Far from the madding crowd: being there is a key ingredient in the Cooke family's recipe for success in running a chain of community newspapers.

AuthorRow, Steve

A high-school dropout who once sold encyclopedias door-to-door in his native Canada, John Kent Cooke Jr.'s grandfather was a millionaire by the time he was 31. Among the businesses he would come to own were radio stations, America's largest cable-TV company, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Los Angeles Lakers (he built the Forum, where they and the L.A. Kings, the professional hockey team he also owned, played) and New York City's Chrysler Building. But the jewel in his crown was the Washington Redskins. Acquiring a quarter interest for $300,000 in 1961, the year after he was made a U.S. citizen by a special act of Congress, he became majority owner in 1974 and sole owner in '85. "I want to be buried in a burgundy-and-gold coffin," he said in 1992. "And when I'm gone, someone named Cooke is going to run the team. And when he's gone, someone else named Cooke is going to run the team."

"The Squire," as he was called, is long gone, dying at 84 in 1997. But nobody named Cooke is running the Redskins. Jack Kent Cooke, who was married five times to four women, left most of his fortune to his foundation, and the estate sold the football team and its stadium for $800 million to a group led by Dan Snyder in 1999. The Squire's son who had run daily operations since 1981 was outbid. He is now a gentleman farmer in Virginia, and his son and namesake, once the Redskins' vice president of marketing, works out of a newspaper office in Eastern North Carolina.

Nothing strange about that, says that someone else named Cooke, who got to Greenville by way of the Florida Keys, where he spent most of the last decade overseeing operations of four small newspapers and affiliated publications. After all, his grandfather first struck it rich working for Canadian press baron Roy Thomson. A year ago, Cooke Communications LLC outbid a Southern Pines-based group to buy The Daily Reflector, The Rocky Mount Telegram and The Daily Advance in Elizabeth City and 10 smaller papers in Belhaven, Windsor, Edenton, Kenansville, Williamston, Farmville, Elizabeth City, Snow Hill, Ayden-Grifton and Robersonville. But with even the biggest newspapers in the nation's largest cities losing readers and advertising revenue, why would anybody sink millions--they won't say how many--into a place many would consider the hinterlands?

Therein lies the key to what the Cookes believe will be their success. As John Kent Cooke Sr. says: "We like the newspaper business in small towns that are isolated and away from larger metropolitan areas."

That's a smart game plan, according to Jock Lauterer, director of the Carolina Community Media Project at UNC Chapel Hill. "This whole thing about the vanishing newspaper needs to be put in context." He counts 140 weeklies in North Carolina. More than half are still in the hands of families, private companies and small corporations that don't have to answer to the whims of Wall...

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