Observerama: El Jefe has left the building

No doubt the first reaction of many Observer readers upon hearing that Jeffrey Peyton is no longer publisher is to wonder, what's going to happen to Emma?

That's because Peyton's "Priorities" column often detailed his experiences as a parent. He had once publicly promised Emma the keys to the newspaper kingdom, and even two weeks ago, Peyton, "a.k.a. Daddy," was wringing his hands after four-year-old Emma fell on the daycare playground and ended up with a pink cast on her wrist.

The somber black-and-white cover of the Observer's November 13 issue Peyton's last as publisher– seemed to foreshadow some dire change afoot at the usually red-white-and-blue weekly.

And yet there was no mention of the fact that Friday, November 15, would be Peyton's last day, and the paper would soon come under new management.

Peyton took over Charlottesville's oldest weekly in 2000 as president and CEO of Main Street Media. The paper is backed by Colorado energy tycoon Don Hodel, who served as Secretary of the Interior and of Energy during Ronald Reagan's presidency.

The Christian Coalition provided common ground for the two: Hodel was its former president, Peyton its communications director.

Hodel will continue funding Main Street Media, according to reliable sources, with new management and a new board of directors, whose names were not included in a press release. Hodel did not respond to a request for an interview.

On November 16, Peyton sent friends and colleagues an email that found its way over The Hook's transom.

The "farewell address," as Peyton titled it, announces that he has indeed left the paper to pursue the proverbial "other publishing ventures." Peyton notes how "blessed" he has been to work with a fine team of journalists, and how Charlottesville and the Shenandoah Valley have been "the beneficiaries of their fine work."

He also mentions that the Observer won over a dozen awards this year from the Virginia Press Association, making it "one of the most honored weekly newspapers in Virginia."

It was so revered that in early 2001 another weekly began running a short-lived column called "Peyton's Place" that explored the publisher's place in the universe– simply by quoting his column.

"'Emma's Daddy' is just one name I go by," Peyton once told readers. "I am also the president of a media company, publisher of two newspapers, and employer of 12 dedicated team members (with more coming soon!). All of these folks know me as president, publisher, boss, el jefé, even. From most other perspectives, I am a publisher or CEO who is also known as daddy."

During Peyton's tenure, the Observer expanded with a Shenandoah Valley edition, added additional sections and color. Yet it never seemed to grow in the critical area of advertising, other than to corner the market on senior assisted-living facility and funeral home marketing campaigns, despite Peyton's front-page vow to lift local businesses out of recession with a rollback in advertising rates.

Founded in 1978, the paper, formerly a feisty hard news piece, took a sharp turn to the right, as Peyton championed family values and the traditional way of life. With his wife, Elaina, working as general manager, the paper truly was an old-fashioned mom-and-pop effort.

Peyton declined to speak to The Hook, and in an email, says he's not ready to discuss his new venture. He does confirm another Peyton enterprise: Elaina launched a shopper-style weekly in Powhatan County in October called the Community Clipper, and a proud Peyton writes, "Her first issue out of the gate turned a profit!"

Rumors about the fate of the Observer have been swirling for weeks– first that it was for sale, and then that its last issue was imminent.

The paper will be under the general management of longtime employee Kimberly Robbins. She's "really excited," according to a press release, which also announces "there will be no other comment" on the management switcheroo.

Some loyal readers are saddened. Subscriber Fred Kahler, who once wrote a letter to another weekly defending the Observer, says he liked the paper because Peyton's political philosophy was "attuned to mine conservative."

Observer founder Kay Peaslee, however, isn't shedding any tears.

"I'm overjoyed," says Peaslee. "The paper was very one-sided, very far to the right."

Peaslee offers one wish for the future of the weekly she started nearly 25 years ago: "Let's hope it's better than it was under Jeff Peyton."