Cara Ellen Modisett.
Rex Bowman, Pulitzer-nominated reporter and author.
Rex Bowman, born in the mountains of southwest Virginia, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and author of two books. He has worked as a reporter for newspapers in California, Maryland and Virginia.
Oh, what fun I had over the past decade, driving to small communities along Virginia's Blue Ridge where traffic lights are as alien as Wi-Fi, talking to the offbeat jokers I met there, then filing reports to the newspaper that paid me handsomely, the Richmond Times-Dispatch. In 12 years as the metropolitan paper's go-to reporter in the state's upland corner, I never ran out of cockamamie characters to write about.
Did you read the story about the junkyard owner who taught his pet pig to drink Coca-Cola straight from the bottle? I wrote that. How about the tale of the cattle farmer who fell from the second floor of his barn, landed on his head and, possibly as a result, suddenly got the idea to build a gyrocopter in his yard? I wrote that too. Then there was the account of the old-timer who survived three days at the bottom of his collapsed outhouse. He was a real hoot. A real, smelly hoot.
I filed stories from places with wonderful names – Stonebruise and Solitude, Bonnie Blue and Busthead, Novelty and Goose Pimple Junction. To my readers, most of whom lived in Richmond and its suburbs, Appalachia was as distant as the moon. The point of all my scribbling was this: The mountainous part of Virginia is, if not an entirely separate culture, then at least something delightfully different from the state's flatlands. As a native son of the mountains, it tickled me to give Richmonders insight into what life is like in parts of the state where the night life still includes watching stars and playing bingo at the firehouse.
It all ended in April, though, when the Richmond Times-Dispatch laid me off, along with 58 of my colleagues. Nothing personal, just budget cutting. If you haven't heard, newspapers are suffering. They're shedding employees. Some have filed for bankruptcy protection. Others have slashed the number of pages they print. The Richmond Times-Dispatch turned out the lights in the Roanoke bureau, where I was the sole occupant.
The recession is part of the problem. Advertisers aren't buying ads. Another part is the internet, where people increasingly go to get their news without having to plunk down two or three quarters for a newspaper.
What this newspaper shrinkage means for mountain communities is that they'll see fewer curious, oddball reporters like me stroll into their town. And what this means for readers in places like Richmond, and other big cities in other states, is that they'll lose a connection to the rural ways of life that still exist. They'll lose touch with their state's greater heritage.
The solution? That's what everybody in the newspaper business is looking for. At the very least, citizens will have to realize that supporting journalism – that is, buying a newspaper instead of turning to internet bloggers for the truth – is vital to our democracy. And newspapers, for their part, will have to try harder to tell stories that people are willing to pay to read. Stories like the one about the little Virginia town that races outhouses down Main Street once a year, or the one about people in Wangle Junction, who had no idea the name of their community was Wangle Junction. Did you read those? I wrote them. Back when I worked for a newspaper.
Rex Bowman is author of "Blue Ridge Chronicles: A Decade of Dispatches from Southwest Virginia," and the novel "Cannibals."
Update, October 2009: Rex Bowman has taken a position at the Roanoke Times.