This week we had the pleasure of talking with Deana Meredith, editor for The Central Virginian in Louisa.
Meredith talked to us about her decision to come back into journalism after a brief absence; the connection rural papers often have with their readers; writing a story about a lost set of human remains and eventually helping the family recover them.
Please introduce yourself and tell us about where you work and what you do there?
I’m Deana Meredith and I’m the news editor at The Central Virginian in Louisa. We are a small weekly newspaper located within the triangle of Richmond, Charlottesville and Fredericksburg.
In addition to editing the newspaper, I cover the school division, town of Louisa government, write features and cover breaking news stories when needed.
I first came to The Central Virginian in 1997 as a reporter, eventually was named associate editor and then became editor. I left the news industry in 2008 and was hired as the Louisa County Chamber of Commerce’s first executive director.
I enjoyed getting the Chamber moving in the right direction, serving the local businesses, establishing a few major fundraising events and working with the membership, but I really missed the newspaper and was fortunate that my publisher, Steve Weddle, brought me back in as editor in 2013.
Despite the news industry’s changing business model, journalism still matters in our community. These days, even though we’re a weekly newspaper, we’re pushing news out every day through our website and social media.
That’s an interesting back story, usually people don’t come back into the industry after they’ve left. What did you miss about working at a newspaper? Did people question your decision?
I missed the strong connection to our community, not to mention the adrenaline rush you can get when you’re writing a big story. And from the outside looking in, I saw a need for more stories about the average people in the county.
We started “Notable Newsmakers” which focuses on people in the community who quietly try to make a difference in the lives of others, and “The Pulse” which centers on fire and rescue volunteers, police officers and dispatchers.
With a smaller news staff these days, we aren’t able to publish those articles every week, but we do print them as often as we can get them written.
For me, though, every day is different. And that’s what I love about it. Sure, there are some things I have to do each week to get the paper out that never change. To me, every day is a learning experience. There’s nothing better than traipsing around in a cattle pasture with a farmer one day or hearing the inspirational story of a cancer survivor the next.
I don’t think people were really all that surprised that I wanted to return to the newspaper business and I received immense support from my family, friends, colleagues and others in the community. The bonus the second time around is that I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.
It sounds like for you the work is about variety of experience and community relationships, do you think that’s kind of a hidden benefit of newspaper work?
I can’t think of any other profession where you come into contact with such a diverse range of people, learn about such a wide variety of topics or learn first-hand what issues matter most to people.
“I can’t think of any other profession where you come into contact with such a diverse range of people, learn about such a wide variety of topics or learn first-hand what issues matter most to people.”
As a more rural county, how do you think the paper’s role differs in your community that that of a newspaper in an urban or suburban area? Are there any inherent advantages or disadvantages you see?
We are the only news outlet where Louisa residents can find information on a regular basis about what happened at the local board of supervisors, school board, planning commission or town council meetings. Our readers look to us to cover the everyday things that matter to them; the things that would be overlooked if we weren’t here.
I think all newspapers, big or small, are trying to do the same thing for their own communities, but in a rural area people seem to be more connected to the paper.
The advantages of working in a largely rural area are many. Our faces are familiar and people trust us to tell their stories. It’s not uncommon to get some of our best story ideas while shopping at the grocery store, at church or attending a football game.
Another positive is that we can get the immediate information out there on the web and social media, but we also have a little more time to gather more information and consider different angles when writing for the print edition.
And heaven forbid if the paper is late because a truck broke down. That’s when the phones start to ring off the hook. We don’t mind, though, because that’s a sure-fire way of letting us know that what we do each week matters.
What’s the most interesting way you’ve found out about a story you ended writing?
A waitress at a local restaurant called our office one morning to report that staff had found a small bottle containing cremated remains under one of the tables. They held onto it over the weekend in the hopes that someone would come in to claim it.
The owner of the restaurant was a superstitious kind of guy and was extremely uncomfortable with the ashes being inside his business and wanted to throw the container in the dumpster. The waitress convinced him that they should reach out to the newspaper to see if we could help track down the owner.
I drove down to the restaurant to talk to them and get a photo of the bottle, especially since it had the name of the deceased woman on it and a date. After talking with them, they put the bottle into a plastic take-out bag and asked me to take it to the sheriff’s office for them. I did.
After I dropped it off, I returned to my office and searched the online obituaries for Roberta Megitz. I found one person that matched the date on the bottle—in Maine. So, I called the funeral home and they agreed to reach out to family members. It had only been about six months since she had passed. The sheriff’s office was also busy searching for the family.
As it turns out, the bottle had fallen out of a local man’s shorts pockets and he hadn’t yet realized they were missing. He was very close to his 78-year-old Aunt Roberta and had asked his mother, who lives in the Tidewater area, for a small bottle of her ashes.
After talking to him and a few of his family members we learned that the late Aunt Roberta was quite the character and had a great sense of humor. So did the family, who found the entire situation funny. They thought Roberta would have gotten a kick out of it all. The headline we chose was “One more adventure for Aunt Roberta.”
The family loved it and we got a lot of positive feedback on it.
Where do you want to see the CV in the coming years?
I want us to continue to be relevant to our readers, adapt to the needs of our community and stay abreast of changing technology as we focus on our mission to keep citizens informed. In addition to print, we also put out a weekly newsletter, push stories and video to the web and social media and are dabbling in podcasting. I hope to continue to take advantage of newer technologies, in addition to our print product, to reach as many people as possible.
Are you happy you made your way back to newspapers?
I feel privileged to be a working journalist in a time when newsrooms are cutting back and it’s more difficult to find a job in the industry. I hope to be doing this for a long, long time.