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
When the Christmas parade float bearing grand marshal Billy Coleburn, longtime mayor of Blackstone, Va., rolled through the small Southside town, he hopped down and began snapping photos of the colorful marching bands, cheerleaders, elves, beaming bystanders and a prize cow. He knew the local paper, the Courier-Record, would run a bunch because he is also the owner, publisher and editor of the weekly.
It’s an unusual combination, but one Blackstone voters and readers both countenanced for 16 years until he decided not to seek re-election last year. Mixing local politics and newspapering is a family tradition. His grandfather Curtis, who acquired the paper in 1946, and father, Doug, were both longtime Nottoway County supervisors as well as editors.
When a statewide political blogger raised an eyebrow, the mayor-elect responded that he had hired a new reporter to cover town hall and had given her complete independence “and clear instructions that if I say something stupid or offensive, to be sure and print it.
“One thing people will tell you about the Coleburns, friend or foe, is we don’t keep any damn secrets if it’s public business,” said the garrulous Coleburn. “That’s been my political brand. I’m an open book.”
When a police dog died after an exhausted officer came off a double shift and forgot the animal in the hot car, the mayor resisted entreaties to keep the death quiet, telling them word would have gotten out anyway, “and if that dog had been killed in a drug raid, you’d all be having bagpipers on Main Street.” The police chief later told Coleburn he’d made the right decision.
Coleburn, 54, went to work for the paper straight out of William & Mary in 1990 and became editor in 1997. “Back then we had a full-time staff of 11 plus a part-time sports reporter,” he said. Today he is the only writer on the five-person staff. He mixes hard news with “happy, feel-good stuff” as well as a folksy, first-person “Around Town” column he bangs out in an hour each Tuesday morning before press time.
“The thing that worries me is I think newspapers are increasingly under-appreciated.”Billy Coleburn
A banner, all-caps headline one week read “BULLIED TO DEATH” about the suicide of a transgender teen, while the lead story another week was, “Loose pit bull put down.” The print run is 4,800, with 1,500 copies purchased on newsstands, even after the price was doubled to $2. “There was not the first complaint,” he said. He hiked the annual subscription rate from $40 to $50 after calculating what it cost to produce and mail the paper.
The Courier-Record posts its stories behind a paywall on its website. “The social media is what’s killing us,” he said. “Nothing makes me madder than hearing people say, ‘I’ve seen that on FB the other day.’ I’m like, ‘What did you see? It may be not true at all, but people accept it.”
When he started, the Courier-Record’s circulation was 6,500. “We have buried a lot of subscribers in the last 10 years. They’re in the cemetery,” he said.
“We’re having the culture wars in our little county,” where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-to-1, he said. The paper doesn’t endorse candidates, but Coleburn solicits opinion columns from all sides. “I love dissent,” he said.
He covered the controversy over the temporary housing of 10,000 Afghan refugees in barracks at Fort Pickett, reminding people “they are one mile away in a gated compound.” He also snuck onto the base to do interviews and report on squalid conditions.
Although he once advised his father to sell the paper, he has no intention of doing so himself. “The thing that worries me is I think newspapers are increasingly under-appreciated. We have to bear some of the blame,” he said. He sees bias in what’s reported on television and exhorts other editors to stick “to clean, clinical, boring reporting” with no slant and no flowery adjectives (a personal bugaboo).