Carolina Parent Celebrates 30 Years of Serving the Triangle

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Before the Streets at Southpoint and PNC Arena were constructed — and long before Raleigh became a regular on Forbes’ best city lists, and Raleigh-Durham International Airport offered daily direct flights to Paris — the first issue of Carolina Parent was printed.

The brainchild of two highly educated moms looking not only for ways to fill their weekends, but also for meaningful and flexible work for themselves, Carolina Parent debuted in May 1988. One of its creators, Gita Schonfeld, had recently moved to the Triangle from Boston. The other, Bobbi Matchar, relocated to the area from Baltimore. Both women found something was missing in the Triangle.

Over coffee at Matchar’s kitchen table in Durham, the two swapped stories about how much they had relied on local parenting magazines in the past.

“In Boston, there was Boston Parent,” Schonfeld recalls.

“In Baltimore, there was Baltimore’s Child,” Matchar remembers.

By the time they had finished their coffee and Schonfeld ‘s son was ready to go home, the two moms had resolved to offer the Triangle its own parenting news source — a magazine filled with local events for children, camp listings and parenting advice. A magazine for and about kids and families.

The above photo of Gita Schonfeld and Bobbi Matchar was taking in 1988. (Photo courtesy of Matchar)

Rise of the Underdog

Neither Schonfeld, who has a doctorate in special education, nor Matchar, who has a master’s degree in social work, had experience in journalism or publishing. But they were amazed by how welcoming the industry was. They picked up generous tips from Boston Parent and Baltimore’s Child, and became members of Parenting Publications of America — now known as Parenting Media Association — an organization connecting parenting publications around the country. They shared ideas about generating content, setting up contracts with freelancers and how to deal with bad debts.

“Most helpful of all was Steve Schewel, right here in Durham,” Schonfeld says. Currently mayor of Durham, Schewel is also the founder — and was the long-time publisher — of Indy Week, formerly known as The Independent Weekly and originally known as the North Carolina Independent. He published the first edition of the North Carolina Independent in 1983.

“He could have treated us as competitors, but instead he did everything he could to help us out,” Schonfeld says. “He was invaluable.”

Mayor Schewel fondly recalls the predigital publishing era’s “culture of sharing.”

“In those days, the daily papers were fat with advertising and hugely successful,” he says. “Of course that’s changed now, but at the time the Indy and Carolina Parent were very much the underdogs together.”

In the Beginning

Carolina Parent started as a five-page folded paper, the focal point its extensive calendar of family events. Schonfeld and Matchar, both married to physicians, generated a lot of their early content from health experts. These articles are surprisingly relevant today, from protecting against skin cancer to the dangers of excessive stress in competitive youth sports. “Beware Software,” published in the January 1989 issue, cautions parents not to underestimate the effects of computer games on children. It calls attention to the software’s glorification of violence, and lack of gender and racial diversity.

“It was really nuts,” Schonfeld says of the first couple of years. “We were tiny, it was just the two of us, and we did it all.”

The “all” included generating advertising, developing content, typing up articles, laying out pages for printing, and delivering the finished product to Triangle preschools, schools, pediatric offices and shops.

“We dragged the kids with us everywhere,” Schonfeld laughs. “They played together and ate peanut butter sandwiches strapped into their car seats.” The kids had their own name for the magazine: Carolina Peanut Butter.

From 1988 through 1992, the company was headquartered in the bonus room above Matchar’s garage. “It was very convenient,” Schonfeld says.

The magazine was quick to gain a readership, and it began to generate a steady income. Schonfeld and Matchar hired a sales representative and some additional part-time help. In 1992, Ted Vaden, editor of The News & Observer at that time, approached them with what Schonfeld calls “an offer we couldn’t refuse.” The newspaper had an office in Durham then, and he was the perfect Southern gentleman, Schonfeld recalls.

“He wore an impeccable suit and took us out to a fantastic lunch, and then very politely told us that unless we accepted his offer to buy us, he would enter the child/family market and compete with us.”

By that point, Schonfeld and Matchar realized they needed more resources to meet their goals, and were happy to have The News & Observer’s backing. So, in 1992, The News & Observer Publishing Company purchased Carolina Parent, and its previous owners packed their bags and moved to an office in the Kress Building on the corner of Main and Magnum streets in Durham. Vaden proved to be a “generous and considerate” boss, and the magazine thrived, growing to over 60,000 in circulation.

Dawn of the Digital Age

While Schonfeld and Matchar began their venture in the digital dark ages, changes were fast and furious once the internet took hold.

“When I first joined, we would print out columns of text, physically paste them on the flats, cut out holes for photos, and then drive them over to Chapel Hill News for printing,” says Liz Holt, one of Carolina Parent’s first hires who stayed with the publication for 18 years. Holt, who started in advertising and ended up as the publisher until 2010, is proud that Carolina Parent has always prioritized technology and invested in the most up-to-date software it could afford.

“Technology has definitely been the biggest change over the years,” says Carolina Parent’s retired art director Cheri Vigna, another early hire. “It made a huge difference, allowing for a lot of creativity and flexibility. Though the learning curve was crazy. I remember one Monday, three days before we went to press, I came in and the computer had crashed, taking all of our proofs with it. Thank goodness I had taken home a copy on Friday to review. That’s when I learned you have to have backups.”

Designing the look and feel of Carolina Parent came natural to Vigna. She had moved to North Carolina from the Los Angeles magazine world and was an avid magazine consumer. “I subscribe to 15 or 20, and always have ideas for layout and design,” she says. “I’ve loved that Carolina Parent has been so generous about letting me incorporate them. Even through changes in ownership, we have been given a lot of freedom to make the magazine we want to print.”

