To start, can you please introduce yourself and tell us about what you do at RTD, how long you’ve been there and what you did before coming there?
I’m Graham Moomaw, a state politics reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
I was born in North Carolina, but I’ve spent most of my life in Virginia, first on my family’s flower farm in a little southwest Virginia town called Hillsville and then in Lynchburg, where my parents and grandparents are from.
I went to college at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. After going to J-school at the University of Maryland, I came back to Virginia in 2011 for my first reporting job at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. I made the move to Richmond in 2013, starting on the Times-Dispatch metro desk covering local government and schools before joining the state politics team about three years ago.
The state politics beat is pretty broad, but I’ve recently focused on the 2017 governor’s race and Gov. Ralph Northam and what the aftermath of last year’s blue wave meant for the House of Delegates. Since it’s always an election year in Virginia, we’re now shifting gears to focus on the 2018 congressional midterms.
In previous jobs, I sold flowers, built websites, worked in a book store, drove a truck around the Outer Banks delivering beach equipment and worked the graveyard shift at the Richmond Coliseum as part of the small army it takes to swap out an ice hockey rink for a basketball floor.
Lately, it seems like a lot of reporters are talking about the jobs they had before journalism (see #jobsbeforejournalism). Why do you think–or maybe not think– it’s important to let people know that you’ve worked somewhere other than a newsroom?
I think it’s a refreshing corrective to the idea that journalists are part of an elite club that’s out of touch with the real world. That’s obviously not true of local papers. Anything we can do to show we’re relatively normal people – not the faceless blob called “the media” – is probably a good thing.
What made you want to go into reporting, initially, and what has kept you wanting to report?
I had my first newspaper experience at age 9, when America voted to replace tan-colored M&M’s with blue ones. That was such a big deal to me at the time I wrote to the local columnist about it and he put it in Hillsville’s weekly paper, The Carroll News.
Covering politics in the Trump era is slightly more complicated, but it’s the same basic process. The job is to learn something new and tell other people about it. And it’s all the better if someone powerful wants that thing to stay hidden. If you can convince somebody to pay you to do that, why would you want to do anything else?
As a Virginia politics reporter, I’m sure you have to deal with some eccentric characters and subjects. What is your most memorable story related to Va. politics and why?
I try to do a mix of serious policy coverage and stories that just sort of document the spectacle of it all. As spectacles go, I could probably do this another 30 years and never see anything else quite like the great election tiebreaker of 2018, when state officials randomly picked a name out of a bowl to decide who’d be in charge of the House of Delegates. For once, the canned speeches and political stagecraft gave way to dumb luck.
I don’t think this made it into my story, but there was some brief drama over the integrity of the film canisters that held the strips of paper. One member of the elections board felt the government-owned film canisters couldn’t be trusted, so she brought her own. Those concerns seemed to be put to rest when another board member told the room the state’s canisters were brand new, straight from Amazon.
When the RTD does its “Faces of 2018” retrospective at the end of the year, I’m going to nominate the bowl.
“Democracy can’t run on Twitter and Facebook memes alone, there’ll always be a need for reporters. I hope most people recognize that. The challenge is convincing them our work is worth paying for.”
Aside from the upcoming elections, what is the next big story/subject you’re anticipating having to devote a lot of time and energy to?
Medicaid expansion’s passage isn’t really the end of the story. It’s more like the middle. There will be plenty of stories to write in the next few years about how it’s being implemented and who it’s helping. But it also raises big questions about the balance of power in a closely divided state.
How are Republicans going to resolve their intra-party feud on the issue? What should Gov. Ralph Northam and the Democrats focus on next after achieving a major legislative priority in the first few months of the governor’s term? Will expansion help Republicans protect their thin General Assembly majorities by taking a losing issue off the table for 2019? Or will it strengthen the Democrats’ case for why voters should put them in control of the statehouse?
As a younger person involved in the newspaper industry do you worry about longevity in your career, or do you think there will always be a need for a reporter?
Anybody who’s not worried isn’t paying attention.
I like to think there will always be enough people who care about the world around them to support good journalism, even if print newspapers go away. I still think that’s true of the digital powerhouses like the New York Times and the Washington Post, but I’m less sure about local newsrooms.
Smaller papers obviously don’t have the same resources to hire dozens of web developers and coders. But it’s hard to see how we can shrink our way into the online future with minimal new investment in digital. Because democracy can’t run on Twitter and Facebook memes alone, there’ll always be a need for reporters. I hope most people recognize that. The challenge is convincing them our work is worth paying for.
You probably have one of the most recognizable bylines in Virginia newspapers because of your last name. Have you done any research into your lineage and to where the last name originated?
That’s a great question! I get asked about my name all the time, so I’m glad to finally get this on the record.
Some people see the name Moomaw and assume I’m from some far-off place, but it actually goes way back in some parts of Virginia.
I come from a long line of Moomaws that settled in Botetourt County in the 1780s. A distant relative, John Crouse Moomaw, helped the village of Big Lick become Roanoke by making a midnight ride to a railroad meeting in Lexington so he could pitch Big Lick’s potential.
And yes, there is a connection to Lake Moomaw.
Family lore says the Moomaws were probably German immigrants, but it could be French or Swiss. The truth is we’re not really sure. Another theory says it all started with a Roman general named “Mummius.”
Where do you hope to see yourself–professionally–in the next few years?
I love Virginia. And I think statehouse coverage is hugely important, especially because there are fewer and fewer people doing it. So hopefully I’ll still be doing what I do now.
Hobbies and interests outside of journalism?
I like to run. I’m not in danger of breaking any speed records or anything. But there’s no better way to forget about Twitter, email and deadlines for a while and just be free.