The Nation's Pulse

How Many Richmonders Does It Take?

Newspaper days at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, when it was still a Southern grand dame.

By 4.20.09

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It is sad but scarcely surprising to learn that the crisis of the ink-and-paper media industry is taking its toll on what once was one of the broadsheets' grand old Southern dames -- the Richmond Times-Dispatch. On April 2, hemorrhaging money, the paper laid off 59 employees, many of them senior writers and editors as well as the esteemed editorial cartoonist, Gary Brookins.

The newspaper has published continuously since 1850 -- 11 years before the "late unpleasantness" commemorated by Richmond's stately Monument Avenue -- and has been dominated by the genteel Bryan family for most of its history.

In 1979, when I went to work in the magnolia-shaded building on East Grace Street as an editorial writer in a little office next to Brookins' studio, there was a reverent air of yesteryear about the Times-Dispatch and Richmond's socio-political life in general. The prevailing joke was, "How many Richmonders does it take to change a light bulb?"

Answer: Five. One to change the light bulb, another to pour juleps, and three more to drink and reminisce about how great the old light bulb had been.

There was no other automobile in town like the humpbacked black Mercedes belonging to company chairman David Tennant Bryan. Local legend had it that Mr. Bryan had obtained the car as a wedding present in the cataclysmic year when Franklin Roosevelt sent Herbert Hoover into exile. Many a morning or evening I would witness the unmistakable sight of Mr. Bryan driving between his West End home and the newspaper office.

A few weeks into the job, the editorial page editor informed me that Mr. Bryan wanted to see me. Mr. Bryan had been CEO of the company for 35 years, and I was all of 24 years old. I was already becoming aware of what an outsider I was to the community. Not a Richmonder, not a Virginian, not even a Southerner, I was from what I imagine the St. A's boys in Charlottesville considered the dark satanic mills of Midwestern urban industrialism.

Tall, white-haired, bow-tied, patrician, the old man greeted me. "I have read this editorial in this morning's paper and I understand you wrote it."

"Yes, sir."

Mr. Bryan proceeded to explain that I had misused the word "convince."

"For the meaning you were intending to convey," he instructed me, "never use 'convince.' The word is 'persuade.'"

"Yes, sir, and thank you very much, sir." So did I get to keep my job?

"And welcome to the Times-Dispatch. We are happy to have you here."

The local U.S. Congressman, David Satterfield, a Democrat, was to the right of just about any conservative Republican in captivity. Senior U.S. Senator Harry Flood Byrd, Jr., ran for election as an Independent but caucused with the Democratic majority and thus held key subcommittee chairmanships. No Bernie Sanders, he was every inch as conservative as his friend from neighboring North Carolina, Jesse Helms.

The octogenarian editor emeritus, a prolific author of books, popped into the office from time to time to thumb through yellowed clippings from the morgue. He was the very eponym of the Old Dominion, Virginius Dabney. In 1922, he joined the Bryans' afternoon Richmond daily, the News Leader, where his writing won the admiration of H.L. Mencken. Eventually he migrated across the hall to the Times-Dispatch, where he was editor from 1936 to 1969.

"V" Dabney was a liberal by the standards of the first half of Richmond's 20th century, but he spent the last of his years trying to "prove" the unverifiable proposition that his direct ancestor Thomas Jefferson "never had sex with that woman," Sally Hemings. At the helm of the News Leader during Dabney's salad days was the eminent historian Douglas Southall Freeman, not a liberal in anyone's book. At the beginning of the 1950s, as Dr. Freeman -- yes, a Ph.D. historian -- prepared for retirement, he and Tennant Bryan recruited and groomed a young writer named James Jackson Kilpatrick to take the editor's chair.

During the 1970s, one of the most effective figures in conservative politics was the News Leader cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, a young genius who made the whole world convulse with laughter at the ridiculousness of Jimmy Carter, Fidel Castro, Muammar Khadafy and the other fish-in-the-barrel we smart-aleck editorial writers would bombard with rhetorical buckshot. Tennant Bryan himself was not a mere businessman but a conservative intellectual who helped make the Age of Reagan possible through wise leadership on the board of the Hoover Institution. Mr. Bryan would preside over the executive committee of Media General, publisher of the Richmond and Tampa newspapers and a holder of lucrative cable television franchises, during the closure of the News Leader in 1992, and until a year before his death in 1998. His son, John Stewart Bryan III, leads the company today.

