Up Close and Personal
Journalism is an intimate undertaking at West Virginia’s rural weeklies, invaluable voices that often are the only source of local news--and where reporters are apt to encounter the subject of negative coverage as soon as they step out of the office.
By John Temple
Temple, a former reporter for the Tampa Tribune and North Carolina's Greensboro News & Record, is an assistant professor of journalism at West Virginia University.
As soon as Kent Spellman steps out of the Ritchie Gazette, he feels the man's glare.
The man--sunburned, rawboned and buzz cut--is leaning on a spade next to the crisp new bank building on the other side of East Main Street. He looks mad, and Spellman figures that's because the front page of the Ritchie Gazette carried a story about him last month, a story written by Spellman himself. The gist of the piece was that the 27-year-old--a substitute teacher and assistant wrestling coach at Ritchie County High School--had been arrested for having sex with a 16-year-old student. Now that the guy is out on bond, and out of his subbing gig, he is working with a landscaping team, plugging shrubs into the reddish dirt around the bank. And alternately glaring across the street at the Ritchie Gazette.
If the former sub is puzzled by the Gazette's front-page treatment of his case, it's not altogether surprising. Some weekly newspapers in West Virginia, and elsewhere, would have left this story alone, or buried it in the court briefs. Before Spellman bought the paper in 1996 along with two partners, the Ritchie Gazette might not have run it on the front either. But that was the old Gazette, and Spellman has since grown accustomed to the occasional scowls of news subjects.
So Spellman ignores the man, in fact crossing the street to check out the goings-on at the bank. A banner strung across the beige brick building advertises a grand opening in five days. Inside, workers are lugging office furniture and boxes of files, and unlike the man outside, the bank president hails Spellman warmly. In a village like Harrisville, which supports one IGA grocery store and no fast-food joints, scoring a new bank branch is good news to people like Spellman, who heads the county's economic development authority when he's not running the paper.
Conflict of interest? Certainly. But when you're the editor and co-owner of an aggressive weekly in a struggling West Virginia county, population 10,291, it's tough to find a story where interests don't collide. Almost everything you write involves someone you know. That sticky spider's web of relationships is just part of life in Ritchie County. One degree of separation is the rule. Or no degree. So an editor tries to be fair, to use common sense, to balance his instincts for getting the news and promoting his town.
"Conflict of interest." Probably a useful term if you're a big-city editor, shepherding big-city stories that affect hundreds of thousands of people. But those big-city editors are separated from their readers and subjects by security guards and lawyers and reporters, not to mention the anonymity of urban life. So debates over objectivity and conflicts of interest that take place in vast newsrooms and glassed-in editorial offices can seem a bit academic to people who work on weekly newspapers in West Virginia.
In small towns like Harrisville, journalists rarely have distance from their subjects. Not when every time they step out of their office, they can feel the aggrieved stare of an accused statutory rapist--one they chose to put above-the-fold last month--burning into the back of their already-sweaty necks.
West Virginia has been called a state without cities. Its largest city, Charleston, is home to only 53,000 people. Most of the state's 1.8 million residents are country folks--almost 60 percent live outside of metropolitan areas, one of the highest percentages in the country. And West Virginians tend to identify themselves by county, not town. As in, "I'm from Doddridge County, but I've got family in Wirt County." Only 20 West Virginia towns are large enough to support daily newspapers and as a result, 58 weeklies cover the rest of the territory.
Nearby states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina have plenty of weeklies, but those papers are more likely to be chain-owned, suburban publications that supplement the zoned news of metro dailies. West Virginia better resembles the rolling plains and prairie of South Dakota, the arid oil fields of west Texas or the rugged hills of northern Maine. In those places, weekly newspapers are often the only places small-town readers can get local news. In hundred-mile swaths of territory in those states, weeklies are the only papers sending reporters to watch over county government, sit in courtrooms and cover fires.
"The role of the community press in those kinds of places is crucial," says John Hatcher, education director for the Center for Community Journalism at the State University of New York at Oswego. "Those weeklies are the voice of communities that need that voice to survive."
Across the United States, weekly circulation rates have tripled in recent decades, according to a 2001 study in the Newspaper Research Journal. Large newspaper groups have gobbled up more than half of the nation's weeklies, consolidating operations and boosting their market penetration. But these changes have largely bypassed rural West Virginia. Only about a dozen of the state's weeklies belong to newspaper groups, according to data from the Editor & Publisher International Yearbook, probably because the state's mountains and sparse population would make it difficult to pool resources. While weekly circulation rates in other states have grown, West Virginia's have stagnated due to population loss.
