Story by Chris Graham
Another attempt by another publisher to add to the Central Shenandoah Valley media-market offerings has breathed its last breath.
“Our board of directors has examined all of the aspects of our operation since we began in mid-March and has determined that the costs of delivery, news gathering and printing far exceed our reasonable expectation to recover in sales,” Western Virginia Today publisher Jerry Clark wrote in a notice to readers last week, announcing the decision of the paper’s management to cease operations.
Clark, who declined an interview request from The Augusta Free Press for this story, said in the notice that sales had not met management’s expectations.
“Since the trend of our sales did not impress us with the prospects of future success or to reach our minimum goal of 15,000 paid circulation, we’ve decided to suspend the printing of the paper,” Clark said.
The circulation goals may have been a bit high – The Shenandoah Valley Observer, an Augusta County-based free-distribution weekly that closed up shop in January 2003 after a 21-month run, moved in the area of 9,000 papers a week at its height, and The News Leader, a daily paper based in Staunton with a comparable readership and news-coverage footprint to Western Virginia Today, has a paid circulation of 18,667 Monday-Saturday and 21,190 on Sunday, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
That said, there is room in the Valley for another print-media outlet like a Western Virginia Today. Right?
“Starting such a publication didn’t make sense to me,” said Deona Landes Houff, the editor and publisher of eightyone, which publishes monthly in print and weekly on the World Wide Web.
“Staunton and Waynesboro have dailies, and Rockbridge at least two weeklies and a strong monthly, so there wasn’t much attention – whether from readers or advertisers – left for another traditional, meaning news, obits and sports, newspaper publication. We all know that print circulation and advertising is down, so I just didn’t get how they hoped for success,” Houff told the AFP.
Houff herself went through a period of down time with eightyone – the paper, which debuted in 1998, went into hiatus in 2002 before returning in 2004 in its current format.
Circulation is healthy – at 12,000 readers per month – though advertising has been a struggle at times, Houff said.
Just over the Blue Ridge in Charlottesville, it is a different world entirely, to hear Hawes Spencer, the publisher of the newsweekly The Hook, tell it.
“Charlottesville is an extremely saturated media market, but it has such a strong retail base that it continues to absorb publication after publication,” Spencer told the AFP.
Spencer launched The Hook in 2002 after leaving rival C-ville Weekly – in a move that had tongues in Charlottesville wagging about what was then viewed as a pending battle to the death between the two.
“What we found upon starting The Hook was that we didn’t have to hurt our competitors to succeed,” Spencer said. “In fact, we were going up against two other weeklies, and although one of them did fail, I don’t think it’s failure had anything to do with our existence. Probably the most intense rivalry in town is between The Hook and Cville, and both seem to be thriving.
“The obvious conclusion is that competition has expanded the market. The economic pie, as they say, is not finite. We really have expanded the amount of advertising volume and expanded the readership options for people who want to read a weekly,” Spencer said.
Spencer has even made some inroads into the Valley – adding distribution points for The Hook in Waynesboro and Staunton last year.
“It’s not our primary readership area. It’s mostly a bonus for our advertisers to spread out a little bit. It’s not a major part of what we do. But I love the Valley, and I love when I have free time going over there. I love taking my kids there. It just seemed to me that it would be picked up over there,” Spencer said.
So how does the next Observer or Western Virginia Today – or any weekly, for that matter – survive and thrive?
“The key for us has been providing a higher level of writing, design and photography than seen elsewhere in this market,” Houff said.
“A weekly paper has to have must-have information,” Spencer said. “It could be something as simple as providing the movie times for the area’s movie theaters, or it could be something more in-depth like a comprehensive, investigative report on a crime or a trend or a person.
“You can do a lot of depth in weekly news reporting that the dailies and the broadcast media just can’t do. Dailies can, but often don’t. Broadcast simply can’t. Broadcast is not set up to do in-depth reporting. People will just nod off if they’re not interested in the story. Within our 72 pages each week, we can provide something for everyone,” Spencer said.
The author of this piece was a staff writer for The Shenandoah Valley Observer, a contributor to eightyone and is a current contributor to The Hook.