The Richmond newspapers used to take in dollars -- Yankee, Confederate, and, in a gesture of Realpolitik following the Lost Cause, Mr. Lincoln's Legal Tender Notes -- as though there were no tomorrow, fittingly for enterprises whose spiritual world was a chivalrous Old South where every dawn greeted a shining new yesterday. Those times and their dispatches are gone with the insalubrious currents that used to waft from the Bryans' shuttered newsprint mills. Before the nonagenarians Tennant Bryan and "V" Dabney passed away, Virginians elected an African-American governor. Today the state's chief executive is a liberal Democrat and former social worker from the upper Midwest. The odds-on favorite to become the next occupant of the Governor's Mansion is a hustling newcomer to the Old Dominion, late of Syracuse, New York, the Clinton machine's prodigious bag man Terry McAuliffe.

But still we have our memories. Some of the things I find unsettling about the blogging world are instant, unedited, and often very rude and unintelligent "comments" that readers are allowed to post.

As the low man on the totem pole of the editorial page of the ultra-traditional Times-Dispatch three decades ago, I had the chore to edit letters to the editor -- "The Voice of the People," as the feature was called. In that place and time, the People's utterances were heavily, I mean heavily, edited.

Every day I rummaged through a fat canvas bag of U.S. Mail. Always it was abounding with correspondence from inmates of the Virginia State Penitentiary; I came to be able to tell just by the handwriting which lifer was striving to have his say in the civic discourse. But these were not our only contributors with ample time and torrential streams of consciousness. An atheist from the Shenandoah Valley hamlet of Grottoes, Virginia, sent a steady flow of missives, some of which I had to publish because I learned from my elders that it was a Times-Dispatch tradition to print the occasional outburst from this fellow, probably a UVA or William & Mary fraternity brother of one of the executives upstairs. With every letter selected for publication -- even from a correspondent whose name and oeuvre I knew like the back of my hand -- a scrupulous member of our clerical staff telephoned to make absolutely sure the letter and its author were authentic. Then I edited the letters, mercilessly if need be, to put them into readable and grammatically correct style.

As a young dévoté of Mencken and protégé of The American Spectator's R. Emmett Tyrrell, I considered it an obligation of common sense to have a private laugh, alone or with Gary Brookins, before consigning to the trash can letters that were manifestly the work of cranks.

Then one morning my editor summoned me to his office. I stared anxiously through the picture window, regarding on the cracked earth hundreds, maybe thousands, of browning, indestructible leaves from Mr. Bryan's proud magnolia.

"Did you get a letter from Miss ______? And not publish it?"

I searched my memory. "Oh, yes, I think that's the name of someone who sends these long, rambling things advocating total, unilateral U.S. disarmament."

"So? You mean to tell me you did receive a letter from Miss _____ and you threw it away?"

"Well, yes -- yes, sir. I didn't think that's the kind of letter we publish."

"Son, don't you know who she is? Let me tell you something. Miss ______ is President Tyler's granddaughter."

"President Tyler? He was President in 1841, and this is 1981. His granddaughter?"

"Yes, his granddaughter. And our newspaper always publishes letters from persons of the stature of a granddaughter of President Tyler."

(Gentle Reader, I am not pulling your leg. Richmond's own United States President, the Thurmondesque John Tyler, born in 1790, had 15 legitimate children from his two marriages and continued procreating for as long as he could hold back the grim reaper -- a very long time. Not only did he have a living granddaughter in Richmond 30 years ago, but Wikipedia, the archive of choice for the New Age Dabneys and Freemans, indicates two of his grandsons are still above ground and breathing today, in the Year of Our Lord 2009. Who knows, maybe one of these marvels of longevity will make a snarky blog post in response to this article. C'mon, guys, have a free-for-all: "Fair Play for Cuba"; "Save the Whales"; "Cap and Trade" -- bring it on. Far be it from me to censor a President's grandchild!)

No number of Richmonders -- not a thousand, not a hundred thousand -- ever can replace the spent lights and silenced bells of the old cast-iron teletypes, the coffee- and Bourbon-stained seersucker suits, the antebellum manners and customs, the obsolete ways we used to live and communicate. As the characters of Flann O'Brien are wont to say, "we will never see their likes again."

(Joseph Duggan was an editorial writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 1979 to 1981, when he moved to New York City, believing, in the rash and confused state of youth, "I've been going to sleep in a city that never wakes up.")

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About the Author
Joseph P. Duggan served on a U.S. State Department diplomatic mission to Prague in 1988, presenting then-dissident Václav Havel his first briefing on U.S. and NATO defense postures and policies. This article is adapted from Duggan's new electronic book, The Zuckerberg Galaxy: A Primer for Navigating the Media Maelstrom.