By Deana Meredith
Newspapers have been part of Steve Stewart’s life since he was a 15-year-old high school student growing up in McComb, Mississippi.
“Ink is in my blood,” the current Virginia Press Association board president said. “I’ve been hopelessly afflicted ever since.”
When he started working at his hometown newspaper nearly 40 years ago, Stewart said his first assignment was to learn to develop film.
“That was high pressure work in a wet darkroom,” he said. “If you ruined the film at that stage it was gone forever.”
After a week in the darkroom, Stewart said he heard a guy one day ask, ‘Hey, kid! Can you write? I need you to cover a game tonight.” When he told the sports editor that he did well in English class, he was handed a notebook, pen and camera and became a sports reporter.
Stewart loved every minute of it, and it didn’t hurt that he was also given press passes to Ole Miss athletic events, much to the envy of many of his fellow students.
The newspaper owners also helped fund Stewart’s education at University of Mississippi, where he earned degrees in journalism and business. Right after he graduated, the 24-year-old returned to the publication as managing editor of a one-person news team.
“They took me under their wing and gave me a crash course in newspaper management,” Stewart said.
He devoted himself to the paper for about a decade longer and served on the board of the Mississippi Press Association. Stewart loved what he was doing there but knew there was no room for further advancement since the owner’s family members held the senior management positions.
When Todd Carpenter, a friend who worked for Boone Newspapers Inc., called Stewart about an opportunity to lead the Tidewater News, he flew to Franklin, Virginia to look. He liked the company’s vision to expand into Virginia and North Carolina, so he agreed to take on the responsibility.
“I had a really aggressive acquisition streak in Virginia and North Carolina,” Stewart, who is now senior vice president of Boone Newspapers Inc., said. “Then started to see some opportunities in Kentucky. We bought six community newspaper companies in a few years. I put those under my umbrella as well.”
Recently, one of the company’s group managers who oversaw Boone’s papers in Minnesota retired and Stewart agreed to take on oversight of those publications as well.
In addition to overseeing newspapers in four states, Stewart also dedicates his time to advocacy of the news industry through his service on the Virginia Press Association Board of Directors, which he initially joined in 2009. He has served on the board’s executive committee for the past five years.
Stewart, who in July officially became president, said he plans to raise awareness about the important role the VPA has in supporting its member publications and wants to increase member participation. One of his top goals is to engage with members and remind them of the existing value that membership in the press association provides. He also plans to seek members’ input and advice on ways the VPA can better serve them and hopes to get more members of the press involved in committees.
“I think the value [of membership] is greater than ever,” Stewart said. “We were certainly reminded of it during the last General Assembly session.”
It was during this past legislative session that the press association was successful in tightening some of the deficiencies in public notice regulations. Stewart said that in year’s past, the VPA has played defense when it comes to legislation pertaining to public notices.
He credits the persistent efforts of VPA Executive Director Betsy Edwards, VPA Board Member Bruce Potter, who is chief operating officer of Inside NOVA, as well as the association’s lobbying team for writing their own bill and getting it introduced.
“That legislation alone essentially paid for your dues for the next 25 years. Public notice revenue is important,” Stewart said. “It was a fresh reminder of the importance of an advocacy organization that comes to work every day advocating on behalf of Virginia newspapers with all stakeholders.”
The work of the VPA, its staff and board, entails a wide range of responsibilities from shaping public opinion to stressing the importance of the Fourth Estate and a free and independent press to education, he added.
The board will develop a five-year strategic plan over the next few months to help guide the VPA and its mission into the future.
“Things are fast evolving for our members, the industry, and by extension, our association,” Stewart said.
A decade from now, Stewart said he’d like to see the VPA be an active partner and resource in the preservation of newspaper journalism, specifically.
“I’m not naïve about digital increasingly being the platform that newspapers operate from. I’m not an alarmist about the printed newspaper, but … the future of journalism is the subject of debate right now,” he said, adding that he believes printed newspapers in smaller communities will continue for the next several decades.
The newspaper industry is facing challenges to its longtime business model practices. Stewart said that 80 percent of newspaper revenues come from the printed product, and the question is how to create a viable business model that is primarily based upon digital advertising.
“If the world goes digital, we need to learn how to transform the business model,” he said. “There are no easy answers. It’s daunting.”