Of his writing judges said, “Yancey’s writing is imbued with an intrinsic trust in the intelligence of his audience, and in their ability to decide issues for themselves when given the right information. It calls to mind Thomas Jefferson’s frequent admonitions on the vital importance of an informed public to a successful democracy. This is editorial writing at its best.”
In the interview, Yancey talks about the role of the writer in a community, how Sheryl Crow was–in a roundabout way–the catalyst for developing his editorial voice, writing plays and a lot more.
To get started, can you give us some personal and professional background information? Basically, who you are, what you do, where you do it and how long you’ve done it.
I grew up in a chicken farm in Rockingham County, where I quickly learned I was not interested in chicken farming. I was always more interested in reading, writing – and paying attention to what we called in school “current events.” So that naturally led to an interest in journalism. I went to James Madison University. My first job in journalism was with a magazine in Richmond, Commonwealth magazine. Since 1982, I’ve been with The Roanoke Times. I was a reporter for many years, then an editor in the newsroom, and for six years ran our community news weeklies – during that time, I was completely out of the writing and editing business. I was mostly concerned with the bottom line, making sure those publications were profitable (which they were). In 2014, I wound up being named editorial page editor and here I am. Our newsroom office manager deals with the letters to the editor – handling them as they come in, getting them verified, and then getting them into the computer system. I do almost everything else – I write the daily editorial, I lay out the editorial page, I edit the op-ed pages (which, thankfully, one of our designers lays out).
Congratulations on receiving the D. Lathan Mims Award for Editorial Service. How did you feel when you found out you had won the award? What did it mean to you on a professional level?
Well, I was pleased, of course. Of note: Growing up in the Shenandoah Valley, my local newspaper was the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, where Mims was editor and general manager, so that’s a nice connection. I suppose the irony is I never really wanted to be an editorial writer. Winding up in this position was not something that had been a long-time career goal. As a result, I probably see the job differently. For instance, I try not to make my editorials sound like traditional newspaper editorials. People often refer to them as “columns” and that’s probably a good description of the voice I try to adopt in them. So it’s nice to get some official recognition for that.
It’s interesting that you never intended to become an editorial writer. When you assumed the role as editorial writer for the Times, what was the thinking behind not wanting your pieces to read like traditional newspaper editorials?
I guess I’ve always found many newspaper editorials to be very stodgy and preachy. I think for a few weeks I tried to write that way. Then we had the first concert in Roanoke’s new downtown amphitheater. Sheryl Crow was the headliner. There had been a long, controversial political history of how the amphitheater site had been selected, so I thought it was worth reviewing the politics there. On a whim, I decided to do it by quoting extensively from some of Crow’s lyrics – i.e, “There Goes The Neighborhood” to talk about the controversial site selection process. To my pleasant surprise, my boss (executive editor Lawrence McConnell) loved the piece. So at that point, I realized I had more leeway to write with the voice I wanted.
Also, I’m not that opinionated. I may be the least opinionated editorial page editor in the country. So I don’t wake up every morning with a burning desire to foist my opinions on everyone else. I suppose my editorials are more commentaries than “here is what you must think” pieces. At least that’s how I view them.
As you see it, what is the role of the editorial writer to his or her community? How have you decided what issues to address in your writing?
That’s a good question. I don’t know if I have a good answer but I think it’s in general it’s our role to get people to think about issues facing their community in ways they may not have before.
I like to try to get people to think, so a lot of my editorials are in the form of posing questions. The most frequent topic I address is the local economy. If you’re outside urban crescent, that’s the overwhelming issue in most places in Virginia – how do we build a new economy? That’s an issue that crosses political lines. The local economy is also an issue that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, and I like writing about things that aren’t necessarily in the headlines. I could be one of millions of people opining about Trump. Or I could be the only one writing about how an overlooked-provision in the new tax bill has an unique impact on this part of Virginia. That’s a pretty easy choice for me. There’s a whole internet of opinion out there about Trump, from all across the political spectrum. Why would I want to add to that?
