Way back on July 2, 2002, I couldn’t have imagined that I’d ever be writing about Augusta Free Press turning 20. I was just thinking that morning, as we were about to hit the publish button for the first time, about how we were going to keep the lights on, and the website that we had just launched that day didn’t figure prominently into those plans.
The we here – myself and my wife, Crystal – had first met when we were both working at The News Virginian, before we then left together to work for a weekly in Charlottesville, The Observer, which promised more pay and a chance for us to learn the business side of the media industry.
The Observer, unfortunately, was on its way toward where it is now, the dustbins of history, and we’d seen the writing on the wall and decided to leave before it went belly up.
Our goal all along was to figure out a way to launch our own weekly newspaper to cover Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro, and, well, here we were, put up, or shut up, basically.
A friend, Mark Corum, an angel who walks among us, offered to help us set up a website as something to do in the meantime.
Pressed to name it, I went back to a name for a one-edition newspaper that I’d paid to publish in 1996, The Augusta Free Press.
The quick backstory there: after a series of raids in Augusta County and Waynesboro in 1996 targeting migrant workers, I’d been tasked by my editor at The News Virginian to dive into the background of the growth of the Latino population in the Valley.
That work turned into what was going to be a several-part series, and was advertised as being set to debut in a Saturday edition in early June.
Sometime between the editor’s note advertising the series and the paper going to print, a local businessman got in touch with the publisher, and the first story in the series, literally on the front page in the printing room, was taken off the page, replaced by another editor’s note, saying something to the effect that more sources had come forward, and that the paper was going to re-examine the story and report more in-depth on the topic later.
That was not true. From what I was told later, the publisher had shared the stories, pre-publication, with this businessman fellow, and he had shared it with others, and the tone of the series, which was to demonstrate how Waynesboro and Augusta County were adjusting to and embracing the local Latino population, didn’t go over well with these folks, who I presumed then, and now, didn’t like the idea of Latino immigrants being welcomed into our community.
There was no intention by the paper to revisit this series. It was left on the cutting-room floor.
I quit the paper the next day, and used what little money I had from the meager income I’d been making – the paper had been paying me $7.50 an hour, $300 a week, no overtime, though we worked many more than 40 hours a week – to print 500 copies of a reworked series of stories and distributed them to local newsstands out of the back of my $200 station wagon.
I eventually went back to work at The News Virginian, after the publisher who’d pulled the plug on the immigration series had moved on, and even led a staff effort to revisit the immigration story that won the paper a first-place award in the Virginia Press Association annual journalism competition for in-depth and investigative reporting in 1998.
Which is to say, I won.
That experience had opened my eyes to my future in journalism, and was a foundation for what we’d try to build the second iteration of Augusta Free Press into being.
The first few weeks, months, years, were tough. We finally got into print in 2007 with the launch of a monthly magazine, but the recession of 2008-2009 nearly sunk us.
To keep the lights on, Crystal took on side jobs with a publishing company and a web retailer, and I filed freelance stories for $15 or $20 here, 50 cents a word there, taught myself how to design websites, starting cranking those out for $500 a pop.
I don’t know when it was that we finally realized that we’d made it, but apparently, it happened, because we’re still here.
We’ve done some things along the way that make me proud. Most notable was back in 2005, as Virginia was on its way to voting a year later to ban gay marriage, when we took an editorial stand on the side of marriage equality, a move that I assumed when we published our first in-depth piece on the topic convinced me would get our handful of advertisers to flee.
That was the genesis of us being able to carve out a niche here in the conservative, deep-red Valley for liberals and progressives who support marriage equality, who want an America with universal healthcare, who back educational and economic equality and equality of opportunity, who believe that Black Lives Matter.
The good news here, at the start of our second 20 years, is that we’re stronger than ever, with additions to the staff and a healthy stable of regular contributors, and a solid financial footing that means, we ain’t going anywhere.
If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you’re one of the people who clicks regularly to see what we have to tell you about what’s going on in the world, so to you, I say, thanks.
I feel blessed that I get to do what I think I was born to be able to do. You helped make this wild ride possible, and as a result that much more interesting.
As was the case 20 years ago, I have no idea where it’s going to go from here, but I hope, if nothing else, that we can at least keep the lights on.