Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Rockbridge Advocate celebrates 25 years in print

Rockbridge Advocate celebrates 25 years in print

skd dougharwoodrockbridgeadvocate 030817 p01

Doug Harwood, founder and publisher of The Rockbridge Advocate, heads along Washington Street in downtown Lexington to hand-deliver copies of his monthly news magazines, hot off the press on March 2.

LEXINGTON — Doug Harwood ambled along a downtown sidewalk, an unfiltered Camel cigarette dangling below his drooping moustache and a stack of his news magazines tucked under one arm, hot off the press.

On this blustery afternoon in early March, Harwood delivered the latest edition of The Rockbridge Advocate, which once a month provides an unvarnished version of events in Lexington and Rockbridge County.

As Harwood made his way down Main Street, he was met by a father and son.

“Look out, Dad. Let’s go the other way,” Tom Chaffee said in jest. It was a reference to how some people — the ones with news of public interest that they’d rather keep private — are wary of crossing paths with Harwood and his pull-no-punches paper.

Other people, Tom and John Chaffee among them, were happy to see Harwood coming.

“The apostle of truth approaches,” John Chaffee called out.

Respected by many and reviled by some, Harwood is as much an institution in this town as the newsmakers he covers. The Rockbridge Advocate — of which he is founder, editor, publisher, reporter, opinion writer, advertising director, circulation manager, newsroom assistant and delivery boy — marks its 25th anniversary this month.

The Advocate has found its niche during a time when many traditional news outlets are struggling with the loss of readers and advertisers to the internet.

Over the past quarter century, Harwood, 64, has defied two conventional rules of survival in the journalism world. He seeks out the scandals that many small-town newspapers avoid. And he avoids the use of online news, social media and the like.

When it comes to newspapers, Harwood said during a recent interview in his cluttered office, “there are booster papers and there are hell-raisers.”

“It’s a whole lot more comfortable being a booster and getting invited to a lot of nice dinners that the chamber of commerce has. But on the other hand, it’s a good thing to have somebody who will say: ‘Wait a minute. What about this? This doesn’t smell right.’ ”

As one of the hell-raisers, Harwood breaks stories that otherwise might never be told.

He reported on a local social services agency that ignored cases of child abuse; revealed financial problems at the Natural Bridge attraction; investigated the mysterious death of a young man at a psychiatric hospital; and chronicled misconduct by a county prosecutor and countless other public figures.

“The Rockbridge Advocate is the conscience of our community,” Lexington attorney David Natkin said. “There are a lot of things that we’d like to ignore, or not think about, but Doug puts them right there on the front page.”

What makes the front page, though, is unlikely to be seen on the web page.

“You will find very little from the magazine on this page — why give away what we sell?” the Advocate’s website states.

To see how seriously Harwood takes the internet, click on the link for “publisher.” It takes you to a photograph of the Marx Brothers comedy group. Or click on what he calls “a fine little news magazine, almost as good as this.” It takes you to the Weekly World News tabloid.

Harwood is old-school. He is the lone wolf in pack journalism. He is, as the masthead of the Advocate proclaims, “Independent as a Hog on Ice.”

Massachusetts Yankee at Washington and Lee

In a city where two famed Confederate generals are buried and Civil War history is not, Doug Harwood arrived in 1970 as a Yankee.

The native of Springfield, Massachusetts, picked Lexington for two reasons. He wanted to study journalism at Washington and Lee University. And he had heard the town was “about 50 years behind the times,” with the kind of pool halls and beer joints he liked to haunt.

After graduating in 1974, Harwood never left the Shenandoah Valley. But he took a wandering path to running his own newspaper, working at times as a radio DJ, construction laborer , bartender and dishwasher.

Harwood was spinning records on the night shift for WAYB in Waynesboro when he got his first break in journalism. The news director at the station quit to take a job as a correctional officer, and Harwood was asked to take over.

“What should have made me stop and think,” Harwood said, was the fact he was replacing someone who chose working in a prison over the news business.

Harwood went on to work for several local newspapers. He spent 12 years at the now-defunct Rockbridge Weekly, where as editor he honed his skills at stirring things up.