Very fair point. So, when you write an editorial you try to keep the subject near and dear, while also attempting to offer enough context for readers to understand how it impacts them?
I hope so. Opinions on that may vary, I suppose!
Judges said of your work that you, “chose to advocate for one of the most depressed parts of Virginia – the southwest coalfields of Appalachia…” Do you see yourself as a full-fledged advocate for the region? Is it difficult to maintain an authoritative editorial/journalistic voice while also offering commentary?
Well, the point of an editorial page – an opinion page – is to offer opinion. I just don’t approach it from a partisanship standpoint – we’ve sometimes praised Democrats, we’ve sometimes praised Republicans, sometimes criticized Democrats, sometimes criticized Republicans. I think that produces a stronger result. When we wrote favorable things about Del. Will Morefield’s tax bill, for instance, it was because we made a case for why that would be good for rural areas – not because he’s a Republican. His party affiliation was irrelevant to us.
And yes, I’d say I see myself as an advocate for rural Virginia in general and Southwest Virginia in particular. I’d make a distinction between being an advocate and being a cheerleader – because I’ve written lots of editorials that point out lots of shortcomings, too. But the reality is that the state’s far southwestern corner often doesn’t get heard in Richmond. I’ve had politicians from that part of the state contact me to pass on information, or suggest a certain topic – specifically because they want it to be heard in Richmond and think we can call attention to a particular issue.
Interestingly, even when I write something that calls attention to certain shortcomings in our region, I’ve heard (privately, at least) from politicians who thank me for doing so – saying that it’s prompted an important conversation.
What’s it like to see your writing have a impact with your audience and beyond? From what you said, it’s sounds like you almost serve as a bridge between the two Virginias (rural and metropolitan).
It’s very humbling and somewhat surreal.
When I was a reporter many years ago, you never really knew whether people read your stories or not – unless they called to complain. Once we moved into the online era, we were able to track readership. Still, having an impact is a different matter entirely. In the past General Assembly, one state legislator credited us with helping him get his bill through. Another introduced a bill as a direct result of an idea we floated in an editorial.
And I think your assessment is probably right. I’d like to think I’ve forced some politicians in the urban crescent to recognize the economic realities that much of rural Virginia faces
Aside from being an editorialist, you are also a playwright. When did you start writing plays and what inspired you to take this form of writing on? How many plays have you written and how many have been produced?
I took a playwriting class in college because it seemed fun and an easy three credits. It was definitely fun; not sure how easy it was.
I set all that side and moved onto journalism. When my daughter was about nine, I took her to see a play at a local theatre. It was OK, but I thought “gosh, I could do that.” So I sat down to write something. I thought it was brilliant. Today, I don’t even claim it, but I was so motivated that I kept on – and eventually got some produced and published. I tell people it was my mid-life crisis. Other men opt for mistresses or sports cars; I went into playwriting.
Plays come in all shapes and sizes – from one-minute plays to full-lengths. If I counted all the short ones, well, you don’t want that! I’ve probably written about 40 full-length plays. Of those, eight have been produced (some multiple times) and two others have been published but have yet to be produced. Many of the remainder have had staged readings – script-in-hand readings, the theatrical equivalent of a sports scrimmage – and so may yet get produced. I’ve also had about a dozen one-acts published; most of those are aimed at high schools. My most frequently produced play is “The Fruitcake,” a Christmas one-act published through Brooklyn Publishers. It’s been produced about 50 times.
In 2017, I had 58 productions and 17 staged readings — in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, India and, of course, the United States. Most of these were short scripts, which inflate the numbers but they were done nonetheless.
Favorite book(s): “Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien. “Hell’s Angels” by Hunter S. Thompson.
Favorite writers: J.R.R. Tolkien. Hunter S. Thompson. William Shakespeare. Joan Didion. Among journalists: George Will. David Brooks. Ron Brownstein. Nate Silver. Michelle Cottle.
Advice: Umm, I’ve probably ignored a lot of advice.