that doesn't happen all the time for us. Yes, you walk out on the inverted fairways of Pinehurst No. 2 and you just see this sort of country club affluence, but you go two miles in any direction and it's hardscrabble southern poverty. And we need all that big city money to come down here and spend time in our village and spend money in our village. It's important to us. It's important to our livelihoods.”

The Pilot covers local hard news in its community with the same gusto, moxie, and doggedness as it does the U.S. Open. In December 2022, the newspaper broke the story that a power outage – which occurred the same time a local drag show was happening – was not an accident, but an act of sabotage. The story garnered national attention. And nearly two years later, the staff of the newspaper has stayed with the story while many larger outlets have abandoned it.

“Much to the sheriff’s department’s chagrin, every quarter ever since, we write an update on what’s going on with that investigation,” Woronoff said. “We aren’t going to forget it and we aren’t going away. We’re still here, being tenacious and covering that story like a good news organization should.”

In addition to the success of Open Daily, The Pilot is also unique in 2024 because it is a community newspaper that is independently owned and operated by Woronoff and his partners. There are no hedge funds or corporations involved, which is a rarity in North Carolina’s media landscape today. Gannett still owns six newspapers in the state, McClatchy operates three, Lee Enterprises has eight, as does Adams Publishing Group.

Woronoff believes that because The Pilot is independently owned, he’s had more freedom to be entrepreneurial, giving him the chance to pursue projects like Open Daily. It also allows them to put the people of Moore County first and not take orders from corporate overlords who can’t see past pageview metrics.

“As a society, we are awash in information. What we really need is an editor to say, ‘This is important, this is what you need to know,’ and sort of separate the wheat from the chaff,” Woronoff said. “And we believe that function is important today as it was 30 years ago. And we continue to do that.”

As long as Woronoff is around, The Pilot will continue to be independent. And every time a major tournament comes to the Sandhills, readers will see copies of Open Daily.

“Now, in 2047, I’ll be like 80-years-old, so I may not be doing it,” Woronoff said. “Hopefully, somebody in my seat will see the value and continue our tradition.”

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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