In 1990, the weekly published a group of letters submitted by students at Parry McCluer High School. Writing for an English class assignment, the graduating seniors praised their teacher and school. Many letters contained misspelled words and grammatical errors.

Harwood ran them verbatim.

“Usually, we fix spelling and grammatical goofs in letters,” he wrote in an accompanying editorial. “This is our graduation issue, and we didn’t fix them this week because they make a sad point about the state of education … Some of the children are obviously being robbed.”

School officials and some readers were outraged. But Harwood kept at it, until a few years later when the newspaper’s publisher said he should write stories that were more “business friendly.” In other words, Harwood figured, he was being asked to serve his advertisers and not his readers.

Harwood quit the Rockbridge Weekly. In 1992, he started the Advocate.

‘All the news that fits’

It was a risky business proposition, and paying the bills was a struggle at first. But Harwood took to life as his own boss for the same reason he prefers to remain a bachelor.

“I don’t do well in captivity,” he said.

The Advocate soon earned a reputation for hard-hitting stories. But it was never above following the often mundane, day-to-day proceedings in town halls, or the positions of elected officials who wield so much power in a small community.

“If you could clone Doug Harwood and scatter him across the land, it would do so much good for democracy,” said W&L journalism professor Doug Cumming, who in 2012 nominated Harwood to the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame.

Harwood “has been dedicated to the old-fashioned duties of an entirely local, fearless, patient, skeptical, unbought (indeed, often impecunious) journalist since he was converted to that mission” by his W&L professor and mentor, the late Tom Riegel, Cumming wrote in his letter of nomination. Harwood was inducted into the hall the following year.

Lest he be taken too seriously, Harwood regularly shows a side for the sensational, the humorous and the offbeat.

“His Honor hornswoggled by Roanoke horndog,” read the headline above a May 2016 story about a Rockbridge County judge misled by the perjured testimony of a 71-year-old man with a sexual appetite for young women just released from jail.

The front-page story instructed readers to “see HORNDOG, page 10” for the rest of the article.

One of the more popular sections in the Advocate is “All the news that fits,” a listing of brief news items densely packed into three inside pages.

Some of the nuggets come straight from police blotters. “A woman on Herring Hall Road reported that a female with only a bra and shorts on was running down Rt. 11 and a male subject with a baby was chasing her. There was no sign of either when deputies arrived.”

Other one-liners might recount the talk of the day in a neighborhood, such as the sighting of a black bear and her two cubs, or pay tribute to the little people whose lives normally don’t merit a news obituary.

“Ellie Dodd died. She was 79. She was full of life, even as she was slipping away. She was smart, vivacious, and could make a party out of a ham sandwich with a friend.”

Harwood mines court records, the minutes and agendas of meetings, regulatory notices, old newspapers and countless other public records for stories.

But his best source by far is the local residents who over the years have gotten to know him – and to trust him with information they never would have shared 47 years ago with some transplanted Northerner.

“Doug continues to be the best-sourced reporter I know,” said retired journalist Mary Bishop, who covered the Lexington area in the 1980s for The Roanoke Times & World-News after earlier stints as a reporter for the Charlotte Observer and Philadelphia Inquirer.

‘Thick-skinned and soft-hearted’

Airing the dirty laundry in a small community carries occupational hazards.

In 1994, Harwood heard about the death of a local attorney. Obituaries published in the local papers described the lawyer in glowing terms, with no mention of the fact that he shot himself after questions were raised about how he handled money in a court-regulated trust fund.

“I thought: Maybe people should know more,” Harwood said. “So I ran the story. Needless to say, his family was not happy. But there it was.”

Several weeks later, when Harwood was waiting to cross a street in downtown Lexington, someone in a pickup truck tried to run him down. The driver, who turned out to be the deceased attorney’s brother, was charged with attempted malicious wounding.

When the charges later were dismissed, Harwood raised no objections. “I didn’t want to see him go to jail,” he said. “It was perfectly understandable what he tried to do.”

It was an example of how Harwood has the stomach for bad news — “I think there’s probably a better appetite out there for real news, honest news, pull-no-punches news, than there is for a lot of flattery and falderal” — but the heart to understand its impact.

“He’s both thick-skinned and soft-hearted at the same time,” Cumming said. “He gets a little prickly about this, but there are people who really despise Doug Harwood in this community … Some people are terrified of him, especially when something controversial comes along.”