Bill Childress, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, estimates that a dozen or so weeklies are in precarious economic condition. Operating a newspaper in one of the most impoverished states in the country has been made even more difficult by the shrinking number of local businesses and advertisers, which are being replaced by regional superstores.
"When the only drugstore in town closes, you lose that ad revenue for good," says Chad Stebbins, executive director of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. "The only time Wal-Mart ever advertises is when they first move into a community."
Some West Virginia weeklies are mom-and-pop publications that contain every "weakly" stereotype: dull leads, flagrant misspellings, meeting stories that read like transcripts, front-page advertisements that dominate the newshole. Others, however, like the Ritchie Gazette in Harrisville or the Hampshire Review in Romney, are dynamic, if understaffed, news operations. The antiquated Pocahontas Times, located in the state's least-populated area, is somewhere in between.
But all of them are crucial to their towns. If a hot story breaks in Romney or Harrisville or Pocahontas County, a bigger newspaper or TV station may swoop in and maybe even dazzle the local sheriff's deputies into giving them a scoop. But then they're gone, leaving the weeklies to grind out the news. As Pam Pritt, co-owner of the Pocahontas Times, puts it: "We're the only paper in the world who gives a damn about Pocahontas County."
Nevertheless, tiny papers rarely gain recognition from media scholars or journalists. Christine Martin, dean of the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism at West Virginia University, has traveled to weekly newspapers around the state to critique and train reporters through a press association program. Martin assumed that the weeklies would resemble the one where she began her journalism career, a humble shopper run out of a motel room near Pittsburgh. Instead, she found largely self-trained and overworked reporters who shared the concerns of most journalists. They were hungry for advice--how to write better leads, ask better questions, hone their stories' focuses.
Hatcher from SUNY Oswego says most committed weekly reporters enjoy the variety of their jobs and the close bonds with readers. "It takes incredible courage to work on a newspaper in a small rural community where everybody knows everybody and your main advertiser is on the city council," Hatcher says. "It takes courage in those circumstances to report on conflict, to say that things aren't as they should be."
An early morning sun has not yet burned the ribbons of fog off the hills around Clarksburg when Kent Spellman pulls up to a loading dock behind the daily newspaper that prints the Ritchie Gazette. The previous night, Spellman covered a public safety meeting, then drove to Clarksburg to drop off the paste-up pages. A publishing glitch kept him from heading home until after 10 p.m.
Nine hours later, at 7:15 a.m., waist-high stacks of Ritchie Gazettes are standing on a pallet inside the Clarksburg Exponent-Telegram. Spellman wheels the pallet out to the loading dock and begins heaving bundles of 100 newspapers onto the bed of his truck. Spellman, whose forearms are knotty with muscle from swinging a framing hammer for two decades, grew up in Connecticut and moved in 1974 to West Virginia, where he worked a 96-acre farm with mules and ran a construction company. Over the years, he transformed himself from hippie homesteader to small-business man. When he learned that newspaper chains were eyeing the up-for-sale Ritchie Gazette in 1996, he and two partners bought it. Six years later, the walls of the newspaper office are plastered with framed writing awards from the West Virginia Press Association, and Spellman has given up construction for the ceaseless occupation of weekly newspaper co-owner/editor/reporter/distributor. He makes less money now, running a weekly newspaper in a poor county, but the Gazette is financially sound.
Spellman makes this run every week, carrying the paste-up to Clarksburg on Tuesday night, and then hauling 3,900 copies 48 mountainous miles back to Harrisville on Wednesday morning. When he pulls in front of the Ritchie Gazette, his employees are waiting on the sidewalk, like emergency-room nurses in an ambulance bay. Everyone sweeps into action, rolling the bundles of newspapers to tables in the back of the one-room office, where they grab stacks of papers and begin slipping extra sections inside each copy in a single practiced motion. All five Gazette staffers join in, from the part-time ad saleswoman to Torie Knight, the paper's only full-time reporter (if you don't count Spellman and the circulation manager, who also covers sports).
Knight's specialty is writing what she calls "tearjerkers," but in Ritchie County, sad stories are different from those she covered at dailies in Parkersburg and Clarksburg, where she didn't know her subjects as well. Knight recently wrote about her own cousin, who was in trouble for exposing himself in public. Then, this summer, Knight's husband called her at the Gazette with more bad news: The same cousin had shot himself in the chest. Knight drove to his house and cried when the police said he'd been flown to a hospital in Morgantown. But at least she didn't have to write about it; the Gazette doesn't cover suicides or attempts. But if the story had been newsworthy, Knight would have written it. She's the Ritchie Gazette police reporter, after all, and doesn't have the luxury of passing off stories just because she knows the victim. Otherwise, she'd be passing off a lot of stories.
