"Valley Observer" folds: Life cut short after 21 months

The staff of the Shenandoah Valley Observer was getting ready to put out last week's issue when they received some late-breaking news: There would be no January 16 issue or any other issue, for that matter.

Although reporter Richard Prior was spotted dutifully covering the January 13 Waynesboro City Council meeting, the next day, the Valley Observer staff of four was told that their paper had ceased publishing, and that the January 9 issue, already on newsstands, had been its last.

"We decided we're going to shut that operation down immediately," says Kimberly Robbins, general manager of the Observer, which will continue its Charlottesville edition. "Decisions made by prior management," she adds, "made it necessary."

With backing from former Ronald Reagan Cabinet member and Christian Coalition president Don Hodel, Jeffrey Peyton purchased Charlottesville's oldest weekly in 2000; he started the Valley edition in April 2001.

"From Day One, the Valley Observer had everything going for it – a great staff, quality production, an enthusiastic readership," says Peyton in an email to The Hook. "The paper's demise is a shame. It's too bad for the Valley residents who, over the past 20 months, really adopted it as their hometown paper. But it's especially too bad for the folks who worked so hard to make the paper as good as it was."

Peyton, famous for filling the papers with his own columns about faith, family, and publishing, left the Observer with uncharacteristic silence in November, and Robbins says Hodel also is no longer in the picture.

During its short history, the Valley Observer had its share of staff turnover. In July 2002, three employees– editor Crystal Abbe Graham; her husband, reporter Chris Graham; and account exec Tracy Gonzales– left abruptly after a disagreement with Peyton.

Sports reporter Patrick Hite will continue with the Charlottesville Observer. Robbins says she made an offer to one of the two ad reps, but the reps and Prior, who was former managing editor of the Waynesboro News Virginian, will not be coming to Charlottesville. "We really don't need other staff people," says Robbins.

The Shenandoah Valley edition's hasty demise does not perplex media watchers over the hill.

"I'm surprised it took this long," says Chris Graham, who now publishes the on-line Augusta Free Press. "They weren't making anything near what they needed," he says, estimating that the paper's revenues were between $3,000 and $4,000 a week while expenses hovered around $10,000 to $11,000.

"Starting in the fall, when I heard Jeff was in trouble and trying to find a buyer, I knew intuitively this would happen," Graham says. "Putting out two editions didn't make sense."

Graham notes that the Augusta County market is a tough one, and that two publications Augusta Country and eightyone ceased last year.

"It never looked to me like it was financially successful," says former eightyone editor and publisher Deona Houff. "I never heard anyone talking about it."

Houff believes the Valley edition will be missed in one quarter. "It is a shame for the small retail advertiser who couldn't afford to advertise in the [Staunton] News Leader."

Houff agrees that the Shenandoah Valley is a tough market "but the Observer wasn't offering any reason to pick it up."

She adds, "It's pretty sad over here."

Waynesboro Mayor Charles Ricketts was an Observer fan. He calls its articles "well written" and he thought the paper had been doing well.

"A lot of the stories in the Staunton and Waynesboro newspapers are canned," he says. "One of the nice things about the Observer is that it was all local coverage."

Former publisher Peyton hasn't given up on the Augusta media market. "My hope is that there are a few business folks in Waynesboro and Staunton with enough resources and media savvy to pick up where the Observer left off."