Dailies are on hard times, but weekly newspaper readership is hard core. Betty Dotson-Lewis profiles the 127-year-old paper that provoked ten thousand clippings.
Rural folk are neighborly in the extreme — the key to the continuing success of small-town newspapers.
Like urbanites, rural folk will take their news anyway they can get it, but more ingenuity may be required to reach people out in the country. In 1918 the Martin Bomber swooped down low over cornfields and cow pastures to let people know WWI ended. To my knowledge bombers are no longer used for breaking news stories. You can still get a hot news flash at the local beauty parlor, barbershop or church social; however, the majority of rural residents read their weekly paper for dependable and reliable local news.
My hometown of Summersville, a small, coal-mining town in rural West Virginia, is home of the largest, small-town newspaper in the state, The Nicholas Chronicle. It’s been keeping the citizens of Nicholas County informed since 1880. The weekly publication has changed hands a few times during its 129-year span but remains a family-owned business.
My first thoughts of The Nicholas Chronicle are imaginings — wild, romantic scenes taken from some movie or dime-store novel. I think of newspaper reporters risking their safety to cover stories of shootings, fires, and car wrecks. They uncovered the sultry and crooked lives of politicians, and every Friday night’s football game was a remake of “Remember the Titans.”
To understand the success of a weekly newspaper requires first understanding the culture and charm of rural small towns.
When the Nicholas Chronicle was located on Church Street in Summersville I visited a few times. Church Street was someplace you didn’t go unless you had a good reason. The street ran straight down, the sidewalk was narrow, the steps were steep and uneven, and there was very little place to park. Also, you had to walk past the county jail, which was housed upstairs in the Nicholas County Courthouse.
The long windows were covered with iron bars. Family members and friends often conducted their visits standing down on the street and yelling up at the inmates. The inmates would yell back. Sometimes inmates would yell or whistle at a pretty girl walking by. The Bail Bond Shop was located on Church Street, and so were a barbershop, Pritt’s Shoe Repair and the Nicholas Chronicle.
Nowdays the bail bondsman, barbershop and Pritt’s Shop Repair shop are still on Church Street. The Nicholas Chronicle relocated in a larger building on Broad Street and the jail was moved out of town.
While on the subject of the county jail — there is a favorite escapade you can hear about in the town’s two barbershops as many times as you go there to get a haircut…
The county sheriff’s office used to be housed downstairs from the jail, along with the 911 Dispatch Office. This arrangement was especially convenient for “John Doe,” a favorite community member who was known to drink too much from time to time, to sleep it off a in the county jail. While sobering up and resting up, “John Doe” was often made a jail trustee. He would rake the leaves as they fell from the big trees on the courthouse lawn, pick up litter around the building, make a trip or two across the street to Fran’s Diner for coffee and eats for the professionals, etc.
During one of “John Doe’s” sobering up periods, he escaped. The sheriff and deputies began a frantic search for their escaped prisoner. Officers searched buildings up and down Main Street, Church Street, everywhere. Town folk were shaking their heads, thinking “John” could not go far since his only mode of transportation was a 2nd hand bicycle with a large American Flag flying behind his seat.
When the day was nearly over and dusk was settling in, “John Doe” grew tired, hungry and sleepy and returned to his cell. Following a good meal, a good night’s sleep and interrogation, he took the officers to the tall tree on the courthouse lawn and pointed up to a big limb he sat on as he watched the search go on for him on the ground below.
…The Nicholas Chronicle Office on Church Street was a two-room complex with wooden floors that creaked and a long counter along one wall for visitors to pay for subscriptions, place a classified ad or get a copy of an earlier paper. There were stacks of papers on the counter in no particular order, but Mrs. Hill had no problem finding what you needed. Mrs. Eib, wife of publisher, editor-in-chief and reporter Charles Eib, worked at a small table behind Mrs. Hill. Mrs. Eib was a plump woman, spilling over the sides of her chair. She had jet black hair pulled back in a bun with kinky strands falling around her face. She had dark eyes and wore lots of bright red lipstick. She was a fast typist.
