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From AJR,   September 1998  issue

Stormy Weather in Fredericksburg   


By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Virginia, had been an idyllic newspaper of sorts--a family-owned, high-quality, award-winning, highly profitable daily where morale was high and turnover rare. Established in 1885 and now serving a growing community just outside the Washington, D.C., area, the paper was dubbed one of the country's best of its size by Time magazine in 1986.

But in the past year, life at the once-tranquil paper, circulation 45,000, has resembled a roller- coaster ride.

Last October, Co-publisher and Editor Charles S. Rowe, 73, retired after 48 years, selling his shares to the company and leaving his brother, Josiah, 70, as the sole publisher. Josiah, who had served as co-publisher and general manager, changed the editorial page slant in February, from moderate/liberal to conservative. In mid-June, the afternoon paper shifted to morning publication, added a Sunday edition and implemented a redesign--quite a lot for the editorial staff, now numbering 83, to digest at once.

Throw in the brief, tumultuous reign of a hard-charging new general manager, and the recipe for turmoil is complete.

Managing Editor Ed Jones, 50, who started working at the paper 33 years ago as a high school intern, calls the last six months the "most challenging time we had." He praises the staff for hanging tough and calls the paper's ability to adapt to many changes "a very remarkable success story."

With the changes came unprecedented turnover--two local news editors and a lifestyle editor were the hardest casualties to take. "Frankly, we lost some people we wished we hadn't lost," says Jones. During the transition, "morale really suffered because there were so many issues."

The local news editors, Maria Carillo and V.A. Demaree, both left on May 1. Though a voice against the switch to a.m. publication, Carillo says her reason for leaving stemmed from disagreements with Jones that came to a head once plans for the transition started.

In mid-May, environmental reporter Bob Burke, prompted by Carillo's departure, quit as well after nine years at the paper. He says differences in news philosophy "exploded" once the pressures of converting to morning mounted. Productivity, he says, became a priority over storytelling. He describes his last few months there as "the unhappiest time in my working life."

Jones acknowledges when preparations for the conversion began, the em- phasis was on being as productive as possible. He says the paper needed more coverage of the "quotidian."

While others have struggled with a barrage of change, Josiah Rowe doesn't see recent times as particularly challenging--"not any more than any other time," he says.

But staff stress increased with the February arrival of General Manager Richard H. Amberg Jr., formerly publisher of Alabama's Montgomery Advertiser. Amberg, says Burke, "came in and stomped through the building and put our managing editor under a lot of pressure. He [Jones] turned around and put pressure on the reporters."

Jones refers questions about Amberg to Josiah Rowe, who says he was looking for someone to fill the position in preparation for his possible retirement in a few years. But Amberg lasted only until May. Rowe says it hasn't been decided if the paper will hire another general manager or if it will name an editor to succeed his brother, Charles--whose role Jones has in effect filled. Amberg refuses to say why he left, but maintains he "was in charge of everything but the newsroom" and that he only worked with Jones on recruiting new hires. Of his time there, he says, "I loved every minute of it."

Rowe points out that the move to morning was hardly unanticipated; he says the paper had been weighing it for several years. The late press run and traffic congestion made deliveries to outlying areas increasingly difficult, he says.

As for the flip in the editorial page slant, Rowe says the philosophical change was not abrupt, though the new editorial page editor hails from the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Josiah Rowe's longtime personal opposition to his paper's editorial page was widely known, but Daryl Lease, the former assistant editorial page editor, says he "didn't expect the shift to the right as far as it was." Charles Rowe relates, "One reader called me up and said he felt Pat Robertson would be very comfortable with the editorial position now."

Lease was told he could continue working on the new page, but became a copy editor instead. Larry Evans, the former editorial page editor, became a columnist on the news side. "It's obvious those of us who lost positions we had are not happy about that," Evans says, but acknowledges it's a publisher's prerogative to make changes and says he's enjoying his new job. Another loss was editorial cartoonist Chris OBrion, who says he was fired in the wake of the paper's shift to the right (see Bylines, July/August).

Turnover is a new phenomenon at the Free Lance-Star. Says Carillo, who worked at the paper for 12 years, "If you hired a reporter a year, that was really unusual."

Josiah Rowe, however, calls the change in personnel "not an extraordinary event." And while many staffers say the departures were indeed painful, they're quick to add the paper has recovered and is moving forward. The departed have been replaced, and eight new positions have been filled.

As for the future, Evans points out that going morning has put the paper in direct competition with many papers, including the Washington Post. "I thought," he adds, "that was kind of a gutsy move on Joe's part."