FACETIME- Trend buckers: Graham family grows Valley media empire

Crystal and Chris Graham

The Washington Post has been run by the Graham family since the 1930s. Waynesboro, too, has its publishing Grahams– Chris and Crystal. And in a time when newspapers and magazines are struggling to stay afloat, the Waynesboro Grahams are expanding, and in January will boost their New Dominion magazine circulation from quarterly to monthly.

It's been six years since the couple left the now-defunct Observer, once Charlottesville's oldest weekly newspaper, to start their online Augusta Free Press, "the progressive voice of the Valley," says Chris Graham.

"We were totally web ignorant," he recalls. "We thought like print people who went on the web. We did milquetoast, traditional, small-town coverage of local government meetings."

Things have changed, particularly since Chris Graham ran for Waynesboro City Council last spring and was part of what he describes as "a landslide loss." He learned a lot about the campaign process, and admits his publications have moved more toward advocacy.

"We've gained some teeth," he says. "We did that objectivity thing, but now it's hard to stand back to referee."

The Augusta Free Press has 9,000 unique readers a day, according to Graham, half of whom are from outside the area. His reporting has earned supporters– and detractors.

"It's a rag," says Waynesboro Vice Mayor Frank Lucent. "I see it as a blog for Chris Graham to attack people in the community. I think it's a disgrace. He puts himself off as a journalist, but he's a rumormonger."

"The Augusta Free Press offers some very insightful perspectives," counters City Councilor Lorie Smith. "Chris does his homework. What he brings to the table is, let's make sure we're looking at the big picture."

Graham describes typical readers as in their 30s, 40s, or 50s, possibly college-educated, perhaps business owners. "We're assuming," he explains, "you already have a base of knowledge."

Even as a reporter for the Observer, Graham always has been a prolific writer, an ideal pedigree for the limitless space of the web. When he started the Augusta Free Press, "I thought I had to have something for people to read at 8am," says Graham. "Now, it's all day long. If something happens at 2, I want to get it up."

He tries to have at least one podcast interview every day, and is looking to add video. Graham also writes 80 percent of the content in New Dominion. Oh, and he's written three books.

Crystal and Chris Graham both grew up in Augusta County, and after college– she at Virginia Tech, he at UVA– they met at the News Virginian in Waynesboro and had their first date on July 4, 1999.

Both came from reporting backgrounds, but now Crystal handles the business end of their company. When they started the Augusta Free Press, "I thought 100 percent of our efforts would go to online publishing," she says. "I found the community still craves print."

Hence the soon-to-be-monthly New Dominion. The Grahams say the website is profitable– another hurdle online publications are trying to leap– and goes hand in hand with the magazine.

Augusta is not a major media market, and is usually a stepping stone to a bigger market, Crystal points out. The Grahams, however, not only aren't going anywhere, she says those deep roots give them the advantage of "institutional knowledge."

They house their enterprises on Waynesboro's Main Street, with the publisher and editor living over the shop. Despite living and working together, they can go for hours without seeing each other, "even though we're down the hall," says Chris.

"We drive each other," says Crystal. "We're a great combination. We make each other better."

Their office/home is surrounded by churches, and Crystal mentions a favorite shrine of another sort across the street: "The old News Virginian building, where we met."