Adam Stone, Founder and Publisher of Examiner Media, Talks About the Success of His Westchester County Community Newspaper Chain, Examiner
Photo by Cathy Pinsky
Adam Stone, one of Editor & Publisher’s 25 top publishing leaders under the age of 35, is standing in the kitchen of the Mount Kisco condo he shares with his wife, Alyson, a second-grade teacher, and their four-year-old daughter, Madeleine. When asked where his office is, he holds up his BlackBerry and says, “This is my office.”
Then he walks into the dining room and motions to his laptop on the table. “And sometimes,” the 33-year old says, “this is my office. The fact is, I’m pretty mobile. I can work from anywhere.” In other words, Adam Stone, founder and publisher of one of the region’s fastest-growing media companies, doesn’t have a real office, unless you count the desk in his finished basement, with the home gym equipment and the big TV and Maddie’s toys. There is a printer and some pencils in a Mets cup, but the desk looks neglected. Stone prefers to take meetings at Panera Bread in Bedford. His office, after all, fits in his pocket.
“All I do for a living is send out and reply to emails,” says the amiable Long Island native, only half joking. As proof, he sits down and scrolls through the 200 or so messages that have appeared in his BlackBerry’s in-box over the past 24 hours. In an era when print and digital publishing are locked in a death-match (and few are putting their money on print to win), Stone is proving that a good, old-fashioned newspaper can still win readers, at least in Westchester, and especially if it’s free. Stone may have been born and raised in Port Washington, New York, but he laid out his future in 2007 at his dining room table, where he and a staff of three completed the first Examiner community newspaper. Covering only Pleasantville and Mount Kisco, it quickly expanded to include Chappaqua, Mount Pleasant, Briarcliff, and Armonk.
In 2009, he started Examiners in Putnam County and Yorktown (the latter christened the Northern Westchester Examiner last spring), and last August, the White Plains Examiner hit the streets of the county seat.
The four papers have a total circulation of 25,000 and are distributed to approximately 1,000 locations in two counties, from Cold Spring to Ossining to Hartsdale. Its advertisers are a Goldilocks spread of small, medium, and large businesses, from handyman services and funeral homes to fitness centers and corporations like Verizon, Entergy, and Sears. Since 2008, Examiner Media has seen an 84-percent increase in revenue, and Stone projects that 2011 revenues will rise another 23 percent.
He’s done all this without investors, office space, a newsroom, or a suit and tie. Stone and his staff of about 30 editors, reporters, and salespeople wear more hats than a Dr. Seuss character. They work out of their homes, cars, and public spaces, connected by email and cellphones and a passion for grassroots reporting. Once in a while, they meet in person. His father and older sister play pivotal roles; his father closed the Brooklyn-based family business, Banner Candy, and relocated from Long Island to Northern Westchester; now they’re the CFO and associate publisher, respectively. (Stone’s mother passed away when he was nine.) He rarely wavers from his uniform of a dark-blue polo shirt, jeans or cargo shorts, and laceless sneakers, except for the meeting at White Plains City Hall, where he showed Mayor Tom Roach the mock-up of the White Plains Examiner.
“I wore khakis for that,” he says. “And a polo with less wrinkles.”
A self-described “local news junkie,” Stone sees his papers as a vital component of a vibrant community life. “What’s happening with our school taxes, who’s on the football team, who’s running for town board—these issues have an immediate and direct impact on people’s lives,” he says. “That’s what our motto, ‘small news is big news,’ means: the idea that people have an inherent interest in what’s going on locally.”
A 2007 New York Times profile remarked on Stone’s “Jimmy Stewart earnestness,” but his laid-back, every-day-is-casual-Friday mien hides a restless entrepreneurial spirit. He operates on intuition and gut instinct “because it’s the only way I know how to do it.” He used to dream of Woodward and Bernstein-style journalism crusades, not starting his own business. “I got this idea and I decided to try to execute it. I never thought we’d have two newspapers, let alone four.”
“Adam is very ambitious and motivated,” says Faith Ann Butcher, the Northern Westchester Examiner’s editor in chief. A mother of four who reports, writes, and lays out the paper in her home office in Mahopac, New York, she is also the photographer and occasional delivery person. “He’s always open to ideas, which is fantastic.”
Stone fell in love with print as a college sophomore at Hofstra, when his public relations teacher suggested he might prefer journalism. He turned the school magazine into an award- winning publication. “I liked having my fingerprints on something I helped to create.” In 2001, after graduating, he moved to Mount Kisco to be near his girlfriend (now wife), Alyson, who is from Pleasantville, and went to work for Gannett, the 900-pound gorilla of the Westchester County newspaper scene. In the late 1990s, Gannett had folded nine of its local titles and created the Journal News; in 2000, after losing local ad revenue, Gannett resurrected five of those titles as community weeklies, including The Star in Peekskill, where Stone did man on the street interviews and covered city hall. In 2002, after a brief stint as a staff reporter at the Times Herald-Record in Sullivan County, he took a job at the now-defunct North County News in Yorktown, the venerable weekly published by Chase Media Group, owner of the PennySaver.
Martin Wilbur, then North County News’s assistant editor, became Stone’s advisor and friend. “I’ve seen reporters who were confident to the point of cocky, but Adam was never that way,” he says. “When he didn’t know something, he wasn’t afraid to ask questions, and that’s one of the best qualities a journalist can have. Sometimes you can get pretty lost when you’re talking about sewer and storm water management.”
Stone loved his job and North County News, particularly the collegial newsroom atmosphere and the editorial freedom he was afforded. But all that changed in 2006, when its founder, John W. Chase, passed away and one of his daughters took the reins. The controversial regime change came with dress codes and goal sheets. Many staffers chafed at the new doctrinaire climate, and a mass exodus began, including Stone. “Most reporters aren’t of that personality, so I had to haul ass out of there.”
