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August 22, 2016

Times publisher promises best paper ‘you’ve ever read’

Kari Pugh becomes the newspaper’s fourth editor in three years.
There’s been a lot of reports that they’re all PEC (Piedmont Environmental Council) people. But, they’re not. And, we’ve gotten no direction from the leadership to champion their causes. None whatsoever. And, we’ve been promised we won’t be forced to champion their causes.
— Fauquier Times Publisher Bailey Dabney
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
The Fauquier Times’ new publisher has set a high bar for the 111-year-old community newspaper.

“We’re working very hard on delivering you a print newspaper, on a weekly basis, that is as good as any you’ve ever read,” Bailey Dabney told the Leeds Ruritan Club last Wednesday. “We’re going to make a really strong run at covering everything that goes on in the county.”

Piedmont Media LLC, the new local ownership group, will publish its first edition Wednesday.

Marshall resident George R. Thompson, who assembled the investment group and headed purchase negotiations that stretched over 18 months, declined to discuss plans for The Times until Thursday.

“Our intent is to tell our story in the paper, before we talk to the media,” Mr. Dabney said in an interview. “We’ve done up some content for the paper that we’d hate to let out.”

In a July 19 press release about the sale, Mr. Thompson said, “Our goal is a newspaper that is as good and as honest and as able as are the people of Fauquier County. We have a lot of work to do before we get there.”

Mr. Dabney started the new job in July.

He spent most of his first month addressing the newspaper’s technology challenges, the publisher said. They include redesigning the website, reviewing telephone and internet contracts and replacing antiquated computers.

The company last Thursday launched the redesigned Fauquier.com.

“Those things have really occupied a lot of our time,” Mr. Dabney told Ruritans during their monthly dinner meeting near Hume.

A family obligation prevented Mr. Thompson from attending the meeting.

Mr. Dabney also has met with dozens of local government officials, business leaders and advertisers to hear what they expect of a community newspaper.

“It’s been like drinking water out of a firehose the last four weeks, getting ready to operate the paper,” the 51-year-old said.

The Times’ sale has fueled speculation about the purchase price, the identity of 20-plus investors and whether they will use the paper to push a no-growth agenda.

In talking with potential investors and distributing a 30-page prospectus, Mr. Thompson said he wanted “a conservation-minded newspaper.”

The prospectus includes a two-page letter from Hope Porter, the matriarch of Fauquier’s preservation movement, supporting the purchase.

“We have been fighting to keep Fauquier one of the top agricultural counties in the state for the past 60 years,” wrote Mrs. Porter, 91. “Maybe I am just worn out, but I don’t look forward to battling the new enemy, the Tea Party, without a good newspaper at our back.”

Although not an investor, she encouraged others to buy into the new company, Mrs. Porter said.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing for the county; I think The Democrat has really gone downhill in the last 10 years,” she said. “I think there has been a bias against what we have been doing for the last 50 or 60 years.”

The prospectus estimates that Piedmont Media’s operating profit (before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) will grow from $664,000 next year to $997,000 in 2020.

The transaction includes:

• The 9,400-circulation paper and its website.

• Two free distribution weeklies, The Gainesville Times and The Prince William Times, and their website.

• The Piedmont Business Journal, a quarterly magazine.

InFauquier and InPrince William, quarterly magazines.

The terms of the deal remain confidential.

Mr. Thompson hired W.B. Grimes & Co., a Gaithersburg, Md.-based media broker, to determine the publications’ market value. The broker valued the assets at $2.76 million.

Two sources familiar with the transaction said that former owner Peter Arundel sold the publications to Piedmont Media for $1.6 million.

“We envision that Piedmont Media LLC can acquire the assets of the paper for about $2 million,” the prospectus reads. The document also contemplates a bank loan of $500,000 for working capital.

Mr. Arundel, whose family bought the paper in 1974, did not return a telephone message seeking comment for this story.

Mr. Dabney told the Leeds Ruritan Club that all the investors live in Fauquier.

Besides Mr. Thompson, he identified three members of the limited liability corporation:

Trevor Potter, a lawyer and former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission, who lives near Marshall.

Landon Butler, deputy chief of staff to former President Jimmy Carter, who lives near The Plains.

Richard Viets, a retired diplomat who lives near The Plains.

Mr. Potter said in an email that he would not be available to talk about the newspaper deal until after Labor Day. Mr. Viets couldn’t be reached for comment.

A Ruritan asked whether the new owners might “have a particular bent” that would influence the paper’s news coverage.

“They’re across the board,” Mr. Dabney said of the investors. “There’s been a lot of reports that they’re all PEC (Piedmont Environmental Council) people. But, they’re not. And, we’ve gotten no direction from the leadership to champion their causes. None whatsoever. And, we’ve been promised we won’t be forced to champion their causes. I think George (Thompson) has been involved in the conservation movement. But, he’s certainly not the only owner.”

In the July 19 press release announcing the newspaper’s sale, Mr. Thompson said: “Our primary objective is to improve over time, reporting and presentation of the news.”

Mr. Dabney tried to reassure the Ruritan Club audience that the newspaper’s mission “is to champion quality of life, whatever that means.”

The Times also has beefed up its editorial staff, the South Carolina native told the Ruritans. New hires include:

• Editor Kari Pugh, who had been senior editor of InsideNoVa, its website and related publications. Ms. Pugh replaced Steve Campbell, who left the paper last week. A Prince William County resident, she became the paper’s fourth editor in three years.

• Editorial Page Editor Leland Schwartz. The editor and publisher of States News Service, which provides newspapers Washington coverage, Mr. Schwartz lives in suburban Maryland.

