Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Passing of Some Small Local Weekly Papers

It was interesting to learn that Blue Ridge Newspapers will auction off four weekly publications that I worked for at one point, nearly a quarter of a century ago (story here).

The chain bought the papers--the New Castle Record, Salem Times-Register, Vinton Messenger and Fincastle Herald--from longtime owner Ray Robinson somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 years ago. The owners of the papers--who are based in Alabama--have filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Their primary creditor wanted the sale.

The papers are all relatively old--the Times Register was founded in 1854, for example--and none has ever been a paragon of journalistic integrity. They are the kind of weeklies that led many people to spell their frequency with an editorial comment: "weakly." But they have served a purpose for those wanting school and club news, local sports beyond what the local daily provides and a glazed sense of community that simply does not exist with the local daily.

Editors like my long-time friend Meg Hibbert of the ST-R have worked long and hard to give some of the properties at least some semblance of a personality, despite absentee ownership.

These papers are a substantial part of the reason the local daily has those god-awful little zoned editions that carry--well, pretty much the same kind of content the Blue Ridge papers have carried for years, but are heavily reliant on "reader contribution," which translates to "free labor."

When I was editor of the Salem and Vinton papers for a spell, Robinson and I often had disputes over editorials I wanted to write and he did not want to publish.

"Why piss people off?" he'd say.

"Because we're a newspaper and that's what newspapers do," I would counter.

Robinson was a former printer with no journalism training who loved the bottom line and made a good living for his family for many years before he sold the papers, then died.

My regard for local weeklies--and for god's sake let's exempt Anne Adams' wonderful The Recorder in Bath and Highland Counties, which sets the standard that few others reach--has never been high, but it took a nosedive when the owners of the Blue Ridge group (formerly Main Street Newspapers) started putting advertisements on the front page. Note the front page pictured here with ads in both corners at the top and across the bottom. The ads in prime news space erased any vestige of the belief that the goal was to serve the public and clarified the underlying profit motive. There's nothing at all wrong with profit, but in the newspaper business it should, ideally, be the servant of journalism, the first priority.

I suspect we have romanticized the position of these types of small papers, giving them characteristics--like courage--few ever had. There have been a sprinkling of good ones throughout the country over the years, but you could count them on your fingers. Most have served the function of providing a simple, non-controversial living for their owners. Today those owners buy them in groups, where once a single family owned a single newspaper for many, many years and the publishers and editors were often real members of the community.

My time in weeklies was relatively short--seven years--and the most significant lesson I learned from those years was how not to be a journalist.

1 comment:

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