Pam Pritt's desk at the Pocahontas Times sits in the shadow of an ancient Babcock printing press. The black iron beast, taller than Pritt, crouches on a concrete foundation poured for it in 1911. They used it until 1985. In the early 1980s, Times co-owner Bill McNeel still hand-set the front page of the paper every week and ran a single copy off the Babcock press. That way, even though the copy was duplicated on a modern press, the Times retained the gritty hand-set look that some readers preferred. It took a major flood in 1985 to force the Pocahontas Times to switch to computerized layout.
Change can be glacially slow in Pocahontas County, whose not quite 10-residents-per-square-mile make it the most sparsely populated county in a sparsely populated state. Nothing reflects the area's deep conservatism as much as its weekly newspaper. Though no longer hand-set, today's front page looks almost exactly like a Pocahontas Times from 90 years ago. It contains no stories, no headlines, no photos. Instead, six columns of black-and-white type are stacked across the page: event briefs, church notices, deaths, births, hospital news and cemetery notices.
It's not that Pocahontas County lacks news. Co-owners Pritt and McNeel keep busy filling the pages with election stories, police briefs and coverage of courts and meetings. And surprisingly often, bigger news happens. Dr. Patch Adams, of the eponymous movie, built his Gesundheit! Institute here. William Pierce, a notorious white supremacist, lived here when his book, "The Turner Diaries," was blamed for inspiring the Oklahoma City bombing. And in a case that received international attention, two women hitchhiking to a Rainbow Family gathering for world peace were murdered here in 1980. But even these stories ran inside. Church news and death notices never budge from the front page.
But if Pam Pritt gets her way, they might. "There's probably not a waking hour of my day that I don't think about what I'd like to do here," she says. "My attitude is, if we can do it better, why not?"
Pritt, 42, grew up reading the Pocahontas Times. When she was 18, she walked into its barn-like office and tried to talk her way into a job as a reporter. McNeel turned her down, but Pritt was persistent--the Times is the only paper in the county. She reported for a nearby radio station, went to college and finally landed a byline in the Times in 1993. She bought a one-third stake in the paper two years later--McNeel and his semiretired aunt, Jane Price Sharp, own the other two-thirds. Pritt is the first nonfamily owner of the Times in more than a century, and her presence has shaken things up a bit. When McNeel is away, for example, Pritt will slide a picture onto the front page. Nothing radical. Just a feature photo to break up the monotony. But readers will call to complain that their church notices are not in the "right" place.
Those readers are in for a shock when the day comes for McNeel, 63, to retire. Pritt has dissected and reordered the paper in her head so many times that she knows exactly how she'll do it. First, two large front-page advertisements will go to the bottom of page one, ousting the birth notices. Then she'll cut the space-wasting line breaks between each item and ax hospital news altogether. This will open up a small, above-the-fold newshole. Once folks get used to that, she'll package meeting notices and church briefs and move them inside. And someday, though she knows it will cause a fuss, she will even move the much-perused death notices inside--but she'll try to appease readers with a front-page death notice index. For every reader who will hate these changes, Pritt believes others will enjoy a modern newspaper.
But she also understands the value of a newspaper's consistency. When the banks of the Greenbrier River overflowed and swamped the town of Marlinton in 1985, the familiar gray face of the Pocahontas Times, on the streets only a day late even though the paper's office flooded, was a comfort.
"It was the first thing I saw all week that made me realize: Things will get back to normal," Pritt recalls. "The Times had come out, just like it always did."
At the Ritchie Gazette, the staffers' fingers are black with ink by the time they've finished inserting the extra sections. They fix address labels onto the papers and stuff them in mail bags, one for each village in Ritchie County, from Dutchman to Burnt House. Kent Spellman loads the bags into his pickup and hauls them to the post office.
When he returns, he runs into Rusty Conrad in front of the office. The 65-year-old Ritchie County native and local newsmonger is wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the words "God Bless America." A fresh Ritchie Gazette is jammed in his back pocket. "Rusty!" Spellman shouts, his voice lapsing into pure West Virginia drawl, as often happens when he talks with locals.
"Hey, why don't you do an article about these people riding four-wheelers in the streets?" Conrad drawls back. "It is time to do that story," Spellman says, all business now, his clipped Connecticut accent returning.
