Hardy County, W.Va., newspaper leadership understands responsibility of reporting local news
By Lexi Browning, WV Press Association
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles on newspapers in West Virginia.
MOOREFIELD, W.Va. — Few newspaper publishers in West Virginia can say they’re part of a 118-year family legacy. For Phoebe Heishman and her daughter Hannah Heishman, it’s a way of life and a source of great pride.
Phoebe, now publisher emeritus, has been publishing the Moorefield Examiner for more than 50 years. Nearing 80, she’s still writing editorials. Hannah is the Examiner’s publisher and the fourth generation to serve in the role.
Despite the challenges the family has faced along the way, including this year’s coronavirus pandemic, they adapted and changed with the times for more than a century. From the days of linotype and print to online and E-editions, the Moorefield Examiner is there for its community.
Since 1902, the family has published the Moorefield Examiner, starting with Phoebe’s grandfather, Samuel Alexander McCoy. McCoy had previously worked for the publication before purchasing it.
“My grandparents – Samuel and Eunice – had just gotten married, and they bought the paper, moved into a house and my mother was born the next year ” Phoebe said. “At that time, of course, the paper was handset, and it was a four-page paper. It was the extra long, extra wide newspapers that you had back in the turn of the century.”
Phoebe’s mother, Katherine McCoy Fisher, was active in the newspaper business, along with her husband, Ralph E. Fisher. While Ralph was in World War II, serving as a Navy fighter pilot, Katherine ran the Moorefield Examiner. Katherine attended a Mergenthaler linotype school on a trip to New York City to learn more about linotype printing.
Both of Phoebe’s parents were involved in the West Virginia Press Association.
Phoebe’s career started on a different path. She worked in Washington, D.C., when President John F. Kennedy was in the White House. Kennedy, she said, “was a magnet” for “any young person who had an interest in D.C.” She also spent three years in California and moved to West Virginia for a public broadcasting opportunity.
When her father passed, Phoebe moved back to Moorefield to help her mother with the publication.
“I told my mother this was my five-year plan,” Phoebe said. “Fifty-something years later, I’m still here. I met my husband, and it was another reason to stay here. During this time, when I came back, we did go to offset printing Compugraphic machines, and it was another change in the way paper was being manufactured.”
Then came the flood of 1985 and the rise of new technologies.
The Moorefield Examiner reported Nov. 13, 1985, that the flood came after 20 inches of rain within eight to nine days.
“Walls of water rushed down both the South Fork and the South Branch rivers tearing apart houses, ripping out trees, breaking up asphalt roads and steel bridges and generally wreaking havoc throughout the area,” the newspaper reported. “Estimates after the flood were that 200 mobile homes and 400 private homes had been destroyed or damaged by the flood in the Moorefield area. Some 1,500 people were displaced and 60 businesses were damaged.”
“The Examiner never missed a week during the flood,” Hannah added. “They figured out ways to get information.”
Hannah explained that by the mid 1980s, the Examiner had outsourced its printing, so they “were able to get it printed even though the community was flooded.”
The week of the flood, the newspaper was still distributed … only “a day or two late,” Phoebe said, but they made it work. With their typesetting machines out of order, employees took the materials to Keyser, West Virginia, and returned with printed editions. One employee processed photographs in his home.
“The Post Office delivered where they were able, and we distributed most of the county papers by dropping off bundles at stores around the county.” Phoebe said. “That edition contained information for emergency efforts and food accessibility. We did the best we could to make it available.”
Changing with the times
The flood provided an opportunity to acquire new machinery and adapt to the oncoming technologies as the family switched to desktop publishing. Phoebe recalled her first introduction to an Apple computer in Charleston in 1986 with a young instructor:
“I typed something, and, all of a sudden, here’s my copy looking at me on the screen,” Phoebe remembered. “He said, you want to change the typeface and size, he went through the whole routine, and I was thinking, ‘All in this little box?’ I fell in love with Apple computers at this point … It’s been fun to grow with the computers.”
