This story is part of a series highlighting stories from the front lines of local news reporting in Virginia. We hope you’ll join us in Richmond, Virginia from April 20 to 21 for our Virginia Local News Summit, co-hosted with the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy.
By Christopher Connell for Foothills Forum
If you go out to the coffee shop in Monterey, Va., with The Recorder publisher Anne Adams, don’t expect to eat quickly.
“It’s very difficult to get through lunch,” said Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association. “Every single person will have to stop and talk with her, tell her something, gossip with her.”
Adams, whose 32-year career at the weekly has taken her from copy setter to printer to general manager to publisher, acknowledges as much. “I can’t go buy a gallon of milk without it taking 20 minutes,” Adams said.
The 4,800-circulation Recorder endured financial difficulties that nearly drove it out of business during the pandemic, but now it’s growing, expanding coverage of Highland and Bath counties — the two least populous in Virginia — to adjacent Alleghany County, which has more than twice their population.
The newspaper’s precarious finances pre-dated COVID. In 2017 it raised its newsstand price from $2 to $5 and more than doubled the yearly subscription rate by mail to $99.
It was a bold move, but “we just came to the conclusion that if advertisers are not going to support us, readers are going to need to,” Adams said. They did. “We had very few complaints because we completely overhauled the newspaper, added more color and did other things to make it worth their while.
“Then when the pandemic hit, holy cow, things came screeching to a halt,” she said. “This is a heavy tourism-related area. Restaurants shut down, bed and breakfasts shut down, the Homestead resort shut down, and Bath the county with the highest unemployment rate in Virginia. It was a mess.”
Loyal readers again came to the rescue.
“I thought, ‘Well, here we are gonna get killed off by a virus,’ so I wrote an editorial, told them what was going on and said, ‘All I can do is ask your support.’ And we gave them some options like, ‘Hey, why don’t you consider buying a subscription for somebody who’s unemployed … or buy an ad for a business that’s suffering? Or just donate.’”
“My readers came through in droves. It was remarkable,” said Adams, a former president of the Virginia Press Association. “We had a 99-year-old woman who sent 25 bucks and wrote, ‘Take $5, go get yourself a cup of coffee and put the rest to the paper.” A GoFundMe drive raised $2,935. The appeals “literally saved us,” said Adams, and COVID relief from Washington allowed to keep her staff intact.
“My readers came through in droves. It was remarkable.”Anne Adams
“We are one of the oldest continuously published newspapers under the same masthead in the state of Virginia, if not the oldest,” said Adams. “The Recorder has not missed an issue since October 1877 and I didn’t want to miss one on my watch.”
When the pandemic struck, Adams was negotiating to buy the Virginian Review, a three-days-a-week paper in Covington, the county seat. “That publisher and I have been longtime friends. Then, wham! Along comes the pandemic. We had to hold up.”
The Review was purchased instead by someone else “who immediately started firing staff who’d been working for her for decades,” she said. “They were really good reporters. Readers were very angry and upset.”
Adams took on four as freelancers and instructed them “to do exactly as you were doing.” Two are now on the full-time payroll.
Adams, 56, grew up in Richmond and was an art major at Tulane University. In 1990, after college, she moved to Highland to renovate a rundown house her mother had purchased and wound up working on the production and ad-sales side of The Recorder. She bought it in 2007. It employs seven people full-time and has as many regular stringers.
As with all weeklies, local news is paramount. “I only get into state and national coverage when it affects my folks here,” Adams said. One of the biggest stories this past year was the consolidation of Alleghany’s two school districts.
In 2014 the Recorder was first to report that Dominion Energy was planning to build a 600-mile natural gas pipeline across the mountains from West Virginia, through Highland and Bath counties, all the way down to North Carolina, she said.
“We broke that story. It was on nobody’s radar. We published at least one story and sometimes four stories every week of the year about what was going on with that pipeline project. And we were also the first to break the news when Dominion [and Duke Energy] called it off in summer 2020.”
It’s not a highly lucrative enterprise. There were times during the pandemic when she couldn’t pay herself. Growing up, the family’s six kids qualified for Virginia’s Medicaid for Children health insurance.
Adams, the 10th publisher in The Recorder’s history, doesn’t foresee any of her children becoming the 11th. Three are engineers, one is an agricultural communications major at Auburn University, and two are in high school.
Her long-term plan is “to grow the paper enough that it’s worth something in a few years. Whatever I sell it for is going to be my retirement.”
And she’s determined that The Recorder keep living up to its slogan: “Inclusive, Independent, Indispensable.”
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