• Associate Editor John Toler, who retired from the newspaper in 2007, after a 40-year career. He started in the advertising department and held various positions, including general manager. Mr. Toler for several years has written history pieces for Warrenton Lifestyle magazine.

• Reporter Jill Palermo, who covers local government, schools and politics for the weekly newspaper Prince William Today and InsideNoVa.com.

• Visual/Design Editor Chris Six. Mr. Six had been photos and graphics editor at Stars and Stripes.

They join a staff that includes two news reporters, a sports editor, a sports reporter and a photographer.

“There will be a lot of focus on not just covering events, but the history of the region – people, places, lots of faces,” Mr. Dabney said.

Les Cheek, a retired Capitol Hill insurance industry lobbyist who lives near Warrenton, has invested $10,000 in the company.

The idea of buying the paper “started cooking” about four years ago, said Mr. Cheek, president of Citizens for Fauquier County, a nonprofit group that tracks local land-use and conservation issues.

He suggested that “a lot of likeminded individuals” believed the paper lost its way by “focusing on things that were not within local control, like gun control. For that reason, we thought a new leadership would be beneficial to our local citizens.”

Mr. Cheek, a Washington Post reporter for about two years in the mid-1960s, also objected to the newspaper’s tone.

“I thought they were a little bit on the strident side,” he said. “I don’t think the population here is as fired up about some of these issues as the previous Fauquier Times portrayed them.”

Mr. Cheek hopes the new publisher and expanded editorial staff will provide “more in-depth” stories about “long-term issues we have to deal with,” such drinking water supplies, central sewerage for the Catlett and Calverton service districts, transportation and new land conservation tools.

Mr. Cheek described the new owners as “a largely centrist group focused, to a large extent, on preservation.”

He seemed unconcerned about whether his $10,000 investment would yield a return.

He and other investors put the community’s interests ahead of potential financial gains, Mr. Cheek said.

“It just seemed to us that, given all of the good things that Fauquier has, a newspaper should be among those things that are worthwhile and valued,” he said. “In order to make that happen, those who can afford to do so really have to step forward.”

Investor Cathy Mayes, who lives near Hume, agreed.

“Because I’m investing in the community, I don’t expect to make money,” said Mrs. Mayes. “I don’t want to lose money. But, I’m of the generation that reads newspapers, so I’d like a good one.”

Mrs. Mayes said she began to “lose interest” in the paper several years ago, because “I guess I didn’t agree with the editorial tone. I thought it was more negative and development-oriented than suits my temperament.”

Mrs. Mayes serves as president of the Virginia Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, based in Marshall. One of 11 directors, Mr. Thompson played a key role in establishing the chapter in 2006.

Mrs. Mayes refused to say how much money she put into Piedmont Media. She will serve on an “advisory board” to the paper.

“I don’t know exactly what role (Mr. Thompson) has in mind” for the advisory group, Mrs. Mayes said. “Maybe as a sounding board to (the publisher) and the executive board.”

John Richardson, an attorney who lives near Delaplane, said he invested in the new company because, “I have come to value the importance of having a good newspaper that would inform the citizens of what’s going on in the county.”

The paper has failed to do that for several years, said Mr. Richardson, who refused to say how much he invested.

“I thought it was a good thing, from a public service standpoint,” Mr. Richardson said of the paper’s purchase.

He hopes Mr. Thompson’s leadership will make The Times a better paper and a more profitable one.

“I think George’s been very successful,” Mr. Richardson said. “Certainly, by reputation, he’s a great businessman.”

Investing in the company poses a personal financial risk, but one worth taking, Mr. Richardson said.

“We’re interested in preserving (the newspaper) and improving it,” said Mr. Richardson, whose wife, Margaret “Peggy” Richardson, served as the IRS’s Commissioner of Internal Revenue from 1993 to 1997.

Markham resident Mary Blake Green attended the Ruritan Club meeting.

“He seemed like a genial fellow,” Ms. Green said of the Mr. Dabney, the new publisher. “It depends on what he does with it. I’ve been really disappointed with the paper for a long time. So, I think he can only go up.”

She returned to Fauquier about eight years ago, after retiring as theater writer for Newsday, a New York-based daily newspaper.

The Fauquier Times’ writing and reporting consistently appalled her.

“Sometimes, it was basically illiterate, horrible,” said Ms. Green, who worked at the San Francisco Chronicle before joining Newsday. “I circled mistakes (in stories) and sent them to the editor, anonymously. I guess it was the copy editor in me. I never heard anything back.”

The paper also needs stronger reporting and a greater variety of stories, she said.

“When I was a little girl, we waited for The Democrat to come,” Ms. Green said. “Now, I don’t think anybody waits to get their Times in the mailbox. Maybe that will change.”
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TooTrue · August 24, 2016 at 11:46 am
We can certainly hope so WatchingWarrenton.
WatchingWarrenton · August 23, 2016 at 7:55 pm
Oh my goodness, bless all their little hearts ! Now, will the Times or the former Democrat start reporting on the rampant public corruption at their doorstep ? Is this the beginning of a real new day in Fauquier ?
TooTrue · August 23, 2016 at 12:06 pm
We may actually have some news now that it is not actually created by the likes of the Fauquier Now owners or those that are similar. Good ol' boy hooded would want more of the same to be sure.
citizen observer · August 23, 2016 at 11:06 am
Oh boy, looks like our local paper is now part of the liberal news media. Say goodbye to getting factual news. I've already seen a difference in their online site and removed it from my devices.
They and their advertisers will no longer be getting my money.
robbinnhoodd · August 22, 2016 at 8:53 pm
Are there any local business people that are investors? Citizens for Fauquier and PEC doesn't sound very business friendly to me. Hope they can focus on some real news for once.
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