Jilted paper: Left at altar, Observer folds

Observer publisher Kimberly Robbins had been looking for a buyer and thought she'd found one. She'd been approached by a local publisher over a year ago and had been in serious, secret discussions with him for the past six to eight weeks.

But two hours before the publisher was supposed to meet with the Observer staff and close the deal, he canceled. So instead of celebrating a sale, Robbins found herself pulling the plug on Charlottesville's oldest weekly newspaper.

The news wasn't exactly a surprise to many who'd watched the financially troubled journal struggle.

"I was not shocked," says Marilyn Ellinger, who'd worked as a graphic designer at the Observer since 1988. She started around the time founder Kay Peaslee sold the paper to Bill Lescure, whose tenure is remembered for "Wee Hear," the opening line of each week's installment of the town's juiciest gossip column.

Ellinger was there during the JGF Media era, when it was part of a chain owned by American Safety Razor millionaire J. Gray Ferguson. She was there when former Christian Coalition spokesman Jeffrey Peyton and Ronald Reagan Cabinet member Don Hodel turned Peaslee's left-leaning publication a hard right.

And she stayed when Peyton left the Observer and longtime employee Robbins bought it for $1 in January 2003, taking on the debt that had accumulated as well as the challenge to keep the struggling paper alive.

"I survived all the other buyers," says Ellinger. "It was very interesting, and Jeff and Elaina Peyton were the most interesting."

Ellinger credits Peyton for bringing the Observer into the digital age. And in 2001, a weekly editorial by Peyton, "Priorities, a.k.a. Daddy," inspired a short-lived column called "Peyton's Place" in a local alternative weekly.

"For years, the rumors were the Observer was going to close its doors," says Ellinger. "Kim and I were more geared to that than some of the new folks."

Certainly editor Ron Hasson, who'd been at the paper two years to the day it shut its doors August 4, was surprised. "It was one of those things where you always think you can conquer the obstacles," he says. "I'm sorry I couldn't overcome the financial ones."

Toward the end, to save $800 a week, Hasson had started delivering the paper himself along with Robbins and staff writer Patrick Hite.

Robbins says she reduced the paper's $150,000-$175,000 debt to around $25,000, She went without a salary and into debt personally.

"I brought it as close to profitable as it had been in 15 years," says Robbins. But it wasn't enough. "I'd already decided if I couldn't sell it, I was going to shut it down by the end of the summer."

That's why the negotiations with C-ville Weekly publisher Rob Jiranek seemed like such a lifeline.

On August 2, the Observer's last production day, she told the staff she had a buyer. "She wouldn't tell us who it was," says Ellinger, "only that it was not Don Hodel or Jeff Peyton."

Robbins told the staff they'd be meeting with Jiranek at 1:30 on Wednesday, August 4. "It was about 11:30 Wednesday when he called and told me the deal was off," says Robbins. "He didn't want to take on old debt. But they'd known about that for a couple of months."

Jiranek did not return phone calls from the Hook.

Robbins says Jiranek wanted her to stay on, and she offered to work for half salary or even no salary for six months. "It doesn't make sense" that someone would turn down an offer of free work, broods Robbins.

"It was a real shock to her," says Ellinger. "She really thought they were going to buy it– then to have it end so abruptly."

Portico Publications, which owns C-ville Weekly, recently sold Blue Ridge Outdoors and bought the Free Times, a Columbia, South Carolina, weekly. In late 1996, the company bought a struggling weekly called The Richmond State but promptly fired the staff and closed it after it failed to recover within two months.

If owning a community paper like the Observer attracted Jiranek, why the sudden withdrawal?

"It's my personal feeling that after examining all the data, he made a last-minute decision that it was more economical for Portico to start one from scratch than to take on a 26-year-old brand– a brand I think has value," says Robbins.

Others think the Observer's changes in ownership over the years hurt its readership– and its ability to draw advertisers.

"I think the sad thing about the Observer is it never did find a niche it could stick with," says Fluvanna Review publisher Eric Allen, who worked at the Observer during the JGF Media regime.

Allen saw other problems. "It's hard to compete with a circulation of 5,000 in an area Charlottesville's size. You need to be at least 10,000 to 15,000 in that area to be the community newspaper."

Still, the Observer retained loyal readers over the years. "There are some big markets that are concerned they're not going to have the same level of coverage we gave them: seniors and schools," says Hasson.

The Observer was known for its school coverage in the 1990s by Gary Grant, who went on to be elected to the Albemarle School Board in 1999.

Hasson sees the community newspaper as a source for news about the good things going on. Even if reporting on a problem, "We're going to ask, what is the solution?" he says.

But even Hasson's positive outlook couldn't overcome the Observer's financial difficulties, the debt making the staff efforts "an exercise in futility," he says.

Robbins was so desperate to keep the paper going that she approached founder Kay Peaslee, who gave her $15,000 and set up a line of credit to keep the paper afloat, according to Peaslee.

"It was very educational in how to lose money," she says. "I'd hoped they'd accept my advice after my 10 years' experience, but they didn't want my advice, only my money."

Peaslee has watched others run her creation over the years, and while not surprised by its demise, "I feel very bad," she says.

Peaslee recalls the days when UVA student interns like Larry Sabato wrote about the General Assembly. "We were all working for something that was not rewarding financially– I paid wretched salaries– but people did it for the love of it," she says.

Ditto for Ron Hasson and Kimberly Robbins, for whom the love of the Observer never disappeared, even in its final days.

Yet Peaslee thinks the whole newspaper business has changed enormously since 1978. "People don't read newspapers anymore, especially women," says Peaslee. "It's easier to watch TV. The danger is all newspapers will become obsolete."

"I'm sad for the paper," says Robbins, "but for me personally, it's a relief. It's very sad to see a 26-year-old newspaper go down the tubes, unless a phoenix rises from the ashes."

She adds, "I know I did everything I could."

The last edition of Charlottesville's oldest weekly.