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Times change, but the mission has not

Times change, but the mission has not

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The news last week that the building that’s been home to The Roanoke Times since 1914 is up for sale caused concern for many of our staff and readers in our region.

Since the conclusion of the sale last year of The Roanoke Times and nine other Virginia daily newspapers to Lee Enterprises, we have been at 201 W. Campbell Ave. S.W. as a tenant of our prior owner, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., which retained the real estate. That is who put the property up for sale.

The Campbell Avenue structure reflects a bygone era, when more than 600 people worked to produce and deliver two newspapers, morning and afternoon, from a sprawling physical plant spread over two city blocks. Much of the building has been unused or underused in recent years as we have consolidated business functions elsewhere. We don’t know if we will be able to remain in the building as a tenant, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch did after its longtime home between Franklin and Grace streets was sold. If our offices do need to relocate after a sale of 201 Campbell, we will find another suitably sized office for our staff. (And we will preserve our wonderful photo and clipping archives.)

Our newsroom today is a quiet place because of the pandemic-induced diaspora to remote working and Zoom. But our journalists remain busy and The Roanoke Times remains the largest newsgathering organization in Southwest Virginia. We consistently publish on roanoke.com and in print original enterprise reporting, such as Secular Society Fellow Alison Graham’s in-depth examination of how family drug courts can help those in the throes of addiction turn their lives around, and today’s first part in a series about former Virginia Tech football player Christian Darrisaw preparing for the NFL draft, where he may go in the first round.

The Roanoke Times remains in business, selling digital and print advertising and subscriptions [there’s a great Editor’s Offer for digital-only subscriptions available now at https://go.roanoke.com/editorspecial12], and covering important news of public interest, as well as high school, college and professional sports and the arts and music, and offering a forum on our editorial pages for a diversity of opinion. The roanoke.com website, one of several we operate, has garnered more than 9 million pageviews and 1.2 million users this month alone. Our monthly digital pageviews, unique pageviews and user figures are growing year-over-year, providing value to our readers and advertisers.

It’s no secret that the newspaper industry has been in a state of dynamic change and print circulation contraction for years, particularly since 2006, as advertising revenue shifted toward the digital sector and away from print. Hastened by the Great Recession, to remain profitable newspapers across the country have reduced costs, which has included trimming reporting, photography and editing positions and reducing or eliminating other spending to achieve economies of scale.

That dynamic has been in play in Roanoke as we’ve had three owners (and five editors) since 2013. But some perspective is in order.

The newspaper grew on a parallel track with the city of Roanoke. Founded as The Roanoke Daily Times just four years after Roanoke was chartered as a city in 1882, the newspaper followed the boom and bust cycle of the New South railroad town that sprang to life on the basis of investment of Northern capital. It was essentially a startup phase of approximately 25 years, with multiple owners and locations.

By 1913, J.B. Fishburn and a syndicate of other local businessmen consolidated ownership of various newspapers into the morning Roanoke Times and the afternoon World-News. He moved the business to the corner of Commerce (now Second) Street and Campbell Avenue in early 1914, located due north of what in 1916 became the seat of municipal government and courts and immediately west of the thriving downtown business district.

The newspapers grew as the region did, and the building expanded under the Fishburns over the next 56 years, including the installation of a new Goss Headliner press in 1948. In 1969, the family-controlled Times-World Corp. sold out to a younger, energetic publisher from Norfolk, Frank Batten. Batten combined a mission of public service with shrewd business sense and grew his privately held company into a prosperous dynamo. He expanded the coverage, staff and circulation of The Roanoke Times and World-News, including by opening a bureau in Christiansburg in August 1970. I worked in a later iteration of that bureau from 1993 to 2002, and lived in the New River Valley for nearly a decade. I’ve lived in Roanoke since 2003.

The paper became nationally known for the scope of its reporting, its dynamic photography and its early ventures in digital journalism. Batten’s Landmark Communications, which also founded the highly lucrative Weather Channel, had a great 50-plus-year run. But Batten’s son, who took over a few years before Batten Sr. died in 2009, had other business and personal interests, and Landmark put The Roanoke Times up for sale in 2008 just as the Great Recession took hold.

The newspaper finally was sold in 2013 to a publicly traded company, which in turn sold it to another in 2020. A massive Heidelberg Mainstream 80 press installed in 2003 under Landmark, and beset with problems from the outset, was shut down in 2017 and printing shifted to Lynchburg, eliminating 53 local jobs, 37 full time and 16 part time. The press building went on the market in 2018 and remains for sale.

In October, the newspaper closed its leased New River Valley office space. It retains a staff of talented reporters and editors for the NRV who continue to produce daily coverage of Virginia Tech, Montgomery County and its towns, Radford and Pulaski County, and the weekly New River Valley section. (Three of the four front-page stories in Friday’s newspaper were written by that staff.) Also in October, the newspaper consolidated the print layout of its various publications with a design center operated by our owner in the Midwest.

All of these cost-saving moves have had painful effects. Ten people lost jobs in the design center consolidation, three full time and seven part time, including, for me, a longtime friend and others whose editing work I greatly admired. We also eliminated three management positions, including my former job. But all these steps are part of an ongoing realignment of this business to meet the audience where it’s moving: away from print and toward news on demand, produced in a variety of digital formats. That shift is as inevitable as the water flowing down Roaring Run in Botetourt County.

At the same time, that movement has been hastened by the historic contraction of the nation’s economy from March to June (which resulted in two-week unpaid furloughs for our employees, including me), the slight summer rebound, and then another slowdown. We are not out of the woods yet as a nation, or a news industry, when it comes to the coronavirus-induced recession.

To adapt and prosper as a business and community entity, The Roanoke Times will have to be more nimble and more creative, and, yes, leaner and not necessarily tied to a downtown office building with the square footage of a big-box store. We have to flow in harmony with our present moment. But our mission will remain the same: to provide people with the news and information they value and need to understand their world, govern themselves effectively and improve their lives.

A journalist for 34 years, Brian Kelley has been with The Roanoke Times since 1993.

Brian Kelley, a journalist for more than 30 years, is the editor of The Roanoke Times. Contact him at brian.kelley@roanoke.com or 540-981-3377.

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