“Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country,” the New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley supposedly advised. There’s some dispute as to whether Greeley really said that, but there’s no doubt that lots of people took that advice.
One of them was a young man from Bedford County named M.H. Claytor. A natural-born entrepreneur, Claytor went to Texas, where he started and then sold newspapers in San Antonio and Dallas. With money in his pocket, the 32-year-old Claytor came home in 1886 to visit family.
Claytor found his former neighbors in Bedford “much stirred up” over a new city that had materialized to their west. Claytor, being a curious sort, went to have a look at this new metropolis called Roanoke. He wasn’t much impressed by what he saw. The streets were muddy, the buildings ramshackle. But Claytor knew opportunity when he saw it. A city of that size — 6,000 or so people then — needed a daily newspaper. On Nov. 30 of that year — 133 years ago today — the first issues of The Roanoke Daily Times were produced on a hand-cranked press so difficult to use it was dubbed “the mankiller.”
The newspaper that you now hold in your hands —or are reading on your phone or desktop computer — is a direct descendent of that first four-page newspaper. The technology has changed over the years, but the essential mission of this newspaper has not changed from Claytor’s day: To tell our readers what is happening in their community. In our community.
There are lots of places you can turn for national news. But there are far fewer places to find the news that is closest to you. The newspaper that Claytor founded today has the largest news staff of any news outlet in Virginia west of Richmond. If Claytor were to come back among us, he would be baffled by the computers on which we write these words and bring them to you, but he would surely recognize the importance of some of the major stories that we have brought you over the past year:
n Criminal justice. Jeff Sturgeon found that 55 closed cases resulting in 74 convictions were brought into question as a result of Vinton police Det. Craig Roger Frye’s failure to disclose to prosecutors certain missteps in his past. Much of the drama over the case unfolded in secret until Sturgeon stood up in federal court and objected. That led to the unsealing of records revealing that Frye, a former member of a federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives task force, clashed with co-workers; “used slang terms that are derogatory and offensive toward African Americans,” according to a former chief; was pulled over by Roanoke police after drinking alcohol and driving; and sparked another memo from a police chief over “sexual, insensitive and inappropriate remarks” to a female supervisor.
Because records in Frye’s case were sealed, none of his lapses would have been publicly known absent Sturgeon’s reporting. “Mr. Sturgeon’s actions in standing up in court to request Det. Frye’s records be unsealed speak highly of his journalistic presence,” wrote a contest judge in the inaugural Virginia Coalition for Open Government award for Freedom of Information reporting. Sturgeon won a runner-up award but the real winner for his reporting is anyone who cares about good governance.
n Rural health care. Backed by the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a University of Southern California program, Luanne Rife has reported throughout the year on the healthcare plight of Virginia’s coalfields under the appropriate series title “Sick, Broke and Left Behind.” She tirelessly has chronicled efforts to reopen Lee County Hospital in Virginia’s far Southwest corner following the facility’s closure more than a half-decade ago. First came Americore Health, an ill-fated Florida startup with no health care experience and no explanation for how it would acquire the millions of dollars in financing needed to make its plan work. That deal fizzled. Then came Ballad Health, which last month opened at urgent care center in Pennington Gap in what was billed as the first step to restoring hospital services to Lee County. That county’s plight is mirrored across the commonwealth. By 2013, 80 communities in Virginia had lost their hospitals. Many of the communities hardest hit are situation in Southside Virginia, far from the flow of money and attention in Northern Virginia. Rife’s reporting keeps these places from being ignored in the public discussion.
n Pipeline oversight. One of the major stories in our midst is the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline burrowing through the region. Suspicions have swirled around the pipeline project and others like it for years. In the spring, reporter Laurence Hammack confirmed one of those, namely that regulatory oversight equates to taps on the wrist. He found that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — largely made up of former company officials — had issued just one fine to the natural gas pipeline company since 2005. This despite the surge in natural gas pipeline projects over that same span. That explained, in the minds of some pipeline foes, why MVP had not been issued a single “serious violation” despite problems largely oriented around erosion. A gravel parking lot washed out and caked a Lindside, West Virginia, church in mud. Sediment-laded water gushed into a Pittsylvania County stream. Elsewhere, there have been mudslides. But no serious violations. Hammack’s reporting reveals that such scenarios are not uncommon. None of these were stories produced by national news organizations. They weren’t produced by CNN or Fox or MSNBC or The Washington Post or the New York Times and they certainly weren’t produced by Facebook or Twitter, although they may have been shared there. They were produced by your neighbors who work for The Roanoke Times, by reporters who sit through government meetings while you’re at your kid’s soccer game, or study government documents while you’re going about your daily life.
Here’s something else that hasn’t changed since 1886: These stories don’t just happen. They must be reported, written, edited and delivered to readers. Whether you’re reading our stories or somebody else’s on social media, you may think they’re free, but they’re not. Somebody had to pay those reporters, those editors, and all the other staffers required to make them happen. If you believe these stories are important — if you believe that local journalism is important — there’s one sure way to make sure they keep happening. You can subscribe. That is as true in 2019 as it was in 1886.