This week’s Q&A is all about place and how a place defines a community and, by default, its newspapers. We talked with editor and co-owner of the Eastern Shore Post, Connie Morrison.
Morrison talks to us about how she came to be co-owner of the paper, its place on the Shore, what aggravates her about outside reporters when they cover the community, the future of small, rural papers and more.
Please introduce yourself.
I edit and am co-owner of the Eastern Shore Post, a weekly newspaper on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
Our nine-person office — advertising staff of three, three full-time reporters, an editor, a part-time copy editor and two student assistants– is tucked between a pet store and a soul food restaurant in the Four Corner Plaza in Onley, which is centrally located on the Virginia portion of the Delmarva peninsula.
Because we are an independent newspaper, we pretty much do everything except the printing in-house.
We pride ourselves in being the hometown newspaper and appreciate the support we get from our community. We will celebrate its 20-year anniversary in June and we are planning an outdoor party to thank the community for its backing. The biggest complaint we get is people saying they can’t find a copy of our paper (we distribute 15,000 weekly copies). That’s a nice problem to have.
How did you become co-owner of the paper?
This is a second career for me. I spent 24 years in Michigan in the field of planning and transportation policy. Much of that was spent writing – including ghostwriting articles and speeches for the department director and the governor. I spent a year and half as the transportation policy advisor to Gov. Jennifer Granholm; again – policies, speeches, letters.
The recession hit Michigan especially hard, and when my three oldest children were in college, my husband, youngest child and I relocated to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I was the trailing spouse (my husband works in community planning and economic development) and the local radio station took a chance and hired me to do local news reporting, which eventually led to a job with the local corporate-owned paper. When the Eastern Shore Post came up for sale, I jumped at the chance to own an independent newspaper. A local businessman, Ace Seybolt, wanted to partner on it, so we are co-owners. I am the operational partner and editor; he is the financial partner.
Cheryl Sterling started this paper almost 20 years ago with Candy Farlow. I bought it 2 1/2 years ago, kept the same staff and added a few more. Since then, our average weekly edition has gone from 32 pages to 48-56 pages and we recently launched an updated website. We also publish a summer newspaper, The Hitching Post, for Chincoteague.
What’s it like running a paper on the Eastern Shore? I imagine there have to be some unique challenges and maybe some advantages presented by your location.
First, I have never lived in an area that is in the national news as much as the Eastern Shore of Virginia. On the one hand, it’s this remote place with spotty cell phone service (most of the time my cell phone doesn’t work at home) and an hour and a half drive to the closest Target (which, for some reason, people use as a gauge for civilization). On the other hand, we have the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, NASA, the Chincoteague ponies and the annual Pony Swim, Tangier Island, a world biosphere, and our current governor is from the Shore – not to mention the string of arsons a few years back. We seem to stay in the national spotlight. For all our remoteness, we are bubbling all the time.
“We seem to stay in the national spotlight. For all our remoteness, we are bubbling all the time.”
The Shore isn’t very wide and functions like a small town. Everything and everyone are very interconnected, which is great for finding people. The exception is Tangier, for which we often rely on submitted material.
The downside is we are often writing about people we know – sometimes our friends, our neighbors, people we go to church with, or their relatives. We see them at the Y, a school function or at the grocery store. I’m sure it happens to all journalists sooner or later, but I imagine it happens here more frequently here than most places.
Another downside, as I mentioned is the spotty cellphone service. Don’t count on tweeting a photo from Onancock, for example, because one of the biggest tourist towns on the Shore doesn’t have a decent Verizon signal. Also, rural internet, while coming along, is not uniformly available. If I’m working from home and my husband is streaming a ballgame, I can’t download photos because all we have available is DSL.
The bridge-tunnel can play havoc with our schedule. Our paper is printed across the bay. Our deadline is 6 p.m. Thursday and the 15,000 copies are usually back to us by midnight for delivery. Since the papers come across the bridge-tunnel in a high-profile van, if there are wind restrictions on the CBBT, it can affect our delivery times. Last fall, we printed a day early when a hurricane was forecast to make landfall and would have affected our ability to get the papers back across.
There are definitely advantages for our readers. For the same reasons mentioned previously, we are very accessible. People are always pitching story ideas or telling us what they like or don’t like about the paper. We have made several small format changes based on suggestions from readers.
“The biggest complaint we get is people saying they can’t find a copy of our paper (we distribute 15,000 weekly copies). That’s a nice problem to have.”
When you see outside reporters come to the Eastern Shore is there ever anything you see them do that irks you?
I feel very protective of our local folks and our news. We see how the stories affect our communities and the people who live here so I’m wary sometimes of outside reporters and what they want and how they are going to treat or depict Shore people.
I didn’t like the way the Shore was portrayed in “American Fire,” but I enjoyed her storytelling. I did enjoy “Chesapeake Requiem,” and respected how Earl Swift spent time getting to know the people of Tangier before writing the book.
Are you optimistic about the future of newspapers in smaller communities?
I am very optimistic. People want to know what their local governments are up to. They want local sports coverage, and they like seeing photos of their children and grandchildren on the ball field or in the classroom. Our only focus is what’s going on here on the Shore, and we know the area so well that no one else is going to bring that kind of coverage. We run wedding announcements and dean’s list notifications and obituaries; profiles of 100-year-olds on their birthdays and the Shore natives who have moved on but come home to share their experiences with former classmates and friends or to teach current students. When people come by the office to pick up 6 or 8 copies so they’ll have copies to clip and copies to share, we know we’re not just reporting news; we’re documenting small-town life in a way that resonates.
“Our only focus is what’s going on here on the Shore, and we know the area so well that no one else is going to bring that kind of coverage.”
At the end of the day, are you happy you made the choice to become co-owner of a newspaper?
No regrets. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love this work, and the Post has the best staff to bring it all together every week.
The longevity of our employees speaks volumes about their commitment: Troy Justis, our advertising manager, has been here since the paper started – it will be 20 years in June; reporter Linda Cicoira has been here 13 years; classifieds and legals manager Angie Crutchley just passed the 11-year mark. Almost all of my new hires are still with us. We are a close-knit group that enjoys the camaraderie of the newsroom. And it feels great to see how quickly those papers disappear from the box outside our office every Friday.
What does the job give you on a personal level?
On a personal level, I’m one of those people who needs to be learning all the time, and this job definitely ticks that box. Since I also lay out most of the paper, it’s like completing a huge puzzle every single week and there is a lot of satisfaction in that.
But probably the most satisfying is building the team. I mentioned the team I inherited: Troy Justis, Linda Cicoira, and Angie Crutchley. Since I bought the paper, I’ve hired new staff and it has been so great to see their professional development. I hired our ad designer, Kimberly Perry, right out of high school and she went to the community college while working for us. It has been phenomenal watching her creativity soar working with the ad manager and the other ad consultant, Sam Sellard. Same for our sports reporter, Krystle Bono, and our other news reporter, Stefanie Jackson. Watching them develop their reporting skills, develop their contacts and really immerse themselves in their beats has been great to see. Last year, David Lozelle Martin, who is an internationally bestselling author with some time on his hands (luckily for us), joined our team as copy editor. He is a great fit for our office.
I owe a lot to Cheryl Sterling, the former owner, who stayed on in a consultant capacity and trained me. But 2 1/2 years in, I’m one of those unicorns that looks forward to going to work every day.