Virginia Press Association

Member Spotlight Q&A: Meet Amy Burdette, Virginian Leader

This week we talked with Amy Burdette, president, publisher and managing editor of the weekly Virginian Leader in Pearisburg.
Burdette shared what it was like having grown up at a newspaper, some of the values instilled by her late father, Ken Rakes, and advice she has for anyone considering starting a community newspaper.

Amy Burdette manages a staff of 13 at the Virginian Leader in Pearisburg, which is a 4,200 circulation weekly newspaper in Giles County.

  1. To start can you please introduce yourself and tell us what you do at the newspaper? 

I am the president, publisher, and managing editor of the Virginian Leader. I handle all the business duties of the newspapers operations as well as overseeing all tasks involved in publishing a weekly newspaper. This wouldn’t be achieved without the awesome staff that I have.

2. How long have you been involved with the newspaper and how did you get your start?

My late father, Ken Rakes, was president and publisher until his passing in October 2021. He had been here for around 60 years. So, the newspaper was part of my life from the time I was born. I started working here full time after graduating from Bluefield College in December of 1993. I graduated with a degree in Business Education but wanted to work in the family business.

3. What is most satisfying to you about publishing a newspaper for your community?

We are truly a community newspaper. We love to feature the progress, academically and athletically, of the students from our community. We are also proud of the adults in our community that volunteer many hours to make this such a fantastic place to live. We love to feature their work and achievements as well.

4. Tell us what it was like for you growing up at a newspaper? Do you have any especially fond or amusing stories you could share with us?

I was exposed to all areas of the business throughout my childhood because my father did everything from selling ads to covering local sporting events. I would come in from time to time to help with some small things such as inserting the sales papers into the newspaper to opaquing the films (before everything went to digital). My Dad was always present on the sidelines of the football games during my school days in his funny fuzzy warm hat that all of my friends labeled “Herman.”

5. I’m sure you’ve been witness to many changes at the newspaper over the years. What has changed, and what has stayed the same?

So many things have changed over the years, mostly due to technology. We’ve gone from setting copy with typewriters to computers to mostly everything being sent through email now. We’ve gone from using paper layout sheets, waxing copy/ads to paste down and then shoot in the darkroom to make the negatives, to now designing everything on the computer. The width of the paper has changed several times throughout the years to accommodate the presses. We now also have an online edition instead of just print. What hasn’t changed is our mission to provide a community newspaper that we are proud of to our community and those that have moved on but still support us and want to stay involved and updated in Giles County, Virginia, and Monroe County, West Virginia.

6. Can you tell us what role or roles you had in the newspaper in your pre-college years and what you were responsible for when you joined full-time in 1993?

I helped part time as needed during my pre-college years. I would type copy, assist customers with purchasing subscriptions or classified ads, make copies, etc. After graduating college, I moved into more of a business role, taking care of paying bills, processing payroll, updating circulation and printing weekly newspaper labels. Now, with a much smaller staff, I still do all the business duties, as well as circulation, designing ads and anything else that is needed. Our staff of 13 works well as a team, and we all do what is necessary to help each other out and get the job done.

7. How has a lifetime spent in the newspaper industry shaped how you approach managing both the business and editorial sides of your newspaper

My father was passionate about the Virginian Leader. It was his life and a big part of his heart. Working alongside him full-time for almost 30 years taught me what needs to be important and the things I need to value. I plan to continue instilling these values into our weekly newspaper. Family is very important, and our staff are all considered family.

8. What has been the most difficult story you have ever had to publish (or write) during your career and why?

Honestly, I can’t think of anything difficult. I’m sure my Dad would have had an answer to that question, but I didn’t really deal with many of the stories until recently.

9.  What are some of the specific challenges you face when covering a small town where everybody knows who you are?

Being in a small town always presents challenges when running a newspaper. I would have to say that the main challenge is trying to be fair to our two rival high schools that are in the county. We try to cover exactly the same content for each school and run the same number of pictures so that we are completely fair and don’t upset anyone. But it is a huge challenge.

10. What are some of the values you mention that your Dad gave you that you continue to instill in your paper today?

Fairness and truth were two of Dad’s big values. We have triednot to run an article that isn’t fair to a local business or person. It’s hard to run a business in this day and time. It’s just not fair to them to air people’s personal problems against a business or person so we just don’t do it. We are a small community paper and don’t want anyone to use us to damage another person or business. Truth was another big one for him. We always try to be truthful to everyone.

11. Often, people who don’t work at a newspaper don’t understand what the job entails. What do you wish people in your community knew?

There is so much involved in publishing a weekly newspaper. It is very time consuming, and a lot of thought goes into each page. Putting each page together is like working a puzzle and everything must fit, and every inch must be filled. A lot of times someone will come at deadline and want us to squeeze something in on a page, but it just isn’t that simple most of the time. To squeeze one little thing in sometimes means taking the whole page completely apart and reworking it to make it all fit properly again.

12. What advice would you give someone who is considering starting their own weekly newspaper?

My advice to someone considering starting a weekly newspaper is to know your target audience. We are a community newspaper and therefore run articles and features that our small community would be interested in. It may be that someone would want to target a certain age group. Whatever that audience is, know what it is that they would want to read about and learn about. Narrowing that down will help all other areas come together. Being organized is also essential in running a newspaper. There are so many little details to be handled. Organization is key in doing that.

13. Tell us something most people don’t know about you?

As well as publishing the Virginian Leader, spending time with my husband and four children, and babysitting my three grandchildren whenever possible, my husband and I also manage 60 rental properties.

I live in Pembroke with my husband, Dennis “Junebug” and we have four children, Braxton, Madyson, Austin, and Brooklynn and three wonderful grandchildren, Aubrey, Emersynn, and Liam. Braxton and Madyson have both worked at the newspaper prior to going to college.

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