A small town publisher

Published 7:41 pm Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A small town publisher


Independent newspaper publishers are becoming what country folk used to call “scarce as hens’ teeth.” Saturday night, they became a bit more scarce — and a lot poorer — with the death of a smalltown publisher from the hills of Virginia.


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Horton P. Beirne was the third generation publisher of the Covington Virginian, a community newspaper that began serving Allegheny County when his grandfather founded it in 1914.


Like his father and his grandfather before him, Horton led the paper with dignity and a love for the community he served. For most of the paper’s life, it was a small daily, publishing six days a week. Under Horton’s leadership, the Virginian purchased a smaller paper in Clifton Forge and the two were merged as the Virginian Review 25 years ago.


Then, a couple of years ago, with revenues declining and costs continuing to escalate, Horton and his wife MaryAnne reached the painful conclusion that a daily could not survive in their mountain home. They began publishing twice a week. Today, thanks to the courage of its longtime publisher and his wife, the Virginian Review continues to serve Alleghany as a healthy non-daily community newspaper.


Horton and I met in 1965 when we were both enrolled in the tiny journalism department of Richmond Professional Institute. We went through what amounted to a journalism apprentice program managed by editors of the Richmond Times Dispatch, who taught at the school part-time. It wasn’t fancy and it wasn’t big, but it was efficient. Any student with a bit of talent who finished the four-year curriculum was virtually assured of a job as a working journalist somewhere in Virginia.


To his credit, Horton didn’t run home after college to work for his father, who was the Covington publisher at that time. He worked instead as a bureau reporter for the Times Dispatch, honing his writing skills and learning to track down smalltown stories in Virginia’s Northern Neck.


After a couple of years, he did return home and followed his father in the role of publisher. He also followed him in playing a statewide role in journalism through the Virginia Press Association. He served as president of the association in 1988, and was so popular that, after completing a cycle as a board member and holding every office available, he was asked to come back and lend his wisdom to the board a second time — the first person ever to do so.


When I was still in the Navy, back in the 1970s, Horton asked me to come to Covington and work for him. I joked that I could only do that if the Shenandoah Valley was filled with saltwater.


And so, our career paths were separated by Virginia’s geography — he a lover of mountains and I a lover of marshes and salt air. We were joined, however, by a love of community journalism. We, and many more like us, were fortunate to have plied our trade during what I believe was the golden age of American journalism — the 1970s through the 1990s.


A lot of talented people have made their communities better by publishing good smalltown newspapers, and Horton Beirne was one of them. Covington and Clifton Forge will miss him, but certainly no more than will those of us in the business who knew him.




Dueling journalists


If you think journalism can be raucous today, look back to the 19th century.


The Beirne family’s connection with Virginia journalism goes back that far, predating their Covington newspaper. Richard Beirne (and I’m pretty sure he was Horton’s great-grandfather) was a publisher in Richmond after the Civil War. He was a Democrat and had a verbal battle with the competing Republican publisher,William Elam, that eventually led one of them to challenge the other to a duel.


Dueling was illegal by then and efforts were made to prevent the affair, but the two men worked around the law and eventually met on their chosen “field of honor” near Waynesboro. Elam was wounded and Beirne family lore says Richard Beirne doffed his hat to his wounded opponent and walked away. Police attempted to arrest Beirne who wisely left the state for a while. It was his son, I believe, who founded the Covington Virginian.


Horton loved to tell the story and I believe a member of the family still has the matched dueling pistols.