The first 80 years
“A good newspaper in a good community.”
That’s what James M. Harper Jr., on the front page of his first edition in April, 1935, promised to deliver to readers of The State Port Pilot and that has been the goal each week ever since.
The Pilot had been founded in 1928 by W.B. Keziah, a hearing- and speech-impaired former editor of The News Reporter in Whiteville, whose talent as a reporter far exceeded his skill as a businessman. His new publication failed to meet its payment obligations to The News Reporter Inc. in Whiteville where the Pilot was printed.
The printing company took over the Pilot for non-payment, and hired Harper to be its editor. Among Harper’s first decisions was the re-employment of the remarkable Keziah, this area’s biggest promoter of fishing, tourism and the legendary Bouncing Log Spring in Boiling Spring Lakes. He continued with the Pilot until his death in the 1950s.
The young editor’s greatest decision was his courtship of Margaret Taylor, who joined him in marriage - and in the newspaper operation.
During World War II while her husband was serving in the U.S. Navy, Margaret Harper and Keziah ran the newspaper by themselves.
During the 1950s and ’60s the Pilot was a three- or four-person operation — the editor, a reporter, always a secretary and sometimes an ad salesman.
In 1972, youngest son Ed joined the newspaper as editor, allowing James and Margaret Harper time to pursue other interests. James Harper continued with the newspaper as publisher until his death in 1994; Margaret Harper served in an advisory capacity until her death in 2009; and Ed Harper acted as editor for 46 years, and publisher for 24 years before he passed away in November 2018.
Ed’s daughter Morgan, who returned to Southport in 2009 and worked as features editor for nearly a decade alongside her father, became editor in 2019. Soon after that, the newspaper began printing in Fayetteville at The Fayetteville Observer, where instead of being a prominently black and white-printed paper it is now able to offer color on every page.
In February 2020, Morgan purchased The News Reporter family’s portion of the Pilot and for the first time it is individually owned, by the granddaughter and daughter who grew up in and around the newspaper.
Both James Harper and Ed Harper served as president of the North Carolina Press Association. Margaret Harper served as secretary-treasurer of the association for a number of years, and is a member of the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame. In 1972, the newspaper’s circulation was 3,500 and a weekly edition usually consisted of 12 to 16 pages.
The present 6,000-square-foot newspaper office on Moore Street dwarfs the white frame structure next door where the Pilot was located. Newspaper production has also gotten larger with the times, adding e-editions and online subscriptions in the late 2000s.
The elder Harper used to drive 30 miles to Leland on Tuesdays to toss a package of news and ad material on a passing train to be picked up at the Whiteville depot. Harper told the story that he once missed the open box-car door, picked up the package from beside the tracks and followed the train to Whiteville. He then drove the 60 miles back to Southport and went back to work on Wednesday’s edition.
Today, pages that are composed on computers are transmitted electronically to the printer in a matter of seconds.
Over the past 20 years The State Port Pilot has earned more than 600 awards in annual North Carolina Press Association news and advertising competition, including over 20 General Excellence awards — proof that James Harper’s stated goal of 1935 is still the standard the Harper’s newspaper strives for today.