This week we talked with Mike Williams, who is the publisher, editor and advertising director at The Patriot, a weekly newspaper in Pulaski. He has been involved with newspapers for 42 years.
Williams got his start as a press room trainee, then rose through the ranks to become a reporter, editor and then moved into the management track before eventually starting his own newspaper 10 years ago.
Working in newspapers is a way of life for Williams, who said it’s also “a hobby of sorts.” When he isn’t thinking about family, you can rest assured that he is thinking about The Patriot and its website.
A former member of the VPA Board of Directors, Williams is also a kidney cancer survivor and was inducted into his high school’s Hall of Fame.
Please tell us a little bit about your yourself.
I am a native of Pulaski. My wife, Linda, and I live in Draper (Pulaski County). We have three daughters who are all married and live nearby. We have four grandchildren and are expecting a fifth in December.
Each community has its own unique personality and the relationship of readers with the newspaper varies. How would you describe The Patriot’s connection with its community and readers?
From all we can gather the community, in general, appreciates The Patriot. I’m sure we have our detractors, but they appear to be a small, quiet minority. We’re thankful for that. Being a free paper, I’m sure, helps with that. People value the information we provide. And they appreciate our fairness and objectivity.
I know that you wear many hats at The Patriot as publisher, editor and ad director, how do you juggle it all each day?
Fortunately for me, newspaper work isn’t just a job it’s a way of life for me. Even a hobby of sorts. If I’m not with or thinking about family, then I’m working on or thinking about the paper and our website. Trying to learn new things, considering changes and new features, etc. My weeks are very busy, for sure, but I just prioritize things and somehow get it all done. I don’t really have a staff to call on, except for about four stringers for news and sports and delivery help. My wife helps out in a variety of ways and I’ve got a couple of inserters who work part time. I layout pages, build ads, edit copy, maintain the website. It’s a full week that doesn’t end on Friday.
What is your background in journalism? How and when did you become involved in The Patriot?
My journalism career began in 1977 when I was hired as a trainee in the pressroom of The Southwest Times in Pulaski. I worked in that area for about three years then started helping the sports editor keep statistics for the local high school football games. That led to a sports reporter position, then to a news reporter spot. From there I went to managing editor, general manager and then publisher. I worked at The Southwest Times for 31 years in all, the last 10 as publisher. We parted ways in March 2009 and I started The Patriot in May of that year. I wasn’t in a position, due to family concerns, to leave for another newspaper elsewhere. My wife said, “you’ve always wanted to own your own paper, so why don’t you?” So, we launched The Patriot. So nearly all my training was “on the job,” and I’ve done every job in the newspaper. Learning in the pressroom taught me about how all the departments of the newspaper had to work together, and how they all were equally important. While I’ve learned a lot on my own through on the job training, I have also had the good fortune to learn a great deal from some good newspaper people I have had the pleasure to work with through the years.
What was one of the biggest reasons you decided on a career in newspapers?
I had always enjoyed reading and sports as a youngster and thought a job as a sportswriter would just be a dream come true. I received a dollar a week for an allowance growing up and spent half of that each week to purchase a copy of The Sporting News. I admired and followed the columnists in that publication for years. I thought I would pursue a journalism degree in college, but I really didn’t have the desire to go to college or the money. I thought I’d work for a year, save up money and go back to school. Then the Times ran a help wanted ad for a trainee in their pressroom. I thought that was my opportunity to get into the news business. It worked. I actually think I was blessed to learn the newspaper business from really the ground up. I went from sitting on a stool in the pressroom watching the folder on our old press – all the way to publisher. Of course it took 20 years, but I learned what I needed along the way. And I’m still learning.
Is there a single story you worked on that you are particularly proud of? What was it about and what impact did it have on your readers?
No single story sticks out. I’ve covered everything you can imagine in 41 years of newspaper work. One article – about Walmart’s plans to come to our town – earned me a VPA award for in-depth / investigative writing, which I am proud of. Like many small towns, Walmart’s arrival made a huge impact on the community. The article was a comprehensive pro and con look that was published just prior to our town council’s decision to re-zone an area to allow for Walmart’s construction. That was the only story I had actually received death threats over due to the paper’s support for the rezoning. So I guess that makes it the most memorable.
What do you see as the biggest difference in small weekly papers compared to daily publications?
I think the future is very bright for weekly papers. More so than for dailies. To me that is the biggest difference. People talk about newspapers dying, and many are. Some faster than others. But I think there will always be a place for a weekly paper in most communities. That is, a weekly with a strong web presence, because the web is the future. Weeklies tend to be closer to the community and the community seems to take more ownership in it.
What is your view of the importance of a newspaper to the community it covers?
