VPA Board Member and editor of the Orange County Review, the Madison County Eagle and the Greene County Record, Jeff Poole, is our Q&A this week. Jeff talks about growing up in a newspaper family, how community newspapers offer something no one else can replicate, the “fish man” of Orange and more.
To start, can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about what you do, where you do it, how long you’ve been doing it and where you’re from, originally?
I’m the editor of the Orange County Review, my hometown newspaper. I’ve been here more than 20 years. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, really. My grandfather owned and operated newspapers on the eastern shore in Maryland and Virginia and at some point, my mother, father and uncles all worked for him in some capacity. Let’s just say: it was a natural path to follow. My family moved from Maryland to central Virginia more than 40 years ago and my mother began writing for the Review. Later, both my sister (composing/production) and my (future) wife (reporter) worked at the Review. While the Review is not our family’s business, newspapers are THE family business.
In addition to putting the Review together each week, I’m the editor/general manager for our group of three BH Media weeklies in Orange, Madison and Greene counties. (I started as a reporter in Greene 25 years ago.)
Woah. So newspapers have been a family tradition for a number of years it sounds like. It’s seems more and more rare to find newspapers with such familial ties and involvement. Do you consider yours and your family’s involvement an exception to what once used to be the rule in the industry as far as family ties are concerned?
Yes–newspapers once seemed to be exclusively family enterprises (or appeared so from my point of view) and I learned a funny and humbling lesson about that when I started in Orange. One of our readers came to me after I’d been here a couple months and said she very much enjoyed my writing in the paper–but it wasn’t as good as my mother’s!
Having a family–particularly a wife–who worked in the business and remain avid supporters of newspapers provides me a built-in focus group and sounding board for the challenges and opportunities we face.
Meanwhile, I came into a great situation in Orange where the paper had been in the Green family for more than 50 years before a series of sales to ever larger media companies. Duff Green–the longtime do-everything editor/owner/operator of the Review–was still very much a fixture at the paper when I started, even after he and his family sold the Review and its sister papers. (I can remember him giving me and the rest of my second-grade class our names in lead type during a field trip to the Review nearly 40 years ago.) Even now, at almost 90, he comes in every week to pick up his paper and offer old photographs and history of the community. It’s a great link to that “family paper” past and a reminder of the importance of what we do and for whom we do it.
As an editor of a batch of small weeklies, do you worry about the industry or do you think that smaller communities will always want their hometown newspapers–maybe even more so more metropolitan audiences want their paper? It seems like small papers have been (relatively) stable for the most part and I was wondering whether you would attribute that to a deep community connection readers have with a paper.
Of course I worry about the industry, but am less worried about community weeklies than I am larger publications. I think community newspapers (and websites) are able to maintain and protect their news niches because of their hyper-focus. There’s so much media competing for our attention, but no one covers Orange, Madison and Greene (or similar other communities) with the same level of interest and dedication that local newspapers can and do. It’s ALL we do. And, the validated news of our communities really isn’t on the internet unless WE put it there. I think our readers–traditional and new–recognize that. So, in that respect, we continue to provide a useful and somewhat exclusive product. That product certainly is enhanced by the longstanding relationships our papers have as part of the foundational fabric of the communities we serve. In a modern landscape where “news” seems to have a flexible definition to the consumer, I’d like to think our audience is choosing us not only because of those historical connections but also because they find tangible value in the services and products we provide.
“There’s so much media competing for our attention, but no one covers Orange, Madison and Greene (or similar other communities) with the same level of interest and dedication that local newspapers can and do. It’s ALL we do. And, the validated news of our communities really isn’t on the internet unless WE put it there. I think our readers–traditional and new–recognize that.”
I wanted to ask you about your story that won 1st in Combination Picture and Story for Non-Daily (W1). Who is/was the “fish man” and how did this piece come about? It seemed like a story that could’ve only been written by someone with intimate knowledge of Orange and its people.
The Fish Man was a Friday fixture in Orange for more than 45 years. People knew him either simply as “The Fish Man” or “Mr. Williams.” Every Friday, around noon, he’d pull up in a beat-up old refrigerated truck and sell shrimp and scallops, salmon and catfish, oysters and crab meat–whatever was in season and available–with Mr. Williams scratching out the bill of sale on brown paper bags. He had a “menu” printed with prices written in an unsteady hand taped to an open door on the back of his truck. He’d sit on a cooler or ledge in the back of the truck and hold court in a local parking lot–many people coming to visit as much as get the makings for their weekend meals. It was a downtown Orange Friday ritual for many local folks. You might ride or walk by and see a line five or six deep–no one in a hurry, even on stifling summer days. Everyone knew Mr. Williams was in failing health because very few people purchased seafood without a side order of extended conversation and some of these folks had known him ever since he first started coming to Orange. After 46 years and with his wife’s health failing as well, he announced that particular Friday last would be his last. I must’ve had half a dozen people suggest we “do something” on the Fish Man, and as a regular customer, had planned on putting together some sort of farewell piece. (We’d done a full-length feature on him about eight years earlier, but we wanted to do a fitting farewell tribute.) I walked down the street to where he set up and just hung out for a couple hours, snapping a few photos and talking with him during brief breaks in customers. Folks brought him cards and presents and nearly everyone “overpaid” for whatever they purchased–a farewell tip for his loyalty and service. I walked back to my office and wrote it immediately without hardly looking at my notes. I’d stopped by enough Fridays I felt like I knew him and his revered local role well enough to write a nice account of him and his final visit to Orange. The dominant photo I used in the layout I thought captured his personality pretty completely. Not only does he have the look of a man content with his decision, but it’s also got his “thank you” note on the side of the truck door, the fish scale and the look of admiration and reverence of his helper Lenny in the back. One of my favorite pieces I’ve put in the Review the last couple years.
As a VPA Board member, where would you like to see the association head in the next year? What do you hope to see the board accomplish in the upcoming year?
There are so many talented and experienced people on the VPA Board and I think we’re already moving in a positive and progressive direction and I think we will continue to build on that. Continuing to improve member relations and services is essential—particularly as many of us in the industry are dealing with shrinking staffs but increasing challenges. We’ve made some tangible progress on that with our redesigned website. Hopefully, through that we’ll be able to provide applicable resources for our newsrooms as well as training and best practices for our members. Beyond member-specific resources, it’s important for the VPA board and staff to continue industry-wide efforts not only to protect public notices and open government but also promote the overarching value of newspaper content which remains a critical component across the modern media landscape.
What’s next for you and the Review, as well as the other papers you look over? Do you have the next generation of Poole’s lined up to keep the family tradition going or does the buck stop with you?
What’s next? Editorially, I’d like us to capitalize on the strong relationships our papers have with our local school divisions to cultivate future audiences AND contributors for our papers and websites. While we share some content across our three papers, I’d like us to work on some larger group projects across Orange, Madison and Greene including: opioid addiction, rural broadband access and water resources, in particular. Administratively, I’d like us to improve and expand our digital customer service and commerce capabilities and grow our overall audience.
Unless our cats take a sudden interest in newspapers (or anything besides eating and sleeping, really), there aren’t any future journalists in our home. I’m counting on my work family to maintain this tradition of community newspapering.