Tornado's life: Graham rules Valley e-news

The Augusta County Free Press is the leading local source of online news in its area. Chris Graham is the Augusta County Free Press.

Since parting ways with the free-falling Observer in 2002, Waynesboro-based Graham has continued to beef up his journalistic reputation by running, writing, and maintaining his own daily news web portal.

He has help. His wife, Crystal, well known to public television audiences as co-host of Virginia Tonight on WVPT, contributes, and his team of freelancers includes another Observer veteran, Patrick Hite. But Graham is still the principal writer and handles all of the editing duties.

"It's sort of a one-man team, although there are a lot of people behind that one man," he says. "Nothing goes through the Free Press that my eyes don't see first."

It's a lot to handle. He says he routinely pulls 65- and 75-hour weeks– and that's after he scaled back his operation from seven days a week to five.

"I call it the life of a tornado," he says. "It spins, it moves forward, I don't know where it's going to go, and I don't know what I'm going to pick up along the way."

He never expected to find himself in his current position when he was younger.

"I wanted to be Atticus Finch," he recalls. "I wanted to go to law school and then come back and save my hometown." Those aspirations explain his pre-law focus during his career at UVA in the early '90s, but they fizzled when the time came to bite the bullet at the University of Richmond's law school.

"I lasted a week before I wised up," he laughs. "I realized that I was going to have to work in the bowels of a law firm, kind of like those lawyers John Grisham always writes about... you know, the ones who end up not being lawyers anymore."

After working for a year as a substitute teacher, he finally managed to score a job as a sports writer at the News Virginian in Waynesboro in September 1995, the same paper he had read while growing up. Five years later, he moved to the Observer as a sports writer, but left a couple of years later under somewhat contentious circumstances.

Having found himself both available and qualified for the first time in his life, Graham began plotting the development of a humble online news organization that has come to rival papers around the region, including two hard-copy dailies in Augusta County alone.

The original concept had been a weekly print paper, but the Grahams decided to go digital when they ran into funding issues. That meant they also had to move to a daily model– "The Internet is 24/7," says Chris– but they backed down to weekdays when they realized that most of their readers were active during business hours. In August they added "wire service" to their repertoire when the Hook began buying some of their stories for the Charlottesville market.

"Constant tweaks to the business model," says Graham, "if there is a business model– we're constantly flying by the seat of our pants." Nevertheless, Graham seems to be quite happy with his creation.

"What is the need for that piece of paper?" he asks The Hook, tongue deep within his cheek.

Age: 32

Why here? I was born here.

What's worst about living here? Generally, the lack of cultural opportunities, even though that's changing. It's changed tremendously since I was a child.

Favorite hangout? The golf course

Most overrated virtue? I was dubbed the most prolific writer in Central Virginia, I think by another Charlottesville weekly, and I don't really think of myself that way.

People be surprised to know: I can do a dead-on impression of Scooby Doo.

What would you change about yourself? I think sometimes I get too passionate about things I get involved in.

Proudest accomplishment? The Augusta Free Press

 People find most annoying about you? I don't often give sound bite answers.

Whom do you admire? Mark Warner. And he'll be surprised to hear that, actually. Every time Mark comes to the Valley, we trade barbs, and I've made him an editorial target in the past.

Favorite book? The Stranger, by Albert Camus

Subject that causes you to rant? What subject doesn't cause me to rant?

Biggest 21st century thrill? The Internet, and what the Internet means in terms of "free speech" for the world at large. In five or 10 years, there are going to be thousands of us "citizen journalists" out there.

Biggest 21st century creep-out? The technology. Cell phones and the Internet and email are all great, but we don't have as much solitude as we used to. Standing in front of the microwave for two minutes is a long time now; it used to be that you had to cook your dinner for an hour.

What do you drive? 1996 Geo Metro– the world's fastest Geo, I call it in my column.

In your car CD player right now: My CD player is broken. The answer should have been, "I listen to NPR," but then my radio broke. As a result, my solitude is driving. I'm not sure I'm going to get it fixed. My fortress of solitude, I call it. The World's Fastest Geo has a Fortress of Solitude within it. If I drove slower, I guess I'd have more time to enjoy my Fortress of Solitude.

Next journey? I'd like to do nonfiction books.

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? When I was four years old– I don't know why this happened– I took the newspapers that were out and put them on my parent's gas stove. Fast forward about 27 years, and my mom was telling a story about how my sister had done this, and I had to tell her, "Actually, mom, I did that." If it's possible when you're 30 years old to get in trouble with your mom, I did.

Regret? I regret not having foreseen that I would be doing what I'm doing now when I was in college so that I could have prepared myself better.

Favorite comfort food? Chocolate chip ice cream

Always in your refrigerator? Diet Big K soda. Gotta have caffeine.

Must-see TV? Reruns of Seinfeld

Favorite cartoon? Aqua Teen Hunger Force. My Sunday night schedule is based on "I gotta get done so I can watch Adult Swim."

Describe a perfect day. A Saturday, a nice cool crisp fall day. I get to go hit some golf balls at the driving range and come back and watch college football all day.

Walter Mitty fantasy? I'd like to run for political office.

Who'd play you in the movie? Drew Carey. He'd have to grow a good head of hair, because I haven't had a haircut in about a year.

Most embarrassing moment? Delivering a high school graduation speech that I wasn't supposed to give

Best advice you ever got? Never say "no."

Favorite bumper sticker? I have a bumper sticker on the back of the World's Fastest Geo– it doesn't slow it down: "Newt Free Zone."

Chris Graham