by Dick Hall-Sizemore
A local newspaper closing down is not really news these days. However, the circumstances surrounding the News & Record in South Boston in Southside Virginia and its shutting down are unusual. In addition, the news is personal to me.
For as long as I can remember, the South Boston/Halifax County area has had two newspapers. The Halifax Gazette, later known as the Gazette-Virginian, was the dominant paper in terms of circulation. The South Boston News and the Halifax County Record-Advertiser were essentially the same newspaper, published by the same folks and put out on two different days of the week.
For about a year, I delivered the News and the Record-Advertiser to houses in about half the town of Halifax on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. It was the first regular-paying job I had. I have a lot of fond memories of delivering those papers, although being regularly chased by a large German shepherd is not one of them. I knew the family that bought the paper after I had gotten married and moved away. The current editor is too young for me to have known him, but I knew his older brother; his father was my midget football coach; I remember his unbelievably calm mother coming into the grocery store accompanied with a rowdy bunch of four or more kids; my wife taught one of the boys in seventh grade.
In 1972, Tucker McLaughlin bought the struggling News and Record-Advertiser and merged them into the News & Record. From the beginning, putting out the paper was a family affair. Tucker’s wife, Sylvia, was the editor, and his oldest son, Tucker, Jr, also was on the staff. When he graduated from college, another son, Tom, joined the team. Sylvia ran the News-Record; Tucker, Jr. was the sports editor/writer and sold ads; and Tom was editor of the Mecklenburg Sun, a sister paper in Clarksville in the adjacent county, which the McLaughlins had also acquired.
From the time the McLaughlins acquired the News & Record, its editorial policy was an anomaly in Southside Virginia. It was liberal. According to Tom, the current News & Record editor and general manager, that was the primary motivation behind the purchase. As he related in his “requiem” for the paper, his parents bought the paper…
… because it was the 1970s and many of our sharpest social conflicts of the era — racial integration, equality of opportunity and education, fair treatment of all citizens — were playing out locally as well, and there were no guarantees that Halifax County would find its way into the light. My mom and my dad thought that it was essential to have an alternative voice in town that would serve as a moral force and a counter to the backlash that had ensued with civil rights, women’s rights and the other sea changes of the time. Publishing an independent newspaper was a way to make sure their voice was heard and the voices of others were heard, too.
He does not spell it out, but the McLaughlins wanted to provide an alternative voice to that of the Gazette, which was also family-run. The Sheltons, Lynn and, later, his son, Keith, had strong conservative views and their newspaper reflected those views.
Tom has continued the policy views of his parents. His editorials are unabashedly liberal and avidly anti-Trump.
I have long marveled that a relatively poor rural county with a population of about 35,000 (and falling) could support two newspapers, especially in today’s environment of competition from social media. When I heard about the News & Record’s announcement that it was ceasing publication, I assumed that finances were the root cause. However, in his explanation for the decision, Tom goes out of his way to say that is not the reason, although he does not claim that he is getting rich from the paper, either. “To be clear about one thing, this decision has nothing to do with the level of support that so many people in Halifax County and beyond have shown for this newspaper. Our readers and advertisers have been more than superb to us.”
The reason for the decision is simple. Tom McLaughlin is tired. When his mother died in 2018, he assumed her position as editor and general manager of the News & Record in addition to his duties of running the Mecklenburg Sun. His brother, Tucker, passed away earlier this year. That left a large hole in the operation. Besides having a knack for selling ads, Tucker had an easy-going personality, which, coupled with the connections forged through years of covering sports, no matter how minor, in the county, made him well-known and liked throughout the area. Tom concludes, “I started out at this newspaper [40 years ago] as a part of a family team that’s now gone. The weight that has come as a result — unrelenting deadlines, pressure to keep revenues up, days when it’s a struggle just to figure out what most needs to be done next — is more than I can bear.”
The Mecklenburg Sun is not affected by this decision. Tom will continue to edit that paper and will maintain the website SoVaNow.com, where he says “maybe I’ll write about Halifax County affairs when the mood strikes.” But, on Monday, November 27, the News & Record will publish its last edition, ending “51 years of operation by the McLaughlin family and more than 150 years of continuous publication in Halifax County.”
Unlike folks in other rural areas who have lost their local newspapers, the residents of Halifax County are fortunate. Notwithstanding the News & Record’s demise, they will still have a viable, locally-owned newspaper, the Gazette-Virginian, to keep an eye on the board of supervisors and the school board and, in addition to keeping them informed of what their government officials are doing, report on all the other activities going on in the community, such as local sports, community theater productions, business activity, local civic groups, school activities, etc. Unfortunately, they will no longer have that alternative voice.