One step up took you to the second and last room of the Chronicle Office complex. This room housed the printing press and everything else needed to publish and print the paper. Mr. Eib was in charge of this room. Two or three workers assisted. A strong smell of ink filled the two rooms and the noise level was high on the day of printing.
Today, The Nicholas Chronicle, is housed in a roomy building with offices upstairs. The actual printing of the paper is done in Beckley, 40 miles away. Modern technology has been integrated with digital photos and electronic files used to put the paper together.
The Nicholas Chronicle, the largest small-town newspaper in West Virginia, is thriving even in these tough economic times. Why? The answer is simple. The publisher and her son, the editor-in-chief, meet the needs of 26,000 people who live in the rural communities of Nicholas County. The newspaper owners live in the community and are involved in community activities.
Ads in the paper come from local businesses: the hospital, tire shop, floral shops, meat market, used and new car sales, real estate agencies, private medical practices and classified ads. Wal-Mart does not buy ads but occasionally has an insert. The weekly newspaper publishes minutes of school board meetings, hospital board meetings, city council meetings and county commission meetings. News from the courthouse is made public: land transfers, active warrants, arrests, marriage and divorces, and names of delinquent tax payers.
A large amount of space is devoted to news from the public and private schools – parties, achievements, special events and names of those students who made the honor roll. Major county school events are covered — who won the county spelling bee and which students advanced to the state level in the science fair. Photos of young hunters with their first deer are favorites. High school sports takes centerfold in the paper. A special sports insert is in every Chronicle at the beginning of each new school year, as well as a back-to-school insert. Obituaries are printed near the front of the paper. Photos often accompany the obit as well as thank you notes to the community from families who have lost loved ones.
The paper publishes useful information of local interest, how to keep bees and what the dry weather is doing to the corn crop. Recipes and baby pictures are popular. Engagement and weddings announcements are part of the social column. There’s a regular feature listing religious services – time and place.
The front page is reserved for breaking news. Last week two local firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty. A detailed report with photos told the story of how the two men lived and died.
The Nicholas Chronicle’s front page also showcases the cultural events held in the county such as th potato festival and the big annual bluegrass festival, “Music in the Mountain.” The paper also features whitewater rafting on the New and Gauley Rivers, a local sport that attracts tourists.
The Nicholas Chronicle operates with a couple of full-time reporters. The publisher and editor-in-chief contribute stories but community correspondents such as the Mt. Nebo Messenger are a major source of news. The paper is filled with local happenings of nearby small rural communities written about by local people.
The rates for the paper are affordable. You can buy a year’s subscription for about $20. Even if you live outside the county or state, you can keep up with family and friends back home. The Chronicle now has a “green” online version; however, some subscribers prefer the traditional “paper” paper. Readers are dedicated, and changes can result in serious problems.
I will tell you about one: a subscriber, a young wife whose husband changed their subscription from traditional paper to the hi-tech “green” version without her knowledge or consent. The way she put it: “I need to hold my paper, turn the pages back and forth, spread it out on the table and take it all in. and if there is a photo of my boys in the paper, I can cut it out.” After voicing her preference in her no-nonsense manner, the husband returned to The Nicholas Chronicle office and told the staff of the problem with his wife. He ended by pleading: “If there is anyway possible you can convert this “green” subscription back to a regular paper subscription it surely will make my life at home a whole lot easier.” (Others will like the convenience of an online version of the paper, as close as your laptop at www.nicholaschronicle.com)
This small-town newspaper is a mainstay of Nicholas County, West Virginia. On Wednesday evenings a little after 4 o’clock, you will see people braving the coldest or hottest weather, in sickness or health, driving to a nearby convenience store or Wal-Mart to get their copy of their small-town paper, The Nicholas Chronicle.