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Declining circulation and a shrinking advertising base are forcing Covington's daily newspaper, the Virginian Review, to cut publication from six days a week to two.
Monday, August 5, 2013
COVINGTON — When the entire continent of Europe disintegrated into war during the summer of 1914, Richard Beirne II thought the good people of Alleghany County should know about it.
Earlier that year, Beirne had bought Covington’s weekly newspaper — the Dispatch. On Aug. 10, 1914, he converted the paper from a weekly to a daily in order to bring local readers news from the battlefields. He named the paper the Covington Virginian.
For the next 99 years, newspaper readers of the Alleghany Highlands would have their own local newspaper bringing them local and national news six days a week. That tradition will end next month when the newspaper, now called the Virginian Review, reduces its publication schedule to two days a week.
The decision was a tough one for publisher Horton Beirne, 66, the third generation of his family to run the newspaper. He had no choice, however. Declining circulation and a shrinking advertising base among locally owned businesses forced him to make the change. Last year, the Virginian Review lost money, he said.
“The bottom line is that it’s been going down the last three years,” Beirne said. “Last year we lost money. My wife [business manager Mary Ann Beirne] over the years had socked away money for a rainy day. The rainy day came, but now there’s a hole in the umbrella.”
The deluge of red ink has washed the foundation out from under a long-standing community tradition — the locally owned evening newspaper.
Small daily papers have been rocked by the same economic, cultural and technological storms that have ravaged larger metropolitan papers. The Virginian Review’s circulation is now about 6,400, down from a peak of 9,000 in 1980, Beirne said.
The readership is getting older, and the weak economic recovery in the Alleghany Highlands has kept local advertising in a slump. The unemployment rate is 8.9 percent in Covington and 7.1 percent in Alleghany County — down from its peaks, but still above the state average.
Yet, for nearly a century, the community was able to support a daily paper.
The Virginian Review operates out of a 19,000-square-foot space inside an old Kroger in Covington. The Covington Virginian merged with the Clifton Forge Daily Review in 1989 and combined the names for the Virginian Review. A staff of 16 full-time employees produces a daily paper that averages about eight pages during the week.
The Thursday front page mixed national and local news, juxtaposing a story about Edward Snowden next to a story about the local Chamber of Commerce opening an access point on the Cowpasture River. The sports section paired a photo of a Little League baseball team with an Associated Press commentary about tainted New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez.
The paper went to press about noon, when press workers Coite Beirne (Horton’s younger brother), and Mike Via finished making aluminum printing plates from film negatives of each page. Beirne checked the color registration on a few of the first papers, made some adjustments, and let the presses roll.
Via scooped up finished papers like they were playing cards and stacked them in metal carts. Alice Allard rolled the papers to the small mailroom, where she and several other women inserted advertisements and tied and bundled papers for the carriers who waited by a back door.
The paper once employed as many as 30 full-time workers. More jobs might be eliminated when the publication schedule is reduced.
“I’ve liked it here — all my children worked here,” said Debra Wolfe, who has been the mailroom supervisor for 20 years. She doesn’t know what the new schedule means for her job.
None of the longtime employees is surprised at Horton Beirne’s decision. They have watched the number of papers rolling off the presses decline for years. Still, some customers are not happy with the reduction of days.
“The older customers are pitching a fit,” said Allard, a 19-year employee.
Longtime newspaper carrier Steve Kaptis said he has lost about 20 percent of the customers on his route the past few years.
“So many people are leaving Covington,” he said. He hopes he can get a longer route that serves more customers when the paper reduces its print schedule.
The paper still has 16 drivers and 22 foot carriers. The paper still has old-fashioned paper boys and girls who deliver the paper after school. However, as Beirne said, the wages are not high.
“Kids can work a week for $20 to $30 … but mom and dad will just give that to them,” he said.
Beirne grew up in the newspaper business. His father, Richard Beirne III, inherited the paper from his father and ran it until his death in 1992. As a 5-year-old, Horton picked up the used “slugs” — pieces of metal type from the old linotype machines — to be melted and reused. He was usually paid in Popsicles. At 9, he delivered papers and later worked in the newsroom as a high school student.
After studying journalism at Richmond Professional Institute (later Virginia Commonwealth University), he worked in a bureau for the Richmond Times-Dispatch before returning home to work for his father. He met his wife at the newspaper, where she worked part time operating a Teletypesetting machine — a piece of equipment as long gone as afternoon daily newspapers.
Beirne is proud of the newspaper’s history. He pulls out bound editions from 1914 that detail the beginnings of World War I. An ad boasts that the paper has the “latest news by telegraph and cable from all parts of the world.”
He recounts the story of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, a Sunday, when the paper was not usually published. After his grandfather, Richard Beirne II, heard about the Japanese attack, he changed the front page of the previous day’s paper to report the news, kept the inside pages the same, and republished the paper and sold it on the street for a nickel.
The paper was also able to report the news of President Kennedy’s assassination the day it happened.
“We were probably the first paper in Virginia to have the news” of the president’s death, Beirne said.
The Virginian Review will turn to the Internet to report breaking news. The paper’s website has been walled off to nonsubscribers for years, and will continue to be available only to readers who pay for a print or online subscription.
“I couldn’t stay in business if I gave it away for free,” he said. “People with a lot more smarts than me were giving it away for free and I could never figure out why.”
Local news editor Josh Hagy said that the paper will enhance its Web product by posting more videos and photo essays.
“We are going to change the way we do local news,” Hagy said. “There’s going to be a lot more community input. I think the plan we have is a good one. If it fails, it won’t be for a lack of trying.”
Beirne, who suffers from pulmonary disease and requires occasional hits from an oxygen tank as he works, said that he does not want any of his three adult children to leave their careers to try to take over the family business.
“When I finish my time, I’m done,” he said. “I don’t worry about it. I never could do anything else. I’ve been working in a newsroom since I was 15. I’ve loved every minute of it.”
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