This week we talked with VPA president-elect and head of Boone Newspapers in Virginia (Charlotte Gazette, Kenbridge Victoria-Dispatch, Suffolk News-Herald, Suffolk Living, the Farmville Herald and the Tidewater News) and North Carolina, Steve Stewart.
Stewart talks about coming up in newspapers, the resilience and importance of community papers, the tragedy at the Capital Gazette, his hopes for the VPA and more.
To start, can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about where you’re from, where you work and what you do there?
I took a summer job, supposedly to sweep floors and take out the trash, at my hometown newspaper in southwest Mississippi at age 15. The sports editor, who was a one-man staff at a six-day daily, took my broom and handed me a camera and notepad. Nearly four decades later, I’m proud to say that every paycheck I’ve received in my life has been from a newspaper. I have no backup plan. I fully expect community newspapers to carry me to the finish line professionally.
After graduating from Ole Miss with a degree in business and journalism, I worked for 15 years in my native Mississippi before moving to Virginia in 2006 to lead Boone Newspapers Inc. affiliates in Virginia and North Carolina. BNI had two Virginia newspapers at the time. We now have six newspapers, three magazines and related websites for all. Virginia is a wonderful place to publish and serve readers and advertisers. My duties as a BNI vice president have expanded in recent years to include responsibility for our company’s affiliates in Kentucky.
Wow, so newspapers have been a life-long affair for you. I’m sure you have seen endless amounts of change throughout the industry in your time. What do you credit the longevity and resilience of community newspapers to?
I expect nearly every occupation has experienced revolutionary change in the past four decades, but it’s hard to imagine more change than what we have seen — technological and otherwise — in newspaper publishing in that time. The fact that I remember fixer stains on my dress shirts from developing film on deadline in wet darkrooms, border tape stuck to the sole of my shoe and, on a really bad day, dropping an X-acto knife into the top of my foot fully qualifies me as an old-timer.
What has not changed in my journalism career is the sacred obligation to keep citizens informed about the community in which they live. Newspapers continue to do it better than anybody. I firmly believe that mission will keep us relevant for many decades to come.
Speaking of the importance of community news and newspapers, we feel it necessary to talk about what happened at the Capital Gazette last week. Where were you when you found out about the shooting and what was your first thought, as someone deeply involved in the industry and as a citizen?
I was penning my weekly column, which I intended to be the first in a series about the immediate and long-range future of community journalism and how readers will be affected. The news from Annapolis hit me like a sucker-punch. I was reminded of our vulnerabilities but also of the importance of the journalists we employ. Newspapers tend to be defined by the words on our pages and screens and, to a lesser extent, by the bricks and mortar we occupy in our communities, but I am reminded that we are truly defined by the journalists who keep our communities informed. They must be appreciated and valued in our organizations like never before.
“The news from Annapolis hit me like a sucker-punch. I was reminded of our vulnerabilities but also of the importance of the journalists we employ. Newspapers tend to be defined by the words on our pages and screens and, to a lesser extent, by the bricks and mortar we occupy in our communities, but I am reminded that we are truly defined by the journalists who keep our communities informed. They must be appreciated and valued in our organizations like never before.”
Do you think the shooting will affect how people now view their local paper and the reporters at that paper?
Such a tragedy, hopefully, will cause a collective deep breath, less anger and renewed appreciation for community journalism. We unfairly have been lumped into the toxic national debate over media bias. Our journalists are too busy chronicling daily life in their communities to have agendas or to conspire for or against political leaders and causes. They do their jobs quietly and effectively.
It’s interesting that you keep a weekly column going and work, largely, in management. Do you like to do this to keep the writing chops honed?
I am in the minority as a publisher and media executive who came up on the editorial side of the business. I tell newsroom leaders when I hire them: “The good news is that you have a publisher who is interested in the newsroom. The bad news is that you have a publisher who is interested in the newsroom.” They have to take my micromanagement along with my support. I will never stray far from the newsroom.
As president-elect of the VPA Board, what do you hope to see the association accomplish in the coming years?
I look forward to a fresh examination of the way we serve and bring value to our member newspapers. That process is underway by staff and board and will become more urgent in the months and years ahead. I believe VPA’s role will be important than ever as we strengthen newspaper journalism throughout the Commonwealth.
Outside of newspapering, what are some of your interests and hobbies? What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
I play tennis and occasional golf. I find the latter too time-consuming when one hits the ball as many times as I do. My wife, Rhonda, and I enjoy live music of just about every kind but heavy metal. We’re always up for a concert, whether in a small venue or an arena or stadium show. My colleagues, especially those of my generation, would be surprised to know I’ve seen Jay-Z in concert three times. Rhonda, who is younger than me, gave me my hip-hop creds.
Favorite Book: North Toward Home, Willie Morris
Favorite author: Rick Bragg
One piece of industry advice you share and practice: Recognize the value of good journalism and ask your communities to support it.