By Alexandra Seymour
With his University of Virginia economics degree in hand, Matthew Paxton IV bade farewell to Lexington and his family’s newspaper, The News-Gazette. He headed to Lynchburg, where he would work for a bank.
The man who didn’t like to write had typed the final period on a story spanning three-generations.
Or so he had thought.
Just four years later, in 1980, Paxton found himself back in Lexington, where The News-Gazette’s business manager, a family friend, convinced him that there is more to journalism than reporting. Indeed, there was a place for an economist: managing advertisement sales. In 1994, after working alongside his father as advertising and business manager, Paxton bought the business from his father.
Now, at 62, the man who never envisioned continuing the family newspaper legacy is the owner and publisher of The News-Gazette and, as of Sept. 24, president of the National Newspaper Association, the organization representing more than 2,000 community papers across the country.
He called it a matter of stewardship for three generation of Paxtons, and now him, to run a newspaper. “And there’s certainly the public benefit aspect of informing the public [and] being the watchdog.”
Paxton in his new role
Established in 1885, NNA is the country cousin of the far more powerful American Society of News Editors and Newspaper Association of America, both of which represent the nation’s dailies. NNA mostly represents small weeklies like The News-Gazette. Its goal is to “protect, promote and enhance community newspapers,” according to its website. NNA serves as a valuable resource for their journalism as well as their business strategies in this age of rapid technological advancement.
Elected as president of NNA in September at the 130th Annual NNA Convention in Franklin, Tenn., Paxton’s primary mission is to continue the organization’s fight for the best possible postal service for smaller newspapers, which rely heavily on mail delivery. Based on his own experience with The News-Gazette, he recognizes the importance of reliable service and stable rates from the nation’s post offices.
“They’re not meeting their own service delivery standards right now,” Paxton said.
Currently, NNA is working to get a postal reform bill onto the floor of Congress. Representatives Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) have spearheaded this bipartisan bill, which passed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in July.
With 1,100 newspapers signing NNA’s petition to urge the Speaker of the House to bring this bill forward before the term is up, NNA has well surpassed its original goal of attaining 200 signatories. This initiative is the next project following the recent success of NNA and its allies in the Sunshine in Government Initiative with reforms to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which gave the act “more teeth,” Paxton said. Members of this coalition included the Associated Press, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the News Media Association.
Though NNA influences public policy and works with a registered lobbyist at its public policy office in Washington, D.C., it is not a PAC because this would pose an ethical problem. Instead, the organization uses moral persuasion and education, especially during its yearly Summit in D.C. Held in March, NNA tries to get as many publishers to come as possible so that they’ll connect with their legislators.
To Paxton, being president is a matter of trial and error. He described himself as having a “low-key, collegial style,” that mirrors his modest manner. Rather than push an agenda, he said, he likes to keep the association’s executive committee and rank-and-file board members actively involved in the decision-making process.
“He’s a great person to work for, pleasant, easy-going, and not an in-your-face type boss.” – Darryl Woodson, editor of The News-Gazette
“He’s a great person to work for, pleasant, easy-going, and not an in-your-face type boss,” Darryl Woodson, editor of The News-Gazette, said. “Because we are a small paper, he’s down in the trenches working hard every day.”
Woodson also said that, through helping The News-Gazette overcome “challenging and changing times for the newspaper industry as a whole,” Paxton has gained “on-the-ground experience that will help to make him a great NNA president.”
NNA embraces Paxton’s changes
“I’m a believer of tapping into people’s strengths,” Paxton said. “I fight against being someone who will just take something and do it, rather than try and delegate some or involve some other people… it ends up being really hard when you think you’re the only one who can do something.”
As one of his first measures as president, a one-year position, Paxton got rid of the separate executive committee meeting, which precedes the three formal board meetings held each year. He replaced this with a longer board meeting to facilitate better discussion among executive committee and rank-and-file board members.
In addition to helping further public policy issues, one of his biggest responsibilities includes traveling the country to attend and speak at state press association meetings.
Looking forward, he hopes to increase membership and the number of states with an NNA ambassador. Prior to his appointment as president, he served as NNA vice president and treasurer. He also served two terms on the board as Region 3 director from 1999-2005.