Phoebe’s husband, David O. Heishman, was the technology whiz, Hannah added.
“He took college classes and learned to program, and there was a time when he could tell you anything you wanted to know about an Apple Mac computer,” Hannah said. “Eventually, things changed and outpaced his ability and desire to keep up, but he, for years and years, was the resident computer expert when it came to Apples and when it came to figuring out which programs we needed to have. That was one of the things my dad did. Dad was the computer guy, the printer guy and the postal service guy.”
Growing up, Hannah said she saw her parents very engaged in their communities, and it helped shape her perspective and value of objectivity, which she carried into her 15-year stint in the United States Army. Hannah cited the First Amendment, specifically freedom of the press and freedom of speech, as reasons for her service.
“I grew up doing things like stuffing newspapers, and I still do that as needed,” Hannah said. “Mom was largely a reporter and manager and editor and Dad was the general manager and printer for years and years. He’d run newspaper to wherever we were being printed at the time. I used to ride with him when I was home, and I still love watching presses run.”
Following her parents’ footsteps, just as Phoebe did, is not a responsibility Hannah takes lightly.
“I don’t want to be the last generation,” Hannah said. “I don’t want to be the generation that has to sell it. I don’t want to be the generation that has to close it, and I am well aware that I may be one, if not both. That terrifies me. In terms of being a strong, dynamic woman, I am very proud of that heritage. I look at my sister and sister-in-law and my sister’s partner, we’ve got strong women in this family still — that particular legacy isn’t going anywhere.”
With the ongoing pandemic, it’s critical to keep the community informed, Phoebe said. But social media, for instance, has changed the way information — and misinformation — can circulate quickly.
That’s where community newspapers come in, Phoebe said.
“It’s very important to have newspapers,” Phoebe said. “It’s that simple. One, a newspaper makes somebody sit down and write words and put them on paper. Two, if we do our job, we learn about what’s going on in our community and we are able to transcribe that to the people who live here.”
Small publications have an extra layer of accountability when it comes to coverage, especially when covering fellow Hardy County residents they may know personally, Hannah said.
“When we write something, we may be writing about an advertiser or subscriber in the community, and you’ll see them in stores, in the movie theaters,” Phoebe said, noting that larger publications may not have those interpersonal connections. “I always felt we had to do a better job if we were going to be critical. We better be able to defend it.”
No challenges too big for Heishmans
Though much has changed, the Heishmans’ adaptability has not. Challenges are still present, but today, they come in different forms. The pandemic brought forth its own set of challenges for journalistic institutions.
“Part of what we do as a newspaper and why it’s important for us to keep on top of things and keep changing is that we’re also the only ones who cover this area the way we do,” Hannah said. “If the newspaper shuts down, there’s no one else who will have a reporter at Moorefield town council or Hardy County commission meetings.”
For many news outlets across the nation, the pandemic caused a chain reaction: A business’ loss of revenue leads to fewer advertising purchases. With less advertising, the news outlet’s budget tightens. With a smaller, less predictable budget, furloughs and layoffs ensue. Since March, Poynter Institute has kept track of newsroom layoffs, pay cuts and dropped print editions, updating the list often.
Hannah spoke to the significance of advertising, especially in small publications with smaller staffs.
“People don’t realize that counter sales and subscriptions are not how we make money. That’s not how I pay employees or the printer. Advertising is how I do anything. Twenty five years ago, classifieds were two full pages. Now they’re less than a page. ”
The Examiner currently employs about 18 people, counting both full-time and part-time positions.
“Like all small newspapers, we are hurting for income,” Phoebe said. “Advertising is down due to a lot of businesses hurt by the virus and the economy. But we are also hurt by businesses using Facebook to promote themselves.”
Through the trials and triumphs, though, no challenge yet has halted their efforts to inform their community — and that’s a legacy they hope to continue.
“We’ve survived floods and babies and all the things in history being made,” Phoebe said.