Every story is only as good as its narrator. People need to trust a narrator’s ability to chronicle events, while also relying on them to advocate for its main character so audiences become invested in the journey.
For 30 years, the mighty Falls Church News-Press has informed residents in the City of Falls Church on topics both heavy and light. And during it all, the iconoclastic Nicholas F. Benton has shepherded readers through the City’s evolution from a sleepy village inside the Beltway to a plucky municipality intent on modernizing.
If you ask the paper’s founder and editor-in-chief how he got into journalism, his opener will (almost) always be that he was “born with printer’s ink in my veins.” Starting with his tyke-sized reporting on family happenings in the Benton Star to his young adult days as an outspoken figure of the gay rights movement, you learn quickly that Benton’s line is more an economical summary of his life than it is a cliché.
But the calling to newspapers went beyond the material realm. To Benton, they were the medium where he could champion the values he found noble. In the City, that was improving its schools by way of economic development.
“You can’t claim you want good schools, and not care for the way in which they’re funded. That was a big problem Falls Church had until I showed up,” said Benton, who has used his editorial platform to push for development since its founding in March 1991. “You had the school people on one side and you had the business community on the other side, and they hated each other…I wasn’t pro-business for the sake of being pro-business, I was pro-business for the sake of paying for the schools.”
As the president of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce for two years, for example, Benton got the board to agree to sign on to the school’s budget — an unprecedented move for that time. Those moments when Benton withstood the current of popular opinion laid the foundation for the developments that now line Broad Street and will eventually anchor both ends of Falls Church.
Enriching the schools may have originated as a passion project for Benton, but it also became a source of talent for the paper’s budding staff. Michael Hoover was then an English teacher and adviser to George Mason High School’s student newspaper, The Lasso. When Benton asked Hoover if he knew any students who might be a good fit for his operation, Hoover also threw his hat in the ring, suggesting he could serve as a more experienced journalist to complement Benton.
After he penned a guest commentary in the inaugural edition, setting off a contentious dialogue in the paper’s pages over subsequent issues, readers suggested Hoover name his column “Ground Zero” since it heated up controversy.
“I accepted their suggestion because, to me, the name meant that everything of substance that happened in the school setting was precisely where everything that happened mattered,” Hoover wrote to the News-Press. “Quite simply, education was Ground Zero for everything.”
The column would be rebranded as “Against the Wind” following the events on 9/11, and Hoover would continue it for another six years after that.
The former teacher wasn’t the only gem Benton received from the local school system. The founder’s top lieutenant in Jody Fellows was one of the students who worked at the paper in high school, and would later return after graduating college in 2001. While Fellows admitted that the News-Press was simply a tweener job to keep him occupied post-grad, he was drawn to the versatile demands that came with putting the paper together each week. He would go on to be the managing editor for 19 years, leaving just last May.
Starting out as an Associate Editor, Fellows reflected on how Benton had sole control over the layout each week, on top of writing all the stories, leaving time for plenty of shenanigans — such as intense games of Backwall, or when hormones steered one staffer to print a picture of an actress…and consequently jammed up the printer for 20 minutes. But as the digital age came about in the mid-2000s and physically pasting the paper onto sheets was superseded by programs such as Adobe InDesign, Fellows’ role grew.
Part of that was because, for as forward-thinking as Benton was in terms of enacting his ideals, the paper’s top editor stubbornly clung to outdated technology. Fellows points to Benton using WordPerfect 5.1 (which has thankfully been replaced by Google Docs) and how he had an AOL email address (which is regrettably still around) as prime examples. Still, those bugaboos couldn’t tamp down his love for actually creating something; a love that readers noticed and the paper’s many rivals could never match.
“At the end of the day, you have a product. You have something that’s tangible that you can hold, and you can say, ‘Hey, we made this,’” Fellows said. “It was always really cool having my hands involved in that process and being able to do as much as I could.”
Advertising Manager Nick Gatz was another key cog in the News-Press’ future who would come along during the paper’s digital transformation. A print designer who now makes ads for advertising clients in house, the market was competitive for jobs of that type in 2007 when Gatz joined straight out of George Mason University.
And why wouldn’t they be? The newspaper industry was humming along. The News-Press was regularly churning out 40-plus page papers, with upwards of 70-ish pages during special issues. A tiny tabloid-style publication that scratched out small issues for the City at first had steadily grew during its first decade and a half to where it had a circulation of over 40,000. As Benton put it (mostly tongue-in-cheek), the News-Press was the second most prominent paper in the Washington, D.C. region behind only the Washington Post.
That was until the Great Recession set off a perfect storm of adversity. The housing bubble’s collapse took the paper’s top advertisers — realtors — off the market. On top of that, the ascension of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter were cannibalizing the purpose of local news. An economic crisis and a paradigm shift in information doomed tens of thousands of newspapers across the country.
The News-Press wasn’t immune to this fallout. A slow drip of shrinking page layouts and dwindling staff tempered the paper’s ambitions over the following years. As small papers in nearby Arlington, McLean and Herndon all vanished, Falls Church’s own paper held on despite “sketchy times,” in the words of Benton. That involved going into debt with the paper’s printer, who was sympathetic to the hardships the mighty News-Press was enduring.
Yet eventually, they did start to feel the ground firm up beneath them again. And that’s because the hyper-local coverage and appeal of the paper kept it relevant.
“It’s providing a vehicle for small businesses to get their message out to the community, and that’s why it’s always been such a good thing,” Gatz said. “It’s something that you can believe in as opposed to just padding the pocket of a CEO.”
So, what’s the take away from this paper’s lifetime?
Hoover said it only lasted this long because someone as hard-headed and dedicated to journalism as Benton could’ve pulled it off. Fellows, meanwhile, believed that Benton’s commitment to local journalism has come full circle, with there being a revived interest in local news following over a decade of gutting it.
The answer is much simpler to Benton himself, though. He found that audience, and he got them to care for the main character in the way that all journalists need to: with a reputation for telling the truth.
“The people that everybody ignores in Falls Church — even to this day, people at City Hall — are all the people that are getting the paper…“It’s the people that you don’t hear from that are reading the paper every week,” Benton said. “They don’t tell you they’re reading the paper every week, but they’re thoughtful people, they’re educated people, and you’re making sense to them — that’s the challenge.
“You have to win the argument in your editorials and your coverage and [with your] focus on the paper,” he continued. “You can’t say things without any credibility. People give you credibility because you’ve earned it. And I always look to the people who are reading the paper that you’ve never heard from are not the ones banging on the door at City Hall.”