Generally, the federal government has embraced NNA more than national newspapers because they are, as Paxton said, “perhaps not as threatening.” Previously, NNA held meetings in the White House Press Briefing Room and it secured prestigious speakers such as President George W. Bush and Vice President Joe Biden, back when he was a Senator.
“We’re not seen as the ‘gotcha,’ journalists,” he said.
Paxton at the News-Gazette
Community newspapers face many of the same problems as other news media, such as decreased print advertising revenue, reliance on an inconsistent postal service and a large shift to reading news online.
Still, Paxton is optimistic about the future. Currently, The News-Gazette has a circulation of about 7,000, with news pages that are always easily filled. In smaller communities, he said, there is always too much to cover.
“Generally, in this community, given a week’s time, there’s plenty to report on,” Paxton said. “We have much more problem trying to prioritize all the stories that we have—what’s going on the front, how do we play these up . . . How do we get it all in?”
Regardless, The News-Gazette always makes a point to print every letter to the editor because it is, as Paxton said, “important to be a voice for all of the community.”
But, even in a tight-knit community, it is also important to remain balanced and uphold ethics. At The News-Gazette, most of the six full-time reporters and editors have been around for about 10 years. In fact, the head reporter joined in the late 1980s.
Even though they are “good enough to work for a larger paper,” the news staff members choose to stay, he said.
“He’s done everything he could during some very trying financial times to give us enough staffing to properly cover this community,” Woodson said. “While other newspapers lost significant portions of their editorial staff in recent years, he’s been able to keep our staffing level pretty close to what it had been.”
In 1962, the Lexington Gazette and the Rockbridge County News, a paper founded in 1884, merged to form The News-Gazette, making it the third oldest paper in Virginia. Since the paper is locally owned and historic, reporters also feel connected with their community, which Paxton thinks is key to running a successful newspaper.
“We [The News-Gazette] like to joke that if it didn’t happen in Rockbridge County, it didn’t happen,” he said.
To maintain professional independence, reporters must be careful of the organizations they join. They are also prohibited from being active in political organizations.
The News-Gazette sometimes comments on issues in editorials or columns, with both liberal and conservative perspectives.
The unsigned editorial that usually dominates the editorial page is an exception to this balance. It represents the publisher’s view, usually favoring Democratic candidates in recent years. On Oct. 12, The News-Gazette endorsed Hillary Clinton for President. Though the editorial is generally written by one of the reporters or editors, Paxton wrote this one himself. He writes about six to 10 editorials a year, usually when he feels strongly about an issue or has “some special knowledge or insights,” he said.
The editorial began: “After last week’s audio tape of Donald Trump’s crass, graphic endorsement of sexual assault to women, this newspaper, through its editorial board, believes it must speak on the upcoming presidential election.” Trump’s platform was described as consisting “mainly of platitudes and grandiose statements with little backing in how they would be implemented,” and his “ignorance . . .of most everything except himself,” as “astonishing.”
Although the editorial acknowledged that both candidates were “flawed,” it continued by stating “Hillary Clinton is the only responsible choice” because she is clearly more qualified and competent.
While mixed reactions for the editorial resulted in both praise and cancelled subscriptions, Paxton, a self-described “political junkie” wasn’t concerned.
Paxton referred to himself as the “flak-catcher and the facilitator” of The News-Gazette. As publisher, he maintains order in the office, helps brainstorm editorials, catches typos and layout problems before sending each paper off to print and ensures that everyone has the tools that they need to do their jobs. Of everything he does, he most enjoys the design aspect of the industry.
“As the editor and boss of the newsroom, I appreciate his focus on keeping the quality of our news work as high as it can be,” Woodson said.
The Paxton legacy at The News-Gazette may stop here, though, as neither of Paxton’s daughters nor any of his nieces or nephews has expressed interest in taking over the business one day. In the meantime, Paxton plans to run the paper for a while longer. Eventually, he would consider bringing in a publisher to take over or selling the business to an individual or local group.
When Paxton is not fulfilling his roles as publisher of The News-Gazette and president of NNA, he is a beekeeper, co-author of Pacific Clipper: The Untold Story, which almost became a 20th Century Fox movie, and a pilot, even building the plane he flies now himself.