Board Member Spotlight: Billy Coleburn, The Courier-Record (Blackstone)

We talked with board member Billy Coleburn this week. Coleburn is the publisher of the Courier-Record in Blackstone, Va. He's also the mayor of Blackstone. Coleburn discusses straddling the line between being a mayor and newspaperman, coming from a newspaper family, the challenges and struggles of local newspapers and a lot more. Questions by William Lineberry.

 

Tell me about yourself, what you do and what your role with the VPA currently is.

I’m editor of the Courier-Record in Blackstone and in my 12th year as mayor of my hometown. Yes, I know. But it’s a long story. I’ve been at the paper since 1990. I am the third generation Coleburn to run it. My family acquired the paper in 1946, and my 90-year-old father, Doug, still writes a column or two every week. He’s been at the paper since June 1948.

I’m a 49-year-old worry-a-holic and work-a-holic who takes out his frustrations by running, working out, and meditating. In an unrelated story, I enjoy Corona Light with limes. I love sports and debating (civilly) and politics and learning from one another. Transparency is a BIG DEAL for me, because I have covered and served with quite a few people who don’t believe in it, and in fact loathe it but don’t mind using the t-word when politicking. I love my family and my town and my state and my country. I like to laugh (love comedy, Jim Carey, Robin Williams, etc) and love to compete, especially on the golf course. Despite being an introvert, I really do enjoy talking to lots of different people. It exhausts me, but I enjoy it; I just have to crash afterwards and re-charge. Then I do it all over again. And I also enjoy being alone. I often sit outside by myself after work, for like two hours, just looking and reflecting.

I’m both simple and complicated. I can get “sneaky deep” (philosophical) on folks before they know it.

My wife Joyce and I are both 1990 graduates of William & Mary, where we were wed in December 1991. Our 26-year union has given us two wonderful daughters: Caroline, 21, is a 2017 graduate of UVA (double majored in Media Studies and Government) and is now an on-air reporter at NBC 29 in Charlottesville; Mary Katherine “MK,” 18, is a freshman at JMU, where she’s studying Psychology perhaps to better understand her father!

I really want to write a book that will be a borderline biography, borderline rant, borderline jovial look at my take on things both local and abroad. I do worry deeply about the bitterness of politics today and how national newspapers and TV stations are editorializing instead of just reporting. My Dad told me years ago to avoid adjectives and he was right. I also tend to believe that journalism is the one product that capitalism has helped to worsen….


Can you tell me a little about the balancing act you have to take part in as the mayor of Blackstone and publisher of the town’s newspaper?

It’s indeed a balancing act at times. But I look at it this way: Transparency is good for all involved: the people, the readers, and government officials. It’s frustrating to see some campaign on “open government” yet after they get elected, they begin to change…

I was challenged the first year I ran (2006) over concerns about the role of a free press; in other words, there were concerns (legitimate and understandable) that if I were elected Mayor, and I also ran the newspaper, there might be an effort to conceal potentially unflattering stories about the Town.

Well, 12 years later, I can safely say those fears have been put to rest. We have covered, prominently, lawsuits against the Town and two different Town Managers because they are newsworthy

Whether or not I remain Mayor, readers of the Courier-Record can anticipate the same approach to gathering and reporting the news here in Blackstone.

I admit—it is odd/unusual to have a Mayor or member of town council also be a journalist. However, my livelihood, which is a cornerstone of our democratic republic, should not be used against me SO LONG as I live up to those standards of accountability, accuracy, and transparency.

Tell me a little about your newspaper and Blackstone. What are some issues that are unique to the community and how does the paper cover said issues?

One of our big issues is FOIA. Our County recently had a contentious FOIA case where, as part of a Circuit Court settlement, the Co. Administrator had to pay the complainant’s legal bills totaling $3,500.

 Also another big issue is nearby Fort Pickett, where the U. S. State Dept. is building a $430 million Foreign Affairs Security Training Center. “FASTC” has been big news since 2011, but it still hasn’t opened, and we’ve seen no big commercial development to support it. Some locals refer to it as “Not-So-FASTC.”  :-)

We are a 6,100-circulation award-winning weekly that covers news aggressively but objectively. My father, who has worked here since 1948 (he turns 90 this month) has always told me to avoid adjectives. Today more than ever, that’s great advice!

Paper has been in my family since 1946. We are among the last remaining independent weeklies in VA and certainly among the oldest. We were established on October 29, 1890…which happens to be my birthday. Fate! 

Obligatory question about being a newspaper family: How has this shaped and influenced your life? And do you worry about the newspaper family becoming a thing of the past as conglomeration continues to occur throughout the industry? 

Newspaper and family: best thing. I have been blessed to see and converse with my parents (Mom was bookkeeper until her health declined in 2015) almost daily since I returned to Blackstone from W&M in 1990. 

Down side: Much of our conversation has been about work, challenges, fear, worry, etc.

Yes, I absolutely worry about newspapering no longer being a family or even a community thing.

Families that run newspapers possess not only a knowledge of the community they serve, but they also have a vested,personal interest in the community’s success and their advertisers’ success. That trickles down to employees who may have no blood ties to the paper.

In my opinion, conglomeration still brings with it decent journalists, but turnover at those papers is high, and community familiarity just can’t compare to a paper that’s been owned 20 years or more by the same family. I am not saying “family papers rule” or anything arrogant or “blue blood” like that.

Also, chains may be able to offer more “packages” and deals with multiple papers, giving them the right to boastfully claim “higher circulation,” but how INTIMATE is that chain with its core readers?

Sadly—and I hope that I’m wrong--some of the ideals espoused in this response are eroding in significance…because fewer and fewer people actually give a damn. As I’ve said previously, folks are “busy” chasing their tails. People today are more “insular.” Fifty or thirty or even 15 years ago, hearing a knock on your door likely brought curiosity and excitement. Today, it’s an annoyance, just like the landline telephone call. 

We journalists at all levels have got to save ourselves, because no one else will….

Can you talk about your role on the VPA Board and what hopes you have for the association?  

I’m impressed with the energy and passion of VPA leader Betsy Edwards and her optimistic, proactive approach to tackling all issues. I’m also impressed by just the simple goodness and fairness of my fellow board members. I’m still a “new kid on the block,” but I have already seen tremendous, positive impact of the Board’s actions, namely prevailing in last year’s bitter attempt to remove legal notice requirements from Virginia newspapers.

My hope for the VPA is that we continue to remind people that newspapers are important. To do that, all editors have got to encourage the very best from their staffs, especially their writers. Just tell stories with FACTS and let readers draw their own conclusions. I see a lot of adjectives out there that don’t belong in news copy, and I see sloppy, inaccurate, and misleading headlines. I also see boring headlines.. We have got to do better, one story at a time.

I worry that we in newspaper land are being replaced by Facebook; we have got to solve this “digital mystery” without losing profits and people.