I feel as if I’ve been fortunate in my career, most notably in the timing of my time in the newspaper world.
My first full-time newspaper position was as a general assignment reporter for a little weekly newspaper called the Times-Virginian, in Appomattox, Va. I covered sports, schools, county government and did feature writing.
We were on the cutting edge of newspaper technology at the time, with little beige Macs that had monochrome screens measuring 9 inches. I could save simple files such as an article or a photo on the computer, but anything larger had to be saved on a separate floppy disc (remember those?).
Our production department did some work by computer, but most of the layout and ad design was done by hand, on a layout table, Xacto knife in hand. Every Monday night, and then again Tuesday morning, the editor and I would spend long hours pasting-up the stories and photos for that week’s paper, then ship it off to a printer.
Late Tuesday afternoon the truck would pull into our parking lot and we’d unload the freshly printed edition, taking the papers into the back where we’d put the ad inserts in and label the papers — all that work done by hand. It was like a little party every Tuesday, with everyone on staff, as well as a few retirees who came back to help, standing around, telling jokes and stories while we put inserts inside each copy of the paper.
Among those retirees was a man named Lloyd Vaughn. I single him out because he had owned the Times-Virginian for more than 20 years before selling to the firm that owned the paper when I started working there. I enjoyed talking with Mr. Vaughn, listening to stories of how the paper used to be put together every week, what his philosophy had been on the role of a community newspaper, and how much the newspaper business had changed over the years.
Another gentleman I chatted with on a few occasions was Calvin Robinson. Mr. Robinson had sold the newspaper to Mr. Vaughn in 1962, after he and his wife operated the paper for 31 years. That’s right — they had owned and managed the paper since 1931. While he was in frail health at the time I met him, he continued writing a weekly column in the Times-Virginia until his death in 1987.
If you’ve ever watched the 1970s-era show “The Waltons,” remember when Johnboy started his own paper, and he would sit at that one-man printing press pushing through sheets of the paper, his feet working pedals as the paper wound its way through the machine? That’s the era Mr. Robinson and his wife had lived through, when they did everything including printing and delivering the paper right there in a two-room office.
I have to tell you, for a young journalist in his first job, it was a thrill to talk with Mr. Robinson. That would be roughly akin to a historian or genealogist talking with a Civil War veteran. Mr. Robinson didn’t just know history, he was part of newspaper history.
Years later I had the opportunity to serve as editor and general manager of The Northern Neck News, which is in the Upper Chesapeake Bay region of Virginia.
The company I worked for had purchased the paper from R. Marshall Coggins in 1992. Mr. Coggins had managed the newspaper since 1949, when he purchased it from his grandfather, William Y. Morgan, who had owned and operated The News since 1891.
Of course, Mr. Morgan was gone long before I stepped into my role at The News, but Mr. Coggins used to come around occasionally — he liked to walk around the office, see everyone doing their work, step into my office and talk every once in a while. I had been in the business long enough by then to no longer be considered a bright-eyed newcomer, but it was still a thrill to talk with Mr. Coggins. I’m guessing this would be roughly akin to a biblical historian or theologian having the chance to sit down and talk with Moses. Or at least his grandson.
Nearly five years ago I had the chance to come to The Mount Airy News, and since then I’ve had the opportunity to work with Eleanor Powell.
No doubt you already know she is retiring. We held a community drop-in for her on Thursday, and a good number of people stopped in to see her and wish her well as she moves into retirement.
I’m not going to try recounting her history here — if you want to read a little bit about her time at The Mount Airy News, we did a profile on her in the Dec. 16 edition — but Miss Ellie started her work here in 1948 and, except for a 12-year stretch where she stayed home to raise her kids, and a two-week period in 2007 when she attempted retiring — she has spent her whole life working at The Mount Airy News.
For me, it’s been a privilege to work with her. One of the things I learned from Mr. Robinson and Mr. Coggins is that people who work at the newspapers come and go, but the paper itself is part of the community. It’s where people turn to see their neighbors and friends, to learn what’s going on in the community, both good and bad.
And Miss Ellie helped reinforce in me, and teach anyone who was paying attention to her, that in the end everything the paper does is about the people in the community. Journalists sometimes get caught up in the dollars and cents of local government, the adrenaline of covering a breaking news story, and the continual debate over what is and isn’t good, strong journalism.
Attending church functions, local gatherings, social events; giving voice to the people putting on those events; getting pictures of people doing everyday things; remembering those who are turning 80 or 90, or 100 — those are what folks in the community really remember. In many ways capturing that in our paper every day is the true essence of community journalism.
I can think of no one I’ve known who has done a better job of that than Miss Ellie. Hopefully we’ve learned enough from her to continue doing a good job while she enjoys a much-deserved retirement.
John Peters is the editor of The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at email@example.com or at 719-1931.