By Lexi Browning, West Virginia Press Association
UNION, W.Va. — For nearly 150 years, The Monroe Watchman has served as the authoritative news source for Monroe County, West Virginia. The weekly newspaper, located on Main Street in Union, West Virginia, published its first edition in 1872.
Editor Craig Mohler is now at the helm of the publication. He’s the second generation in his family to hold the title. Two decades ago, he took over editing responsibilities, following in the footsteps of his father, Harry “H.H.” Mohler.
“My folks purchased the business in 1965. My dad actually worked here for a while when he was in high school and went away for school and eventually came back and started working here again,” Mohler said. “The editor at the time had never married or had children, so he allowed my dad to start purchasing the business.”
The business had been purchased from another family in the region, the Johnstons, who had run it for three generations before it was sold to the Mohlers, he explained. As the child of farm workers who worked his way up into the newspaper’s leadership, Mohler said running the newspaper was a “great source of pride and accomplishment.”
“It’s been neat to be part of it,” Mohler said of the family legacy.
With the exception of early owners’ one-week break between each Christmas and New Year, Mohler said the publication has, to his knowledge, never missed a week of publishing.
For the weekly newspaper, production and mailing is a weeklong affair. Newspapers are printed on Monday evenings and mailed out on Tuesday. Each newspaper carries a Thursday date, carrying on Mohler’s father’s tradition of ensuring that recipients weren’t receiving “old” news in the mail.
Altogether, the business employs four people: Mohler, his mother, and two employees, including a senior reporter, John Honaker, who joined the newspaper with Mohler’s father in the 1960s. In 2018, Mohler’s mother transitioned from full-time to part-time. His brother, Rod, who works as an attorney, covers Monroe High School football games for the Watchman in the fall and offers legal advice as necessary.
In recent years, many newspapers across the United States have faced economic stress, resulting in budget cuts, layoffs and closures. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has added an extra layer of uncertainty.
“Our circulation has gone up a bit during the pandemic. We reached a maximum in the early 2000s when I first came in here and had gotten up to 4,200 per week. Since then it’s dropped to 3,200, and then over the last few months, it’s crept up a bit. I think a lot of that is from losing papers in neighboring counties.”
The newspaper hasn’t been printed on-site since the 1960s, but the Babcock printer that was purchased in the early 1900s is still in the building. With presses closing and streamlining operations across the nation, the Watchman’s printing has changed multiple times over the last several decades. They’re currently printed in Lynchburg, Virginia, along with The Roanoke Times.
“People love seeing that when they come into the building with all the pulleys on the ceiling,” Mohler said. “Of course, that used the old lead letters, and they were handset letters and with linotype after that. They stopped using that in 1965 and went to offset. We never purchased an offset printer because they were expensive and we wouldn’t be using it every day.”
Preserving a family legacy
Craig Mohler had always been a familiar face around the newsroom, visiting and helping with inserts and writing features after school and on days off.
“I always enjoyed the paper. I hung around here in high school, and, of course, we did a little high school paper, and we’d do that here and use the equipment we had here to put that together.”
Growing up, Mohler said he always struggled to find a singular hobby or interest, and journalism offered opportunities to learn about new subjects each week and become a “jack of all trades.”
But it’s not just the love of learning that’s kept him invested in the field.
“For me, it’s partly the family tradition and the fact that people do appreciate it and want to see it continue,” Mohler said. “It’s neat to be part of something that’s been part of the county for so long.”
After graduating, Mohler didn’t start his career at the newspaper; instead, he became a veterinarian. In 1997, while Mohler was running his veterinary clinic, his father passed away, and he began to help out part-time at the newspaper. For about a year, Mohler said he tried to balance his clinic, a position on the Monroe County Commission and the newspaper, but it wasn’t feasible long-term.
“I finally decided to close my clinic because my mother was still involved with the paper and we really wanted to keep it going and keep it in the family,” Mohler said. “It was a tough decision, but it’s worked out pretty well.”
At the newspaper, Mohler has worn many hats. Every week, his responsibilities range from content production to hand-labeling print editions and packaging them to be mailed to subscribers. Once papers are labeled, they’re driven to the local post office. The rest of the week is dedicated to management, billing and pursuing leads on stories.
“Like most local business owners, the buck stops with you,” Mohler said. “Once a week, I take out the trash, and I put salt on the front steps this morning because they were icy. You do whatever it takes to get things done.”
Mohler, who is 59, said though the pandemic has caused stress throughout the news industry, The Monroe Watchman has received an outpouring of support for subscribers over the last year.
“A lot of times, when people send in their subscription renewal, I’ll get this really nice note from somebody saying how much the paper means to them and how glad they are that we’re still publishing. I started printing them out and putting them on the wall.”
It’s just one of the many rewarding aspects of his job, he added.
“There’s notes and cards, and someone even drew this really fancy calligraphy design on a piece of cardstock that says, ‘We want The Watchman,” and it was very detailed,” Mohler said. “I see that and think, ‘Wow, we’re important to people,’ and that makes you feel good to still be a part of that.”
As for the next generation, Mohler said his two children, who are currently in college, both help with billing and filling in administrative duties, and one nephew has also been involved for several years.
Adjusting to the times
Certainly much has changed since the newspaper debuted in the late 1800s, including the introduction of the 24-hour news cycle, social media and political pundits. In order to keep Monroe County residents in the loop, the publication has, like many others across the nation, has had to adapt to suit their audience, Mohler said.
“I look back through our archives in the late 1800s and 1900s, and the paper was full of national news,” Mohler said. “There were stories about the exploration of the west, Yosemite and Yellowstone. At that time, there was no radio or tv, and the newspaper was the source of local news for people.”
Today, Mohler said, it’s a little more difficult to compete as a weekly publication when people have instantaneous access to information — and misinformation — at their fingertips.
“We sort of shifted our focus to locally-based or state or national stories that are of particular interest to local people, and you don’t always get that in the larger outlets,” Mohler said. “I think it really creates a sense of community, and that’s something we’re losing, I think, in the digital age, too.”
National news has an aerial view of what’s going on in rural America, but nothing can replace local publications, Mohler said.
“It’s the local perspective, and a lot of times, it’s easier to understand something that’s happening from an inside view rather than an outside view. … Sometimes, the view from the outside is confusing or misleading and people don’t really understand why things transpire the way they do or happen the way they do,” he said.
Many local news items, he said, are often too niche to be included in larger papers, but smaller papers help preserve the “sense of local culture and community” that readers won’t find in national coverage.
“We still run birth announcements and pictures of large tomatoes that someone grew in their garden and that stuff, and I think it establishes us as a community,” Mohler said. “People do need an outlet for local news.”
Eventually, he said he hopes to bring credit card payment capabilities and possibly an e-edition to help the publication reach a wider audience. For now, readers can email Craig at [email protected] or contact the office at 304-772-3016 to subscribe or renew subscriptions. Payments must be made in the form of cash or a check.