This week we had the pleasure of talking with longtime Smithfield Times publisher, John Edwards.
Edwards talks about navigating social relationships in a small town while still running a paper worth reading, what communities may not see in their local papers until they close, the rhetoric that is being used against the media, what he thinks the future holds for the profession and a lot more.
To start, can you please introduce yourself and tell us where you’re from, where you work and what you do there?
I’m a longtime (very longtime) journalist. My wife and I publish The Smithfield Times, a small community weekly. I grew up on a small peanut farm about four miles from our newspaper office and Anne grew up about seven miles from here, so neither of us has moved very far. She handles the business side of the paper and I manage its operation.
The paper was first published in 1920 and we’re the third couple to own the paper since the late 1920s.
What has it been like to run a newspaper so close to where you and your wife were born and raised? You don’t hear about that very much these days.
The paper has always tried to report news here as it happens, not as folks would like to think it happened. Editorially, I’ve tried to be unsensational but honest, with fact-based opinions that a segment of the community almost always dislikes. That means some also like a particular piece.
The net result of years at this is that we have been accepted in the community, but there is always some tension from one quarter or another.
I know that some community publishers have taken a more “acceptable” route and thus been better liked by the local leadership, but I’ve honestly tried to remain neutral and objective, and that’s not always the most popular route.
It’s been particularly hard on Anne at times, but she’s stood by me and trooped on. To be candid, it’s a lot easier to do this job as it should be in a community where you’re not quite so well known.
And yet, I wouldn’t want to have lived anywhere else.
That’s a tough position to take, I’m sure. Do you feel it’s necessary to do that in order to be a newspaper in the truest sense of the word, for better or worse?
It has been necessary for me in order to do the job as I saw it, but I can’t speak for other publishers and won’t. Every situation is a bit different. You know, there aren’t a lot of “rules” for running a newspaper. You have to do it as your best judgment — and conscience — dictate.
Your column that you authored for us about the five weeklies that shut down has been one of our most read pieces to date. In it you said, “Newspapers have been called the first draft of history. In small communities, they are often the only draft.” Do you think that people understand that newspapers, often times, are the last documenters of their communities and when they cease to exist so does the recorded timeline of their given place?
What I fear is that many people don’t realize the importance of their local paper until it’s gone. Then it’s too late.
To be perfectly honest, though, most community papers probably go out with more of a last gasp than a bang, and during their final years may not be the dynamic watchdogs of a free society that we would like to believe they are. That being the case, readers can be forgiven if they wonder, at least for a while, what all the hoopla’s about.
“As to the current attacks on the press, that’s more a reflection of the country’s political division and the effort to blame somebody — anybody — for whatever ails a disgruntled person or group. Regardless of what started this vendetta, legitimate news organizations must defend themselves in the face of it because I don’t see anyone else eager to come forward in our defense.”
As someone who has been in the industry for a long time, what do you think the future holds for journalism, specifically at newspapers?
I don’t pretend to know where this is going. I’m hopeful that community papers will survive, though probably not in anything approaching a traditional form. But form really isn’t all that important. What’s critical is that the function of community journalism — of maintaining an informed citizenry and providing a platform for a civil discussion of issues — still be around in 25 or 50 years. Thus far, social media has failed abysmally as a platform for responsible community dialogue or as a vehicle for presenting an unbiased account of what’s happening in a community or the nation.
The problem for us, obviously, is creating the revenue needed to underwrite responsible journalism. Some of the country’s largest newspapers seem to be doing pretty well on subscriptions and internet advertising, and a few courageous local publishers are trying to convince readers that they should pay the freight for publishing a local product. Time will tell whether readers are willing to, but I don’t think the evidence thus far is terribly encouraging, at least where we publish.
A lot of people are saying that these are unprecedented times in regard to the rhetoric being used against the press and in regard to the changing business model of newspapers. What’s your take?
As to the current attacks on the press, that’s more a reflection of the country’s political division and the effort to blame somebody — anybody — for whatever ails a disgruntled person or group. Regardless of what started this vendetta, legitimate news organizations must defend themselves in the face of it because I don’t see anyone else eager to come forward in our defense. Our paper called out a county supervisor just two weeks ago after he spoke at a local civic club, presented some non-factual views of a situation and publicly accused us of printing erroneous material. That was not the case and we challenged him on it. He backed down and issued what he hoped would be a “private apology,” which we then made public in the next issue.
We didn’t create a bond of friendship, but he probably won’t do it again anytime soon, nor will his fellow supervisors.
What’s the saying, “We’re mad as hell and won’t take it anymore?” There comes a point where we’d better be.
On a lighter note, I am curious, out of all the stories and editorials you’ve written, what has been one of the most memorable and why?
In 1972, soon after we returned to Smithfield after college and a Navy hitch, a county farmer who was also an avid recreational fisherman, called and said there was a huge fish kill on the James River, a few miles from town. That call led me to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and stories about the effects of chlorine on migrating fish. The chlorine was being used to disinfect sewage discharge in Newport News, but levels of it were toxic to fish.
That series introduced me to a lifelong love of environmental writing. Over the years, the Kepone disaster alone led to more than 150 stories in this newspaper, most written by me. Oyster decline, American Shad decline, blue crab decline. It’s been a sad journey, but it’s thrilling to now be writing about and observing the Chesapeake Bay’s slow, though partial recovery.
What’s next for you, your wife and the paper? Any plans on retirement?
At the moment, our plan is to do what we’re doing. We’re blessed with reasonably good health and continue to love what we do for a living. That will change, of course, but not right now.
What do you think your life would have looked like if you hadn’t got into newspapering?
I have thought about what might have been. There’s no way to know, but if the reporting bug had not bitten me, I suspect I would have explored a career in the Navy or Coast Guard. I have always loved being on the water and have always had a huge amount of respect for those branches of service.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m confident that I’ve said way too much already.