This week we had the distinct pleasure of talking with Randy Arrington, publisher of the Page News & Courier, the Warren Sentinel and the Shenandoah Valley-Herald.
Randy talks about how he got started in the industry, why newspapering and cutting grass sometimes go hand-in-hand, what he believes is harming the ability to produce good community journalism, corrupt sheriffs and a lot more.
To start, please introduce yourself and tell us about what you do and where you do it.
I am the publisher of the Ogden VA Weeklies group within Ogden Newspapers of Virginia, LLC, which includes the Page News and Courier in Luray, The Warren Sentinel in Front Royal and The Shenandoah Valley-Herald in Woodstock.
After a few years in broadcasting at several radio stations while attending and after graduating from James Madison University, I took my first newspaper job in 1996 as the sports editor at my hometown paper, The Farmville Herald. I probably stuck with radio a few years too long and should have taken my first offer to become a newspaper reporter from Billy Coleburn at The Courier-Record in Blackstone. But it didn’t take much of my working part-time at Radio Shack while also working full-time at the radio station, for me to realize that I needed to enter the high-paying world of print media — which at the time offered me $1 more an hour.
After filling the big shoes of Rick Swayne for three years in Farmville, I moved to another Farmville (yes, there is more than one – and not just the one on Facebook). I am one of the only people you will ever meet that moved from Farmville (Va.) to Farmville (N.C.). I spent a year there as the editor and general manager of a small weekly owned by Cox Newspapers.
Former Page News and Courier editor, the late Jeb Caudill, helped me get the Carolina job before pulling me up to Luray to be his assistant editor in 2000. I spent three years in that position before moving to Culpeper to help Lou Emerson launch The Culpeper Citizen. Three years as the managing editor of that paper then lead me back to Luray, where I took over Jeb’s job once again and became the editor and general manager of the Page-Shenandoah Newspaper Corp. That included oversight of The Courier and The Herald. The Sentinel was added on to my list of responsibilities in 2009.
When, Ogden Newspapers bought the Byrd Newspaper group in the Shenandoah Valley last April, I was named publisher of the group of three weeklies.
As far as what I do… I have my hands in all aspects of the operation, with only two sales reps and one reporter for three papers, we have to make do. So, I write editorials, take occasional photos at events, edit copy, layout pages, manage sales projects, put out the production orders, negotiate and schedule all inserts, deal with circulation issues, manage the staff and free lancers, handle community relations and projects, take care of the buildings (to include cutting the grass) and from time to time I deliver a few papers. I also travel between the three counties we cover and try to build as many relationships in the community as I can.
So you’re a career newspaper-man. What has kept you wanting to work in newspapers, despite the sometime volatility of the industry?
Well, just like Forrest Gump, I really enjoy cutting the grass.
But really, what do you enjoy about working in newspapers? It sounds like you really enjoy the community aspect of working in the industry.
Sorry… April Fool’s Day… couldn’t resist.
The readers. You hit the nail on the head when you used the word “community.” That’s the motivation — the people, the organized efforts to better themselves and their surroundings, righting their wrongs, uplifting the afflicted, sharing their victories and all those other cliches we use in this business are actually true. And they especially ring true in a small community where people, places and things are tightly woven together.
It feels good deep down to believe that you are playing a part in making your small part of the world a little bit better.
I certainly did not work through all-nighters during the election, drive through flood waters during the storm or sit through a thousand meetings on sewer just so I could increase corporate profits or get my name on the wall in the hallway in Glen Allen (VPA Offices). I did it so the election totals would be accurate; so the hurricane photos would be worth the 50 cents at the newsstand; and so my neighbors could be a little better informed about how their tax dollars were being spent.
“It feels good deep down to believe that you are playing a part in making your small part of the world a little bit better.”
Is your job 100 percent about public service? Do you ever have to step back and remind yourself what it’s all about, to get a clearer perspective?
Yes, ultimately the job is about serving the community and the greater good. As a manger, it’s something you have to remind yourself of when too many decisions are being decided by decimal points. At the end of the day, from the publisher’s seat, it’s still a business, and you have to make the business side work in order to do the other things you want to do. In today’s environment, to say that this task is becoming increasingly difficult is to simply understate the obvious.
Coming from the background of a reporter, my heart is still in the content– you know, that stuff we’re trying to get the readers to read and the advertiser to buy space next to. When you dismiss the content and the quality of that content as simply a vehicle for ad buys, then you have helped speed up the digression of this industry, at least in print form.
