Observer walkout: Valley publisher giddy after staff exodus


By Bill Ramsey

"A new era: New faces prepare to lead while old faces leave," trumpets the June 27 edition of the Waynesboro-based Shenandoah Valley Observer.

While it is referring to newly elected government officials, the headline could, ironically, also apply to the abrupt departure of the paper's core news team.

On Monday, July 24, the 15-month-old sister paper of Charlottesville's weekly Observer suffered a massive staff walkout. Managing editor Crystal Abbe Graham; her husband, staff writer Chris Graham; and ad rep Tracy Gonzales [In the printed version of this story, this person was misidentified– it has been corrected in this online edition– editor.] allegedly walked away from their jobs after forwarding a hasty resignation letter to publisher Jeffrey M. Peyton.

In a front-page column, Peyton explained the paper's abbreviated content and page count by advising readers that the trio "abruptly" quit. "They left no photos, no stories, no apologies," he said.

In his "Priorities" column, normally reserved for the paper's editorial pages, Peyton expressed disappointment and castigated the three not only for jeopardizing the paper's production schedule but also for abandoning readers' trust.

"They didn't just quit working for me," writes Peyton; "they walked out on you."

Peyton spent the remainder of his column lauding the paper's role as a "positive, upbeat source of news" quickly adopted by the citizens of Augusta County, Staunton, and Waynesboro, and touting its growing circulation.

Debuted as the Waynesboro-Staunton Observer in April 2001, the paper, Peyton claims, has increased in circulation by 60 percent since its inception. "An average of 9,000 people pick up a copy of The Observer EVERY week," Peyton emphasizes, adding with equal zeal that "Many of those papers are read by more than one person!"

Although neither the Charlottesville nor the Valley Observer gets tested by any of the industry's independent circulation auditors, these figures, a gleeful Peyton exclaims, make the paper "the Valley's fastest-growing, second-most-read publication, including the dailies!"

Peyton goes on to assure readers that the paper will not only continue to publish but will expand by mid-August to four sections, with color in every section, mirroring the company's Charlottesville operation.

The Hook was unable to reach the Grahams by press time, but during a brief phone interview this week, Peyton brushed off the mutiny as a mere "pimple" that simply popped.

"The short version is that there was a disagreement about who was the publisher," says Peyton. "I was shocked by how things happened, but pleased with the results," he adds, praising his new editorial staff as an improvement.

"We've got a more experienced staff, and sales are up," says a seemingly surprised Peyton, noting the sluggish economy. "We're cooking with gas!"

That fuel, however, might have more to do with a 15 percent decrease in advertising rates, a move Peyton trumpeted in February as a method to lift local businesses out of recession. "I'm loath to bring them back up because they're working," he says.

With a distribution of 10,000 copies and a 87-90 percent pickup rate, Peyton says his Valley paper is the second most widely read Valley publication.

But Deona Houff, a Staunton resident and former publisher of eightyone, a Valley alternative newspaper that folded in March after a four-year run, questions the claims.

"There's just no way that's true," says Houff. "The Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg and the News Leader in Staunton both have much higher readerships." [These papers were misidentified in the printed edition of this story. Their names have been corrected in this online edition– editor.]

With her own paper's demise, Houff says she hoped the Observer might fill the gap in what she considers weak coverage offered by dailies. "The Observer has never been the kick-ass, intelligent paper every town needs," she says.

"People never understood why the Observer came over here in the first place," Houff continues. "From the start, the whole thing seemed to be more about ego than making a great paper. Story selection has always been pedestrian and reporting thin. And the staff put its picture in the paper a lot, which is just not something that happens at a quality newspaper."

After a year, Houff claims, the paper is still not clicking with readers, and she doubts its profitability, although a glance at a recent issue does demonstrate a growing and increasingly localized advertising base.

Although earlier papers were filled with ads for Charlottesville businesses and promotional house ads, the paper's 18-page July 4 edition reveals a majority of Valley-based advertisers– along with house ads featuring pictures of advertising executives Melissa Wright and Elaina Peyton.

With new staff writers Richard Prior, Kenneth Wilson, and "Sports Coordinator" Patrick Hite filling the gaps left by the exodus, the Observer appears to have rebounded, but Houff rejects the sunny outlook.

"I know several writers who worked there during its better days," she says. "Now they're just embarrassed by what the paper has become."

Founded in Charlottesville in 1978 by Kay Peaslee, the Observer was the undisputed weekly champion until the mid-1990s when it went through a succession of owners, including razor company millionaire J. Gray Ferguson, who sold the paper to Peyton in 2000.

"The Observer's name has a great history," says Houff. "I wish they were doing a great paper. Readers are really hungry for some good reads."