Vigna notes that one predigital tradition remains: Posting the finished pages up along the office walls for a final read-through. “You could always tell when it was the summer camp edition, because there were so many pages we’d have to paste over the windows, and it would be pitch dark inside,” she recalls.

A Formula for Success

The summer camp issue (first published in 1991) is just one of the Carolina Parent’s popular themed issues. It was so popular that Carolina Parent began hosting a corresponding fair for summer camp vendors (first held in 1998).

Other popular monthly themes focus on subjects such as pregnancy, technology, travel, teens, etiquette, youth sports, food and parties. The annual Education Guide includes articles on education trends and changes, as well as directories of preschools, private schools, residential schools and other resources. It also includes an Exceptional Child special needs section.

The Triangle Go-To Guide offers features that focus on family-friendly events, activities and attractions. It also includes directories for family resources in the Triangle.

By 1998, the magazine had moved from six issues a year to 12, from 20 pages to 84, and it generated a healthy income from advertisers.

“The success of the magazine was definitely boosted by the success of the area, especially the growth of suburbs like Cary,” Holt says.

Vigna agrees, saying she “sort of had a sense of how popular it would be” when she realized how many young families were moving to the Triangle. “Carolina Parent filled a gap. I had a feeling it would.”

The publication’s success attracted the attention of Mark Etheridge, owner of Charlotte Parent, Inc., and in 1998 he bought Carolina Parent to form Carolina Parenting, Inc. That’s when the staff moved out of the Kress Building to its current space on Fayetteville Road near the I-40 interchange, making it more accessible to Raleigh, Cary and Chapel Hill. Etheridge streamlined the magazine’s appearance to match that of Charlotte Parent, but, like Vaden, Etheridge trusted the staff to continue to steer the magazine in the right direction.

Created by Parents, for Parents

Carolina Parent is special in that it has been consistently created by parents for parents. Schonfeld and Matchar started with an elementary-age bent: Their kids were young and they focused on issues that were familiar and interesting to them.

“As our kids grew up, we started featuring older kids’ issues,” says Vigna, who also had younger children then. “Luckily, our young staff knew all about the latest new issue for toddlers.” In this way, the different parenting experiences of the staff has naturally kept the magazine’s age focus broad.

“Having parents work here is crucial,” says Beth Shugg, who was hired as the magazine’s associate editor in 2011 and became editor in 2013. “We generate a lot of our story ideas from our own daily experiences, and it’s great to have younger and older moms around us on the staff.”

Reflecting the mass restructuring of the publishing industry in the wake of digital media, Augusta, Georgia-based Morris Media Network, known for its Where travel magazines and a variety of lifestyle publications, acquired Carolina Parenting, Inc. in 2014. Current publisher Katie Reeves and husband Bernie Reeves (who passed away in February) had been prominent figures in Raleigh as publishers of The Spectator and Raleigh Metro Magazine. Reeves says taking on a parenting magazine was a new direction for her. So far, she feels “totally delighted” with this “unique niche” of publishing.

“It’s a lot different,” she says. “I love that these magazines are info-driven and apolitical, so different from everything else in today’s media landscape. Carolina Parent is an especially trusted resource, and sets a high standard for the abundance of information it provides, and the vital role it plays for parents in the Triangle.”

Photo of Carolina Parent Publisher Katie Reeves (left) and Editor Beth Shugg (Right), courtesy of Morton Photography

Carolina Parent and Charlotte Parent have operated under the same umbrella publishers since 1998, and the magazines have benefitted from the cross-pollination of ideas and technical savvy. At the same time, each region is unique and, often, the two magazines take different approaches to meet the needs of local parents.

“We have an identity as a region,” says Reeves, a North Carolina native. “As far as I’m concerned, this is the center of the world, from RTP and the universities, to all of our young professionals. We are a creative and highly educated community.”

The Triangle has also accumulated a very diverse population, Shugg points out, and says she enjoys the challenge of balancing local Southern flavor with topics that might appeal to different ethnicities.

“Native North Carolinians are in the minority here. We’ve got ethnicities from all over the world — from India and Asia and South America. For us to be local is for us to be international.”

Mobile Mamas

Shugg agrees with Vigna that technology has made the most impactful changes on the magazine. Managing its online presence has been a major focus since Carolina Parent launched its first website in 2002. Currently, the website attracts nearly 65,000 unique visitors each month.

Shugg says working in digital media is a “wild ride.”

“It’s constantly changing,” she says. “Google’s search algorithms can seem totally arbitrary. One day we can be at the top of a search results page, the next day nowhere near it. It is just constant, never-ending learning and adjusting.”

Industry-wide, the shift to online publishing has resulted in a drop in revenue; print advertising simply makes more money. But, Shugg says, the magazine’s Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts are very popular, and retaining the revenue once generated by print advertising is just a matter of figuring out alternative revenue streams using various forms of digital and social media.

While metrics show that young moms tend to access Carolina Parent from their phones, Reeves believes there is a trend toward returning to tangible media.

“I’ve certainly seen a resurgence in print,” Reeves says. “Even with teens, I’ve seen more reading books and magazines. I don’t think print is going anywhere fast.”

The same is true, she adds, of Carolina Parent. The product of an afterschool playdate 30 years ago has grown and thrived along with the Triangle, helping thousands of moms and dads navigate their early parenting years.

“It’s an important part of our community,” Reeves says. “People count on it.”

Caitlin Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Durham.


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