Stone went freelance and did well, writing for national outlets like the New York Times, Inc. magazine, and the Real Deal, a real estate trade publication. He loved it, but eventually the stories—often manufactured, non-local pieces inspired by press releases—left him cold. “There was something missing,” he says. In mid-2007, while covering a zoning board of appeals meeting for the Bedford Record Review, he found that missing ingredient: the nitty-gritty realism of community journalism.
“I was interacting with the panel, talking to people who had complaints. That process felt a lot purer, a lot more relevant. Not to get too corny about it, but I said, I want to be doing this again. Community journalism is so real. I wanted to move in that direction.”
Around the same time, Gannett closed the Patent Trader, which had covered the county for half a century. Stone saw this vacancy as an opportunity to be his own boss and take a stand against the growing digital dominance of newsgathering. “I didn’t need to quit a job to do it. I was on my wife’s healthcare. It seemed the stars were aligned for me to do this.”
He sat down with a legal pad in his basement and plotted out his first edition. It was August, and Stone wanted to get the paper out in September, to capitalize on the fall advertising season. He called Martin Wilbur to get his opinion. “I remember saying, ‘Between the two of us we can find dozens of people to write,’” says Wilbur, who had one foot out the door at North County News. “But how are you going to sell ads and produce and print and distribute it?”
Sometimes naïveté is a blessing. Taking $2,000 from savings, Stone hired a freelance designer to whip up a prototype. He called it the Examiner, which had “an old-school, throwback feel” to it, as did the logo’s Olde English font. He got managerial and administrative advice from a neighbor. A printer he found churned out 500 copies of the prototype, and he began cold-calling businesses in Pleasantville and Mount Kisco, trying to drum up ads. One of his first advertisers was Chris Cornell, a framing business owner who is now director of social media for Thompson & Bender, the Briarcliff-based marketing and PR firm.
“He didn’t have to sell me very hard because I was very enthusiastic about a weekly publication covering the village,” Cornell says. Still, “You look around and see other publishing entities folding up, and here’s this guy starting something new. I felt a combination of hoping he would succeed and really doubting whether he would.”
It's safe to say that Stone has exceeded expectations. He rounded up enough advertisers and brought in the “enormously talented” Wilbur as his editor in chief as well as a few North County News “refugees,” as they called themselves, to report and produce it. Stone printed 2,000 copies, split between the two villages, and delivered them out of his Honda Accord. The Examiner’s combination of hard news, soft features, and school sports made it an instant hit.
With no offices to rent, no investors to reimburse, and no postage to pay, Stone says the company was profitable right out of the gate. “Our low overhead made all the difference in the world,” says Stone, who only goes into villages where he “sees an opportunity”—either an existing paper has gone out of business or there’s an underserved market. And he goes out of his way to stay on good terms with other publishers. “Scarsdale and Bedford have terrific, established papers I wouldn’t want to compete with because I respect them so much.” White Plains, on the other hand, “was almost ridiculously wide open,” especially after the White Plains Times, another free weekly, went under last spring.
“Adam has a lot of integrity,” says Patricia Casey, the former publisher of the White Plains Times and publishing consultant to the White Plains Examiner. “He’s a really good person, and he’s very smart.” His lean-times business model has worked, she believes, because “he doesn’t go out in a big way initially. A lot of business models are to grab the entire market and start really big, and I think that’s what gets you in trouble in a recession.”
Casey knows this first-hand. When launching the White Plains Times in 2005, “we went out big and we hit it big. We had the real estate market locked up and everybody jumping to be in the paper.” In the fall of 2008, when the economy tanked, revenues from real estate advertisers evaporated, and so did the paper. The Examiner brand, on the other hand, doesn’t depend on one advertising category. Stone explains that the economy was starting to slide in the fall of 2007, when they launched, but the recession “wasn’t a game changer. It helped that we never relied on those bread-and-butter ad revenue streams that other newspapers did. We didn’t lose a heavy volume of real estate or bank or auto ads because we never had them.” Instead, he had the local bookstore and gift shops—small businesses that even in hard times could still cough up $50 for a 116th-page black-and-white ad.
Like any good entrepreneur, Stone is willing to adapt to a changing marketplace, with his idealism tempered by the realities of change in a constantly shifting media landscape. While he used to bear a grudge against what he perceived as the print-killing digital arena, he has beefed up his once bare bones website, TheExaminerNews.com, with original content, breaking news, and blogs. And at the urging of Chris Cornell, he’s become a social media convert who speaks easily of unique visitors and web analytics and how Facebook drives more readers to the website than Twitter. Many say that his competition isn’t so much print these days as the growing number of online hyper-local websites, such as AOL’s Patch and Main Street Connect, a Connecticut-based online community news company with a growing presence in Westchester County.
But Stone doesn’t worry about competition, whatever platform it occupies. “All the money in the world can’t allow a big media company to execute the basics much better than us or much worse than us,” he argues. “All the money in the world doesn’t change coverage of a local village board meeting. Their money isn’t much of a strategic advantage. It’s really more about advertising revenue than competition. We have really good people editorially, and they do their job and they do it well. So then it becomes about the sales reps.”
He continues: “There are no plans at all for print not to be front and center. The only caveat to all of this is everything’s changing so quickly. We have an apparatus in place where, if it made sense, we could become a daily online media outlet yesterday. But what’s the purpose of doing that when the market’s allowing us to do what we’re doing now? People like the newspaper and there’s a demand for it. I think we’ve found a happy medium between print and the web, and we need to do more with that as time moves forward.”
Maybe then he’ll get a real office?
“We’ll see. Probably not.”