COLUMBIA — Sara Johnson Borton, a South Carolinian since childhood, was named president and publisher of The State newspaper Wednesday.
Borton, 55, is now president and publisher of two newspapers in the Lowcountry, The (Hilton Head) Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, which like The State in Columbia are owned by The McClatchy Co. She will continue in that role, splitting her time between her home in Hilton Head and Columbia. Borton said Wednesday that she likely will spend more time in Columbia as she begins her tenure Feb. 10.
“The connections between the Lowcountry and The State newspaper go back to the late 1800s, when two progressive journalists born in the Lowcountry — brothers N.G. Gonzales and Ambrose E. Gonzales — founded The State newspaper,” Borton said. “They crusaded for various reforms, and their work brought about profound change for the good of South Carolina.”
Vice president for operations Mark Zieman, who oversees McClatchy’s newspapers in the Southeast, said Borton will bring passion to her new post as a leader in public service journalism and digital reporting.
“Sara is the perfect fit for both Columbia and its leading media company, The State,” Zieman said.
Borton describes herself as being “absolutely optimistic” about the opportunities facing the newspaper industry, particularly as more reporting moves online.
“We don’t have a map, but we are drawing the map,” she said. “I am not at all scared of that.”
Borton has worked in news, advertising and marketing, primarily at S.C. newspapers. She said she is convinced newsrooms remain “the heart and soul of a newspaper” and that there is a place for print journalism in the new media landscape.
Borton succeeds Henry B. Haitz III, who resigned as president and publisher of The State Media Co. in December to become president and publisher of Hearst’s Connecticut Newspapers group.
Borton is the 12th person and second woman to be publisher of the 123-year-old State. Ann Caulkins, president and publisher of The Charlotte Observer, was publisher of The State from 2002-05.
Borton was born in Florida but spent her formative years in South Carolina, where her late father, John Johnson, was a high school principal in Jasper and York counties. Her mother, Martha Johnson, retired as a public school speech therapist and now lives on Hilton Head.
Borton graduated from Winthrop University in Rock Hill and began working in that city part time as a reporter for the Rock Hill Times. She later worked in advertising for the Savannah News-Press and Hilton Head News before joining the The Island Packet in 1983 as a sales representative. She was sales and marketing manager and, later, general manager of the Hilton Head paper before she was named publisher in 1993. In 2001, she was named publisher of The Beaufort Gazette as well.
Borton will take over as publisher of a newspaper with a storied past.
Since the rise of the internet in the 1990s and early 2000s, The State and other newspapers in the McClatchy chain have banked on an expanded digital presence, and exclusive and local coverage.
So far in 2014, The State’s website, www.thestate.com, ranks second in traffic growth, as a percentage, among McClatchy’s 30 daily newspapers compared to the previous year. The State’s development of www.GoGamecocks.com, a website devoted to coverage of USC sports, also ranks as a success among the company’s digital enterprises.
The State was founded Feb. 18, 1891, by the two Gonzales brothers, whose father was of Cuban descent and whose mother, Harriett Elliott, was rooted in S.C. plantation society.
As a journalist for the Charleston News and Courier, N.G. Gonzales was a fierce and flamboyant observer of post-war life in South Carolina, taking the side of the old-line Bourbons, embodied by Confederate hero Wade Hampton, over the populist firebrand Gov. Benjamin Ryan Tillman, whom N.G. described as “the great bamboozler.”
The animosity toward the Tillman regime dominated the early years of The State, as the brothers crusaded against lynching and for progressive issues, including child labor laws and women’s suffrage. In 1903, N.G. Gonzales was mortally wounded on Gervais Street by Lt. Gov. James Tillman, Ben Tillman’s nephew, who had long feuded with the editor.
The newspaper company, which by the mid-point of the 20th century included the afternoon Columbia Record, remained family owned until 1986 when it was purchased by Knight-Ridder. McClatchy acquired that company in 2006.