I think in most cases newspapers are still looked upon as the authority in their community for local news, opinion and for advertising. People will tell you the internet is the future, but they want their ad to run in this week’s paper, not the website generally.
What are some of the challenges facing your newspaper today? How have you adapted to the changing landscape of readership?
Our biggest challenge is the cost of printing, the quality of that printing and the availability of printers. To keep costs down we keep the paper as tight as we can, which limits what we can give our readers. Also, as people continue to speak doom over newspapers, advertising is getting harder to sell. Hence the need for a strong web presence, to try and augment the print product’s advertising. We live near a fairly large commercial area, but most of those stores are national brands. They aren’t interested in advertising in a local paper because they’re on TV. So, mining your coverage area for advertising is getting more and more difficult.
When/Why did The Patriot decide that it would be a free newspaper? Do you think other papers in the state would benefit from a free business model?
We began the paper near the end of the big recession in 2009. Most people gave us little chance of success. Plus, we were going against a hundred-year-old daily that was well-established. We thought we knew what type product people in our county would respond well to, if we could get them to read us. And, since I had been reporting news in the county for nearly 30 years, we had instant credibility. So, we started giving the paper away at about 100 outlets around the county.
The initial plan also included selling subscriptions for home delivery and eventually start charging for all copies. We were having success with that until people started figuring out that instead of buying it they could just pick it up free. As word spread, the sales dwindled and we pretty much gave up on the plan. But demand for the paper grew and today we don’t need to explain to people who and what we are. They already know.
Getting the paper into readers’ hands on a regular basis with the content they want is the key to getting advertising, and we have had great success with that. Plus, our overhead is low so our prices are reasonable. That allows small businesses to advertise. The end result is we aren’t getting rich, but we celebrated our tenth anniversary in May.
I think in the future the best strategy in a small town/county is a free weekly coupled with a strong internet presence. Our print distribution is near 4,000 weekly with another 5,750 “users” visiting our website each week, according to Google Analytics figures. Throw in Facebook where we have over 8,000 “likes” and we offer fairly good coverage of our community.
What would you say to a young person who is considering a career in journalism today?
We need good, well-trained, fair journalists. By all means go for it, but understand you’re not likely to get rich. Go to school, get an internship (paid or unpaid) and get as much varied experience as you can before you go job hunting. I have supervised dozens of interns in my career. When I asked them what type of news they were most interested in covering, I routinely heard, “I want to be a feature writer.” You and everybody else. Big mistake, in my opinion, for someone starting out. Writing features is great, but you may not find a job unless you are able to function as a crime reporter, a government reporter, and even a sports reporter. Learn to take photos. If you think you’re likely to stay in Virginia, learn how state and local government here works. Go to a council meeting, or the school board meeting. With news staffs being cut routinely across the country, the people who can do more have the best chance of sticking. Be versatile. Your editor will appreciate it.
Tell us something that most people may not know about you?
Well, I am a kidney cancer survivor. I’m a member of my high school’s Hall of Fame. And I served on the VPA’s Board of Directors for about three years.
Congratulations on being a survivor! Are you comfortable telling me a little more about that, such as when you were diagnosed and how you managed everything while undergoing treatments. And how did something like that affect your perspective?
Fifteen years ago I had pain in my right side similar to a kidney stone. I went to the emergency room in Radford and they couldn’t find a stone, but saw a “shadow” and told me to follow up with my family doctor the next week.
Strangely, after I left the hospital the pain had stopped, even though I received no treatment of any sort at the ER. I had no intention of going back to my doctor, but my wife made me go back.
A subsequent ultrasound found something, which led to a CT scan which showed a golf-ball sized tumor inside my right kidney. I had to wait about a month for surgery to remove the kidney and surrounding tissue. My doctors said the tumor had not come through the kidney wall, so they felt the surgery was all I needed. No chemo or radiation. He called me his “miracle man,” because normally my cancer gives no warning signs until it has spread and is generally too late.
A week later I was back at work signing paychecks. Two weeks later I was back at work 100 percent.
I have no doubt that God sent that initial pain as a warning sign and thank Him.
What’s the name of your high school and share with us a bit about why you are in your high school’s Hall of Fame and when they inducted you?
Pulaski County High School. They selected me for my 41 years of service to the school and community.
In which years did you serve on the VPA board of directors? Did you enjoy your experience serving the membership? Do you recall anything in particular that you are proud of having accomplished as a board during your term?
Way back in 1993-1997. I enjoyed serving very much and meeting the other board members, and visiting places I hadn’t had the chance to see before. I don’t really recall anything major that I accomplished during that time, other than getting to know some darn good newspaper people back then like Harry Nanney and Jay Pace and many others.