Mike Strickler, the now retired public information officer and executive assistant at Virginia Military Institute who dealt with Harwood for years, said he has a way of defusing anger and distrust with a down-home style and a genuine interest in the people he approaches.

“He has this aw-shucks kind of style, but he knows what he’s doing,” Strickler said.

One of Harwood’s targets was Tom Clarke, a health care executive who formed a nonprofit conservation group to purchase the Natural Bridge. Clarke planned to donate the property for use as a state park. Harwood published a series of stories about financial problems within the organization.

“Is Natural Bridge about to crash and burn?” an October 2015 headline in the Advocate screamed.

Clarke, who compared Harwood to the crusading muckrakers of the early 20th century, said he was “a little surprised at first, because I didn’t know that kind of journalism still existed.”

But if nothing else, he said, the bad news was all the more incentive for the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund to catch up on past bills and negotiate a new loan, which led to the property being converted in September to the Natural Bridge State Park.

“If Doug hadn’t have had all those stories, we might not have worked as hard,” Clarke said. “Maybe it wouldn’t have turned out the way it did.”

As for the angry reader who tried to run him down, Harwood said, they met again by chance, on adjacent stools at a local bar.

“A couple of beers later,” he said, “we were great pals.”

The digital skeptic

Almost hidden among the piles of paper that cover most of the Advocate’s office are the ink bottles from which Harwood refills his fountain pen — just one of the relics from a golden age of newspapering to which he clings.

This newsman has no use for modern necessities, such as a cellphone.

If he’s not available, callers can just leave a message on the landline. “What’s the big hurry?” Harwood said. “I only come out once a month, for God’s sake. If I was in such a hurry I wouldn’t live here.”

As for the internet, Harwood admitted that “it’s hard to teach old Doug new tricks.”

Although he uses his computer as a newsgathering tool, Harwood takes a jaundiced view of how so many news operations see the digital delivery of news as their salvation.

Nearly 20 years ago, when newspapers started posting their content online for free, Harwood refused to join the movement. He figured people still would be willing to pay for the printed product if it delivered news they couldn’t get anywhere else.

“If you’ve gotten so addicted to what you can find on the internet, you might be surprised by what you’re not finding,” Harwood said.

Although he declined to talk in detail about the business side of his operation, Harwood said his circulation of about 1,000 subscriptions a month, plus newsstand sales, is holding steady.

Cumming, the W&L journalism professor, said it took many newspapers a long time to realize that Harwood was right about the folly of offering online news for free. “What he has done does accuse and bear witness against us and the rest of the journalistic world.”

However, Harwood has the benefit of putting out a monthly magazine that is intensely local, while larger outlets crave the immediacy and broader audience offered by the internet. And there’s something else they demand that the Advocate does not: big profits.

“His needs are almost Benedictine,” Cumming said. “He doesn’t need to make a lot of money, and he lives like a monk.”

Harwood said he plans to keep putting the Advocate out “as long as I can.”

“It’s not like I’ve got some big retirement plan or any rich relatives waiting to leave me a pile of money,” he said. “So even if I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t have much of a choice. But fortunately, I enjoy it.”

Some of the most enjoyable days are the ones when he hand-delivers the Advocate to his readers, collecting $3 a copy from the ones who don’t have yearly subscriptions.

“It’s a good chance to make a whirlwind tour and see all the people in the community,” he said the afternoon of March 2 as he prepared to make the rounds through downtown Lexington.

“I get to hear about all the lies and gossip and get stories for the next edition. Plus, it’s a $3 affirmation. They pull their money out and say it’s worth it. It would be nice if they said it was worth $1,000.”

But he doesn’t do it for money, or some of the things that money can buy.

“I never wanted any power or influence,” Harwood said in a speech the night he received his Communications Hall of Fame distinction in April 2013. “Never gave a damn about that stuff.”

“I’ve just run a community newspaper. But if a paper runs stories that’ll stick to your ribs, it holds up a mirror. Real communities need real mirrors.”

“And if I’ve provided one now and then,” he said, “maybe I’ve done some good in this world.”

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News

Sports Breaking News

News Alert