You believe good journalism will be followed by readers and advertisers? I think everyone wants to produce good journalism but what do you think is getting in the way of that goal?
Money is getting in the way of good journalism.
Just like a lot of things in today’s culture, but only here we’re not talking about soda pop and Big Macs. We’re talking about a key pillar of a democratic society, and the public it serves isn’t even fully aware of the impending dangers to the Fourth Estate.
And this is not just wagging a finger at the new “corporate” nature of all media these days, it’s also about the public’s willingness to pay for local news and solid watchdog journalism. That trend is changing with new non-profit organizations and private entrepreneurial endeavors online filling voids to serve a new generation of information consumers. But currently, they are the mavericks and not the mainstream – but time will change that as the industry continues to evolve in the digital age.
Doing more with less has become the joke cliche of the business over the past decade or more. You seldom do more with less; you do less with less, and the proof has been in the decline of the products we produce. How do you eliminate nearly half the newsroom jobs in a decade and still believe that you are putting out the same quality product?
As the industry continues to shift, quality will rise again in importance in the face of new competition. News deserts will crop up, and then those voids will be filled. People will always want information about the communities that they live in, and so there will always be a market there. Journalism as an institution will survive this digital transition, but it’s going to continue to be a bumpy ride for another decade or so.
What’s been one story, or instance, you’ve had in your time in the industry that has stuck with you as a reminder of the importance of what journalists do?
About 10 years ago, we had a big scandal in the county involving the sheriff. We knew a lot about what was going on behind the scenes, but had to wait until some of it was made public in the courts before we could really report on the big picture. As we began to report the pieces of the bigger puzzle, many of the sheriff’s supporters began to rip us apart.
You should know that the sheriff lived two lives — his public life in which he donated to charity, rode in parades, created new programs within the community, improved the jail and overall actually ran a solid department that was accredited (for the first time); and then there was the private life that produced 23 federal indictments. Much of the public was unaware of the private life, and he had many supporters.
So we were chastised a great deal, especially me as the editor as I piled it on in opinion pieces. It started with the dirty looks at public events and then progressed to veiled threats, roadway harassment by deputies and supporters, and several direct attempts to have me fired. A few weird things even happened at my house, and to this day, I’m not sure if something was really going on or if my imagination was running wild.
The story grew to such levels of regional interest that our sister paper began to compete with us on stories. So much so, that my job was again threatened by a top administrator because I would not give them access to an unnamed source we were using in our coverage (our own “Deep Throat” for that particular case, who served as a witness). I asked the source if I could give out their unlisted number, the source said no and I was willing to give up my job to protect that person.
As the case ended and the sheriff was sent to federal prison, I remember reflecting on how long he had been doing the things he had been doing. And how much longer it may have gone on, if we had not applied some additional pressure, provided some additional witnesses to the prosecution through our reporting and followed through to help expose a public official who was clearly abusing the power given to him by the people.
It was a little scary at times, and it generated a great deal of anxiety and sleepless nights. But the battle was worth it. There isn’t a true journalist alive that doesn’t dream of bringing down a corrupt public official – especially a popular one that really has the people fooled. And it’s a constant battle…right after the sheriff got out of federal prison, he came back home to run for the board of supervisors.
Is it hard being in a small community AND trying to do watchdog journalism. I mean these people are your neighbors and you see them in the grocery store. How do you strike the balance?
There is a section in the SPJ Code of Ethics that speaks to how journalists should act independently and should “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” Taken literally at face value, it might seem that any allegiances in a small community (joining a civic club, serving on a board, having a spouse in the school system or just making a few friends) could be seen as violating this tenant.
In a small community, you have to walk a fine line. I have been in situations in which I had to write about or edit and publish stories about people I knew well — and they weren’t all happy stories. Some have requested a pass or special treatment — any editor who has been in the business a while has had this happen at one time or another. It can cost you some friends and even more acquaintances.
And while you have to deal with a few cold shoulders from time to time, you still have to live in the community. Of course, you should still volunteer with local organizations, support the local sports teams or join a club. You need to be a part of the community you serve.
At the end of the day, credibility is your lifeline in this industry.
And as long as you remain true to the truth and make editorial decisions based on that, you should have no worries.
Although there are a few local officials that never throw candy my way during the Christmas parade.
That’s a bummer.