A thick-skinned, half-blind, dimwitted but quick-tempered animal serves as their symbol. They thumb their nose at political correctness and media objectivity. They run their business with the same laissez-faire attitude they espouse in their politics. Yet John and William Hammer have used such unconventional trappings to create successful media operations in two of North Carolina's three largest cities.
The Rhinoceros Times, the free weekly newspaper the Hammer brothers run, is arguably one of the most popular publications in Greensboro. Independent market surveys place the paper's readership on a par with—if not better than—the area's daily newspapers among affluent adults. A younger sister paper they launched in Charlotte isn't as widely read but is steadily building its circulation. "We provide local coverage the daily newspapers overlook," says John. "People find our style of reporting and writing refreshing."
A philosophy major who "minored in Frisbee" at Duke, John (pictured above, right) worked as a reporter on and off for several years and put out a newsletter for a Greensboro bar known as The Rhinoceros Club. By late 1991, he says, he had become so fed up the lack of local political coverage by Greensboro media that he started an alternative newspaper to focus on local government. He adopted the rhino name from the bar because he thought it would draw advertisers, but he says the bull-headed nature of the beast also reflected the attitude he wanted in the paper. "This is a mission," he says.
That mission includes taking a conservative slant on almost every story. A libertarian who once staged a write-in candidacy to become mayor of Greensboro, John says having reporters state their politics upfront is a more honest stance than mainstream media take. "We don't pretend we don't have a point of view and hide behind a statement that we're unbiased," he says.
William Hammer, who joined the paper in 1993 as publisher, says readers appreciate that honesty. "It isn't about whether they agree or disagree with our viewpoint," he says. "They come to us because they know we present commonsense truth."
While they preach common-sense in their reporting, there's often very little of it in the newsroom. "To say we do things by the seat of our pants would be a compliment," says Scott Yost '82, who has covered county government for The Rhino Times for five years. "We're like Rolling Stone in the '70s without the drugs." A cat rules the roost in Greensboro most days, the paper prints its answering machine messages verbatim each week, and the Hammers once posted pictures of county commissioners on AmIHot.com to rate their appearance. "We do everything a lot different than most papers, but it's a business model that would benefit a lot of places," Yost says.
The Greensboro edition routinely runs about 132 pages, and despite the local focus, the main problem from week to week, William says, is finding enough space to fit the reams of copy the staff produces.
"We want to explain what's going on, so we give a lot of background in stories," John adds, noting one reporter wrote a forty-two-part series on the local police department.
Like most brothers, the Hammers say they don't always get along but insist their fraternal bonds only help the newspaper. "We know each other well enough to know what we can and can't do," John says. William adds, "Business partnerships come and go, but family always has to come first."
John Hammer '76 and William Hammer B.S.E. '87
Defying media expectations
April 1, 2008