March 2002

a letter from the editor:

Who would've thunk it: the Advocate turns 10
It's been exactly ten years since the first issue of The Rockbridge Advocate rolled off the press.

"Young Life brings big bucks to mountain," was the front page headline. The story was about the Christian camping resort organization's huge bankroll. It was a scoop.

A few weeks after the paper came out, a huge crowd showed up at a public hearing on granting the organization tax-exempt status. More than a few copies of the paper were plainly visible in the crowd.

It seems like only yesterday. Maybe that's because some things never change. Young Life is still trying to worm out of paying taxes. This paper is still printing scoops. People still carry copies into meetings and quote from them.

It was a great comfort to see some people with copies of the paper at that hearing ten years ago.

It's not easy to start a new publication. It's even harder to keep one going long enough for it to catch on.

"Starting a news publication is kind of like planting a tree," I wrote in the first issue. "It is an act of faith that the sun and earth will be here tomorrow and that children and grandchildren will be here to savor it."

I knew it would be a struggle to start this paper, but I didn't really have any idea of all the struggle would entail. Sometimes late at night in the early days, I'd sit rocking by the woodstove at home wondering how in the world to keep the paper alive for another month.

Starting a new small business in a small town is enough to bring out the religion and the desperado in anyone. And it's enough to make one wonder, "Why am I doing this?"

People ask now and then what the philosophy of this paper is why it is what it is. I'm never quite sure how to answer. Newspapers, or newsmagazines, don't have philosophies. The people who run them do.

My own, when it comes to this paper, is that it should inform, entertain, keep a wary eye on those in power and celebrate this place, warts and all. More often than not, I think it does. You must think so too, or you wouldn't be reading it and the paper wouldn't still be here.

After ten years, there is still not a month that goes by when I don't wish I had done something differently. But, if wishes were horses ... .

And after ten years, obviously, there are plenty of things I regret. (I won't elaborate. The world is entirely too full of public confessions.)

I'm old-fashioned when it comes to journalism. I firmly believe that it carries with it not just a responsibility, but a duty, as Walter Cronkite used to say, "to tell it like it is." Sometimes that is an impossible standard, and the best I can do is to call it the way I see it.

Sometimes the way I see it changes.  And sometimes it doesn't. Not so long ago, for instance, I thought the county planning commission should be shrunk. Now I don't. And not so long ago, I thought it was starting to get too crowded around here. I still see it that way.

This publication was the first to write serious stories about the changing landscape of the county, and the endless series of fights those changes generate.

And if that is all it ever did, I'd be proud of it. But it's done a little more than that.

It has printed a wide variety of stories and news items about abuses of power, and consumer fraud, and pollution, and official and institutional corruption and shenanigans.

More often than not, the Rockbridge Advocate was either the only paper that printed those stories, or was the first paper to print them. And if that's all it ever did, I'd be proud of it. But from the beginning, the paper has done more than that.

It has let some of the wonderful characters of this place tell their stories.

It has provided a forum for free speech, and in doing that, I suspect, given a serious boost to letter-to-the-editor writing in general around here.

It has printed poetry, and pieces about art and music and drama. It's printed stories by schoolchildren and rememberings by old-timers.

It's printed some terrific photographs.

It's provided grist for other writers, and folks hanging around garages and coffee shops, and even a few politicians.

And it has, every month, printed a piece of history about this place not about dead generals and Hottentots, but about some real history that has for the most part been either forgotten, suppressed or ignored.

In short, it has been a great voyage of discovery for me, and I hope for you.

One of the most wonderful things about being a journalist is that I get paid (however badly) to be curious.  I see something that might be interesting, ask questions, and let the answers and the questions that follow take me on a little adventure. Sometimes there's nothing but a brick wall at the end. Sometimes, there's a wonderful discovery. Usually, there's something in-between.

In the very first issue of this publication, I said that I really didn't know what it would grow up to be. I'm still not sure how it will evolve. I don't pretend to know the future.

But I do know that every day, I feel truly honored to be able to learn something new about this place, and to be able to share what I've learned with you every month.

And I do know that none of this would be possible without an awful lot of help from people who have given their time and talent, people who have spent money on it, people who have provided good news fodder, and people who read it. Thank you.