Friday, May 31, 2013

A (Welcome?) Changing of the Guard at the Roanoke Daily

Terry Jamerson
Roanoke's daily newspaper has gone from the frying pan into the ... well, we'll have to see where it has landed and that will take some time. I hope it has landed on a plate of old bone china.

We do know that the paper was bought by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Newspaper Group, that the worst publisher in its history--to my mind--has been replaced by a publisher of a paper half its size and that the publication was not a first-choice purchase by BH, which bought some of its sister publications recently.

Berkshire Hathaway has only recently gone into the newspaper business, given its principal's interest there, not because it is a lucrative industry. Buffett is an unabashed fan of newspapers--as are many people in their 80s. It is a dying industry and he's fighting against a rough grain in his noble attempt to save it. Maybe he has some ideas. The people who own papers of the size of Roanoke's (75,000 circulation, its' officials say, and Lynchburg's, 35,000) seem to be out of those ideas, preferring to lean on "citizen journalism" (how would one define a "non-citizen journalist"?). The Audit Bureau for Circulation (ABC) says the Roanoke paper's circulation is 67,000, the first time it's been under 70,000 in many years.

I'm not sure I approve of an unabashed liberal (Buffett) owning papers as playthings any more than I approve of right-wing crazies (the Kochs) owning papers as political message boards, however.

Landmark sold the Roanoke daily after years of preparation--downsizing--with no interest from outside. It hired Debbie Meade about five years ago to turn the trick and her management led Tom Field and me (who ran the Blue Ridge Business Journal, a subsidiary of the paper) at the time, to leave and found FRONT magazine. Meade has officially "retired" from her position. An "early retirement," as it were. You can bet, though, that BH wanted its own people in place and that she was not given a choice.

Circulation has consistently been on a downward trend and efforts at bolstering it or shifting it to the web have been uneven. Costs have been cut to the point that the paper misses coverage of important events or relies on AP to cover them. The local touch is often missing. "We don't have the resources" has become a mantra for those looking for excuses for lack of quality.

Warren Buffett
The paper has dismissed many of its best, most experienced reporters, preferring low salaries of kids to institutional and community memory the veterans brought. It retains some fine newspaper people, but the leash it has on them is taut and their work is often only a shadow of their capabilities. The best hope is that the reduced quality of the paper is a reflection of the cuts required to make it salable and that BH and its executives will restore news coverage money to previous levels. Don't bet on it, though.

I don't know Terry Hall Jamerson well, but I know that recently she went to bat for an old friend of mine who ran into a web of corporate bureaucracy and saved his job.

I also know that when I was with the Business Journal about 30 years ago (before the daily bought us), we had an unpleasant run-in with her. She was publisher of the News-Messenger in Christiansburg, which printed us. We went to another printer. But I don't know how much of that was her--as a young executive trying to impress--or her bosses using bad business judgement.

I know that I covered her high school basketball hall of fame daddy, Husky Hall, when he was at Martinsville and I was at the local daily and I thought he was always a class act and a fine coach.

My friend Dina Bennett, who owns Mountain Shepherd Wilderness Adventure and was at the Roanoke paper pre-Meade, says, "I worked with Terry for a number of years. I can tell you she is very active in the community acting always as a strong and influential advocate for many local causes. Her role as publisher was broad as she spanned the state overseeing community newspapers. I've heard from some friends still with the News & Advance in Lynchburg that the BH purchase is providing more resources and opportunities. I have high hopes for our local daily!"

Troubling about Jamerson is that she comes from advertising. Meade came from HR. Publishers are best when they come from news, but that doesn't happen much any longer with corporate ownership. We've  lost that journalistic edge because of it. Not so troubling is that Jamerson is a strongly involved member of her community in Lynchburg. I never thought Meade was more involved than she had to be and rarely saw any enthusiasm in her for anything.

I want to welcome Terry Jamerson and her executives (one of whom, I hope, is a new executive editor) to Roanoke and wish her the very best in this new step up the corporate ladder for her. I hope she succeeds. If she does, we all benefit.

(Finally, let me mention that I sincerely hope that the two editorials on this subject in this morning's edition are a sign of what we're losing, not what we're gaining. They were self-serving corporate communications bullshit.)


  1. The following was submitted by Chris VanCantfort (who says he couldn't clear security for comments because it wanted a "profile"). I thought it worthwhile:

    I just submitted the following to the Roanoke Times editorial blog regarding the announcement of new ownership.

    So, how does the BH Media Group start its ownership of the Roanoke Times? By lying to the public about the paper’s daily circulation numbers. BH’s media announcement claimed that the Roanoke Times daily circulation is 75,000. In fact, as the Audit Bureau Circulation (the industry source for audited circulation data) reports for the six month period ending March 31st the daily circulation is actually 67,267. At my instigation, Roanoke Times reporter Laurence Hammack corrected BH’s misrepresentation.

    Terry Jamerson, appointed by BH to replace Debbie Meade as publisher, appears to have little or no experience reporting news.

    Jamerson is BH’s designated crime scene cleanup specialist who has overseen the layoffs and purges at The Tampa Tribune and elsewhere.

  2. Dan - I have to share this Terry story...

    A couple of years ago on a Saturday morning my stepmother, Jan, called to tell me my dad was in ICU in a Knoxville, TN hospital with a brain hemorrhage. Running out the door to my car I called Terry (she answers her cell 24/7) to tell her what was happening. She immediately told me not to worry about the project I was working or my team and that they would keep emails and calls to a minimum. Not worrying about work obligations while taking care of personal issues is huge but the story gets better.

    After arriving at the hospital, I found my father receiving horrible care. Jan and I were in a panic. Knowing that Terry is on the board and Centra Hospital and has connections Charlottesville at UVa, I called her for advice. She listened to my plight and said, "I'll call you back in 5 minutes." In that 5 minutes she researched the hospital and directly called the president/ceo/chief-in-charge at the hospital. Within another 5 minutes, my dad's care took 180 degree turn.

    My dad is still doing well and I feel, in part, because Terry took the time out of her day to be an advocate for one of her employees. For that, I am forever grateful!

  3. This from Sean Tubbs:

    I know both the Daily Progress and the Times-Dispatch have been able to hire more people under the new [BH] ownership. And the Charlottesville Tomorrow partnership with the Progress is still going really strong, too.