On July 2, 2002, I couldn’t have imagined that I would ever write about Augusta Free Press be 20 years old. I was just thinking that morning, as we were about to hit the publish button for the first time, how we were going to keep the lights on, and the website we just launched that day That didn’t figure prominently in those plans.
The we here – myself and my wife, Crystal – had first met when we both worked at New Virginiabefore leaving together to work for a weekly in Charlottesville, The Observerwhich promised more pay and a chance for us to learn the business side of the media industry.
The Observerunfortunately was on its way to where it is now, the history bins, and we had seen the writing on the wall and decided to leave before it collapsed.
Our goal from the beginning was to find a way to launch our own weekly newspaper to cover Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro, and, well, there we were, up or down, basically.
A friend, Mark Corum, an angel who walks among us, offered to help us create a website as something to do in the meantime.
In a hurry to name it, I reverted to the name of a single-edition journal I had paid to publish in 1996, Augusta’s Free Press.
The quick backstory there: After a series of raids in Augusta County and Waynesboro in 1996 targeting migrant workers, I had been instructed by my editor to New Virginia plunge into the background of the growing Latin American population in the valley.
This work turned into what was to be a multi-part series and was announced to debut in a Saturday edition in early June.
Some time between the editor’s note announcing the series and the printing of the newspaper, a local businessman got in touch with the editor, and the series’ first story, literally on the front page in the dining room. print, was removed from the page, replaced by another note from the editor, saying something to the effect that more sources had come forward and that the newspaper would re-examine the story and report further on the subject later.
It was not true. From what I was told later, the publisher had shared the stories, the pre-publication, with this businessman, and he had shared it with others, and the tone of the series, which was to show how Waynesboro and Augusta County were adjusting to and embracing the local Latino population, didn’t sit well with those people, who I assumed then, and now, didn’t like the idea that Latino immigrants are welcomed into our community.
The newspaper had no intention of revisiting this series. It was left on the floor of the editing room.
I left the paper the next day and used what little money I had from the meager income I was earning – the paper paid me $7.50 an hour, $300 a week, no overtime, even though we were working well over 40 hours. a week – to print 500 copies of a series of reworked stories and distribute them to local newsstands out of the back of my $200 station wagon.
I finally got back to work at New Virginiaafter the editor who unplugged the immigration series moved on, and even led a staff effort to revisit the immigration story that won the paper first place in the annual journalism competition from the Virginia Press Association for in-depth articles. and investigative reporting in 1998.
Suffice to say that I won.
This experience had opened my eyes to my future in journalism, and was a foundation for what we would try to build the second iteration of Augusta Free Press To be one of them.
The first weeks, months, years were difficult. We finally got into print in 2007 with the launch of a monthly magazine, but the recession of 2008-2009 nearly sank us.
To keep the lights on, Crystal took side jobs with a publishing company and an online retailer, and I dropped indie stories for $15 or $20 here, 50 cents a word there, I learned how to design websites, starting to launch them for $500 a pop.
I don’t know when we finally realized we made it, but apparently it happened, because we’re still here.
We’ve done things along the way that make me proud. Most notable was back in 2005, when Virginia was about to vote a year later to ban same-sex marriage, when we took an editorial stance on the side of marriage equality, a decision I I assumed when we published our first in-depth article. on the subject convinced me to scare away our handful of advertisers.
That was the genesis of our ability to carve out a niche for ourselves here in the conservative, dark red valley for liberals and progressives who support marriage equality, who want an America with universal health care, who support the educational and economic equality and equal opportunity, who believe that Black Lives Matter.
The good news here, at the start of our second 20 years, is that we’re stronger than ever, with staff additions and a healthy stable of regular contributors, and a solid financial footing that means we’re not going anywhere. go .
If you’ve read this far, I assume you’re one of those people who regularly clicks to see what we have to tell you about what’s going on in the world, so to you, I say, thank you.
I feel blessed to be able to do what I believe I was born to be able to do. You helped make this mad rush possible, and therefore all the more interesting.
Like it was 20 years ago, I have no idea where this is going to take us, but hopefully, at least, we can at least keep the lights on.