Tom Lappas, editor, publisher and owner of the Henrico Citizen, is our Q&A this week.
Lappas, who also teaches journalism at the University of Richmond (his alma mater), talks about how circumstance led him to become a newspaper owner, the lessons the job has taught him, figuring out ways to make people value local journalism and more.
Please introduce yourself and tell us about what you do.
I’m Tom Lappas, and I am the owner/publisher/editor of the Henrico Citizen in Henrico County just outside of Richmond. I founded the company in 2001 after working for three years out of college as a reporter and editor for a family of two other local publications in Henrico. Like most small-business owners, I do a little bit of everything. I write articles, edit press releases and make assignments, handle all our graphic design work, finances and some sales accounts for the company and oversee our sales team, help maintain our website (HenricoCitizen.com) and our social media accounts and even deliver some of our papers every two weeks, among other things. I’m also an adjunct journalism professor at my alma mater, the University of Richmond.
Did you always want to own a community newspaper, or was it something that kind of happened by circumstance?
It was circumstance. I never expected to own a business of any kind, much less start one at the age of 24. But the owner of the company where I had been working was planning to move out of state, and there was uncertainty about what might happen to it. During my time there, I’d taken a leadership role and was largely responsible for overseeing the content of the publications. We had a good team of employees, and I’d developed a good sense of the county overall.
I didn’t want to see all of that come to an end – as it seemed it might – once the company changed hands – so I thought, ‘What if I start my own paper?’ It was a daunting idea, but I was probably just the right mix of confident and naive at the time – and I was fortunate that three of my coworkers believed enough in the concept to join me at the Citizen. Two of them are still a big part of our small team.
The Citizen is a paper that is deeply entrenched in the community it covers. To do your job well, what have you found is necessary for making people value local journalism?
It’s important to show people why the issues we write about matter, or should matter, to them. We want our readers to think of us first when something newsworthy happens in Henrico, but we also want to bring important Henrico issues to them proactively when we can.
“It’s important to show people why the issues we write about matter, or should matter, to them. We want our readers to think of us first when something newsworthy happens in Henrico, but we also want to bring important Henrico issues to them proactively when we can.”
These days, consumers of news rely upon specific media outlets less frequently for the answers to the “who/what/when/where” questions – social media makes it easy to find those answers instantly in many cases. I teach my journalism students the importance of answering the “why” and “how” questions in everything they write, and that’s something that we strive to achieve, as well.
Particularly for a community outlet like ours whose focus rarely is breaking news, it’s more critical that we provide context, perspective, interpretation about issues – a big-picture takeaway, a sense of why someone should care about what we’re covering or how a specific issue will affect them. My managing editor and I have more than 40 years of combined experience covering Henrico, and that historical perspective really helps us tell complete stories through our writing.
What’s it like to be able to teach journalism to college students and run your own paper? Do they play into one another, or do you keep them separate?
Teaching is incredibly rewarding, especially when students are passionate about learning journalism, as mine have been this semester. It’s challenging to be an effective professor and still have the time required to run a newspaper. Just operating the business alone requires more time than I have, so squeezing in two days of prep work and class time is tough. But there is overlap – the class provides a good chance for me to share some real-world experiences that I’ve had, and that makes some of the topics we cover come to life a bit more.
Teaching requires me to look at things differently in order to explain them effectively, and in so doing, helps me to re-evaluate whether my staff and I are living up to all the standards I try to set for my students. Several students have earned bylines in the Citizen, too, which is rewarding for them and for me.
What’s been one of the biggest lessons owning and publishing a community paper has taught you?
The importance of persistence. Sometimes that means figuring out ways to fit in the pursuit of an important story around all the other unrelated responsibilities that come with running a small business. Sometimes it means figuring out how to fit 10 articles, eight photos and 18 ads together into a 16-page paper when deadline is looming. I’m the only full-time person on the news and administrative side of the company, so some days persistence simply means taking a deep breath or two so that I don’t find myself overwhelmed by it all.
What has kept you wanting to work in newspapers, despite the industry’s ups and downs?
It’s all I’ve wanted to do since I was in fifth grade, when I wrote my first sports column for my elementary school newspaper. There’s still a great sense of satisfaction that comes from wrapping up a print deadline every two weeks and then holding the final product a day later.
You get one wish granted for newspapers. What is it? That we’d all have the resources necessary to be proactive in our coverage, rather than reactive – to analyze trends and big-picture topics more and to spend less time on trivial issues. Too much of what we as an industry produce these days is reactionary “news” that doesn’t really affect consumers in a meaningful way or that comes from the world of PR. There’s too much filler and not enough meat.
Hobbies outside of teaching and newspaper-ing: My wife and I have two sons (5 years old and 3 weeks old), and most of my free time is family time. I coach my oldest son in t-ball and basketball, and as a passionate sports fan I live (and lately mostly die with) the Detroit Tigers and Richmond Spiders.
Most recent book you liked: “Undocumented,” by Dr. Harold Fernandez (who happens to be the father of one of my students).
Favorite writer: I grew up in northern Virginia reading the Washington Post and always gravitated to Thomas Boswell’s sports columns. Though he writes opinion pieces, any journalist would be wise to emulate the type of big-picture perspective, context and well-reasoned line of thought that he displays.
Best piece of newspaper advice: Pay attention to the details around you – all the time. They will lead you to great stories.