Spellman means it. He values tips from people like Conrad, who jingles the bells on the Gazette's front door several times a day to pass along a joke or a news item. Spellman and Knight couldn't cover Ritchie County without a strong network of informal sources. For example, the retired husband of the Gazette's ad rep keeps an ear on the police scanner at home and calls in when he hears news breaking. Sometimes, when Knight and Spellman are busy, they'll send a tape recorder to government meetings and ask one of the officials to punch record. Most evenings, a group of local businessmen, some retired, gather on a set of concrete steps catty-corner to the Gazette to swap stories. Spellman often goes for a run about that time and stops by to listen in.
He's gotten good stories there. Recently a member of a prominent Ritchie County family pleaded guilty to a $14 million Medicare and Medicaid fraud scam that took place in Florida. The men on the steps told Spellman about the investigation. Spellman doesn't know where they got their information, but when he began calling Florida about it, he found out it was true. Spellman waited until the defendant pleaded guilty to break the story because he wanted a strong news hook to hang it on.
Though others urged him to run it on the front page, Spellman put the story on page four. If it had run on the front, Spellman believes some locals would think he was trying to disgrace the defendant's family, which includes both the mayor of Harrisville and the county's Republican Party chairman. Spellman can't ignore this news, the way some weeklies might, but neither can he afford to look like a scandalmonger.
One of the largest weeklies in the state, the Hampshire Review weighs in most weeks at 36 pages and 6,000-plus copies. With numbers like these, editor and manager Charlie See has resources that Kent Spellman and Pam Pritt can only dream about. See writes only editorials--and only when he has something to say. He has his own conference table and office, complete with a framed reproduction of Norman Rockwell's "The Country Editor." His three full-time writers--two news and one sports--work in an actual newsroom, where the wall between advertising and news is more than figurative. See holds editorial meetings. He delegates.
And he has plenty to delegate. For a one-stoplight town, Romney pops with news, judging by the stories discussed at an editorial meeting not long ago. An assistant principal at the high school was accused of changing her daughter's grades. A family living nearby lost everything in a fire. A teenage girl died in an all-terrain vehicle accident. See and his writers also brainstormed a series on the growing presence of heroin in Hampshire County.
A former English teacher, See began working at the paper, owned by his wife's family, in 1986. Back then, the paper would never have pondered a series on heroin, or run a story, based on unnamed sources, about grade tampering. For one thing, the resources weren't there to pull off ambitious stories. It was pretty much See working by himself. But See took over a few years later and hired several reporters.
Instead of recruiting J-school graduates who will likely leave for bigger papers after a couple years, See prefers to hire locals with a knack for writing and reporting. Reporter Don Kesner, for example, is an ex-pastor with deep family roots in Hampshire County. He began working for the Review nine years ago and learned on the job how to handle attributions and craft leads. He still seems more like a minister than a reporter sometimes, like when he called the school superintendent to discuss the grade-tampering story and ended up consoling as much as interviewing him.
"I hate this story," Kesner says later. "But there's an obligation, not necessarily just to expose this, but to get the facts out. That makes you feel good, that you printed the facts about a situation."
Kesner and sportswriter Jerrod Kitzmiller, who sometimes coordinate their reporting schedules, make an improbable pair. Kitzmiller, a 6'6" former all-conference high-school basketball player, is in his early 20s, half the age of the diminutive Kesner, who walks with a rolling limp. Kesner daydreams about following a New York Times reporter around for a week, to see if he could keep up and to see how different it would be from scrambling around Hampshire County, snapping wreck photos and interviewing beleaguered school superintendents. For his part, Kitzmiller would like, just once, to cover a big-time sports event. To get away from Little League parents and cover Division I football, or maybe even a pro game. The Review's third reporter, Michael O'Brien, a night owl who wears sandals and a baseball cap to work, would like to cover court full-time, instead of just ducking in to catch a snatch of a closing argument.
But not one of them is ready to trade his freedoms and community ties for metro daily reporting. "I don't get to be Bob Woodward every day here, but I do have a chance to make a difference in our community," O'Brien says. "I know our newspaper makes a difference every week."
After lunching at a local restaurant with most of the Ritchie Gazette staff, Torie Knight heads to interview a man who is suffering from prostate cancer, one of a series of features about cancer patients in advance of a Relay for Life fundraiser. She and the patient belong to the same church, First United Methodist in Pennsboro. They talk for half an hour in his living room, Knight leaning forward on the couch, he in an orange recliner. Sometimes her brow knits in a concerned frown; other times she laughs. When he says he almost cried during parts of his ordeal, Knight assures him that it would have been OK. She reads a few of his dozens of get-well cards. "I live in a good place," the man says.
When Knight gets up to go, she hugs him. After all, he's not just a feature subject. He goes to her church.
Conflict of interest? Maybe so. But she hugs him anyway.###