This week we talked with publisher of the Alexandria Times, Denise Dunbar. She talks about how she bounced from newspapers to working for the CIA, projects her team has taken on at the Alexandria Times, having an all-woman team at the Times, being a weekly paper in the black and more.
Intro: I’m the publisher and editor of the Alexandria Times newspaper. We are a weekly in Alexandria, outside of Washington in Northern Virginia. Alexandria is a city of 150,000, with many big-city problems. It is home to many national associations and many people who work for the federal government or in related professions live here. The Times has a weekly printed circulation of 19,000, half of which we home deliver to many of our neighborhoods in the city and the rest we bulk deliver mostly within the city limits, but some in Alexandria/Fairfax County and some in Arlington County. We are delivered into 13 zip codes in all. We have another 8,000 opt-in subscribers to our e edition, which goes out every Wednesday night.
Personal background: I was born in Atlanta and my family moved several times as I was growing up. We moved to a Northern New Jersey suburb of NYC when I was 7, to Chicago when I was 9, to southern New Jersey (my dad worked in Philadelphia) when I was 12, to southern Indiana when I was 17 and to Texas when I was 18. I graduated from high school in Richardson, Texas outside of Dallas and graduated from North Texas State University with a B.S. in Journalism and a double minor in Political Science. I moved to Charlotte, NC after graduation and spent two years working for the Charlotte Observer and got married. Then my husband and I went to grad school and two years later I received my MA in Political Science from the University of Georgia. We moved to Alexandria in 1986 and I went to work for the Central Intelligence Agency as an Intelligence Analyst. My job there was to write biographic reports about leaders of other countries and I wrote a lengthy biography of Boris Yel’Tsin while there. I left the CIA in 1992 and did an internship in sports marketing before winding up in Richmond in 1994 working on the welfare reform initiative of then Governor George Allen. I helped put the report together that detailed the initiative, provided support to the General Assembly as the bill was being considered and passed (it was truly bi-partisan as it was an agreement between a Republican governor, a Democratic Lt. Gov. and each party controlled one house of the legislature. Plus, Virginia had to get a waiver from the federal department of HHS in the administration of Bill Clinton.) I wound up running the on-ground implementation of the welfare initiative, traveling around the state with a team to assist localities. I spent two years working on this, then came back to Alexandria in late 1996 when I was pregnant with our first child.
On the Alexandria Times: The Times was started in 2005 by a group of people who felt the city needed an alternative to the long-running Alexandria Gazette. The Times’ niche from the start has been in depth hard news coverage, whereas our competitor was more known for soft news. I was not involved in the startup of the Times, but my husband and I became part of the ownership group in 2009. When we first became involved, my role was very limited to being editor of the editorial pages as I was a stay at home mom of three children aged 9, 11 and 13. But my youngest child is now a junior in high school and my two oldest are in college, so early last year when our editor left for another opportunity, I added that job to the hats I was already wearing as head of the ownership group and as publisher. We had our best year ever in 2017 from a journalism standpoint and also from a gross revenue standpoint. The Times is in the black financially.
It is extremely rewarding to be able to make a difference in our community by shining a light on all kinds of power, but particularly that of our local government which is often very arrogant and unresponsive to the concerns of local residents. I love the fact that local issues are not really R or D in nature. The Times is non-partisan and hyper local so we do not weigh in on national issues unless we can localize them (like with opioids). We view our role as providing a forum for discussion of local issues, from the environment to sewers to schools to parking to historic preservation. We try to produce a product each week that meets the highest journalistic standards, that is helpful to our community and that provides a vehicle for local businesses to market themselves.
Reporting projects: Our staff tackled our most ambitious projects ever last year: we produced a seven-part series called “Opioids in Alexandria” that examined all aspects of the drug epidemic, from treatment options to first responders to police to the components of the drugs to telling the stories of recovering addicts in Alexandria. Additionally, in response to the shooting in Alexandria of the Republican congressional baseball team, we devoted our entire issue the following week to telling the full story of what happened. Our reporters traced the steps of shooter James Hodgkinson in a front-page story called “A shooter in our midst.” We did a center spread timeline of events that day that was laid out on top of a panoramic photo of the field, with the timeline that looked like police tape. We had a story that told how three Alexandria police officers were on the scene within two minutes and engaged in the shootout. We told about the rededication of the baseball field the next week, how the Del Ray community bonded and responded. We sent a reporter to the Congressional baseball game that was played the next day as scheduled in D.C. We ran columns from our mayor and the leaders of the Del Ray community. We ran a piece that told the history of Simpson Field, where the shooting took place. And we wrote an editorial about how our community responded to the tragedy.
An all-woman publication: We are currently an all-woman operation at the Times. In addition to myself, our managing editor and reporter is a woman, as are our designer and reporter/photographer. We also have a five-woman sales team. Three of the four owners of the paper are women, with my husband the only guy.
On challenges facing publishers in 2018: I think publishers need to not be afraid to spend money on sales staff. You have to have enough people, they have to be good and they have to be well-compensated because sales is a tough line of work. I think publishers also need to keep actively seeking out new revenue streams. Embrace digital, but don’t be afraid of different models. Increasingly, community newspapers are launching or buying glossy, high-quality magazines because they are profitable if done right and can boost revenues for the overall media company. We are considering this route. Community newspapers are often long owned by the same person/family and don’t adapt easily to change. I think the lesson of the current media environment is you have to adapt to survive, but that doesn’t mean you diminish your commitment to print. Our paper’s growth is a testament to the fact that print continues to be a very valuable vehicle for businesses to market themselves.
On being a newspaper in northern Virginia: Being in Northern Virginia is an advantage, not a disadvantage. Our readership is highly intelligent and highly educated. They care about the community and many are civically engaged. This enables us to tackle hard news and investigative reporting like our big city cousins without fear of alienating readers. The Washington Post and Washington Times really don’t cover Alexandria other than for things like a shooting, and even that’s a one or two-day event for them. It leaves the door open for us to tackle ambitious local projects like our opioid series and edition on the shooter. I’m a big believer in competition making everyone better. The fact that there’s another weekly newspaper in Alexandria keeps us on our toes and makes us better than we would otherwise be. We have great respect for our colleagues at the Alexandria Gazette.
On where she see the Alexandria Times in the next year and then in the next five years: This year, I think our sales team is going to continue building on their momentum from 2017 and our news team is going to tackle even more in-depth investigative pieces. We plan to add podcasts to our repertoire in 2018. I think we will be in even better shape one year from now. It will be fun to see what new technological advances will develop over the next five years. We plan to be ready to utilize them on the news side to expand the reach of our news product and to monetize technological advances on the sales side. In five years, I expect the Alexandria Times to be going strong!