This story is part of a series highlighting stories from the front lines of local news reporting in Virginia. It is presented as part of the Virginia Local News Summit, co-hosted with the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy which took place April 20-21, 2023.
By Christopher Connell for Foothills Forum
Family ties run deep at the Gloucester-Mathews Gazette-Journal. When nonagenarian John Warren Cooke died in 2009 after 55 years as president and publisher, the former Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates was succeeded by his daughter, Elsa Cooke Verbyla, who had been the editor and a reporter at the weekly since 1976. Its main office and printing plant have sat on Gloucester Courthouse’s Main Street for 75 years and its roots go back more than a century.
Its circulation, which peaked at almost 12,000 in 1990, is still a robust 9,000. “We seem to have stopped the loss, which is good,” said Verbyla, especially after weathering financial difficulties from the deep 2008 recession, rising competition from the Internet for ads and more recently COVID. There are 35 people on payroll, 15 full-time.
A one-year print subscription is $24 and digital is $18. “We try to hold it down because you know every time you put the rates up, people drop out,” said Verbyla, who started reporting for the paper in college. “I don’t know why. They buy their food or cigarettes or whatever they want. Inflation is part of our lives.
“I’ve sort of been in the thick of it all my life. I can talk to people without getting yelled at very much,” she said drily. “We are not as big as we were, which is a source of pain to me, but we are always pushing to get back and we’re doing pretty well right now.”
Local advertising remains the paper’s lifeblood, but “all your reliable local advertisers from 30 years ago are greatly diminished. The big banks are just gone.”
“I’m happy to say we’re still an independent newspaper and that gives us the latitude to absorb problems a little bit better, I think,” the publisher said.
The biggest story in Mathews recently was a prolonged battle over a Confederate monument on the county’s historic courthouse green. In a November 2021 referendum, 80% of voters in the county expressed disapproval of calls to move the Johnny Reb statue to a cemetery.
That did not settle matters and in August 2022 the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to deed over to a Confederate heritage organization the portion of the green on which the monument stands to keep it there in perpetuity. The no vote was from the board’s sole Black member.
The local NAACP chapter threatened a lawsuit and gathered 2,300 signatures on a petition to torpedo the plan. Defenders gathered 800 signatures in support. After a raucous public hearing, the supervisors in December put off a final decision. The dispute drew attention from the Washington Post, which referred to the newspaper in its story as the Post-Gazette. “I’m glad they came,” said Verbyla, but “if they got the name of our newspaper right, it would have been better.”
The paper has editorialized against giving away the land, although the publisher said, “I’m not sure people even read editorials.
“I have no problem with the statue,” she added, but “I don’t want to see the court green subdivided.”
While the two counties the Gazette-Journal covers are 87% white and voted 2-to-1 for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, “a lot of people are still in the middle,” Verbyla said.
She remembers heated battles decades back over zoning and whether to build a commercial landfill. “Neither county had zoning when I started here but now that zoning’s in place, no one complains about it. It’s just not an issue anymore,” she said. It was the same with the landfill built in Gloucester. “Nobody talks about that now.”
She looks forward to the day when that happens with the Confederate statue controversy, too.