By Greg Johnson
Visitors to Union, West Virginia, who are looking for the office of the local weekly newspaper are often given a big clue. “Look for the building with the buckboard wagon on the porch,” editor Craig Mohler tells them. The hard-to-miss antique wagon, acquired by his late father Harry Mohler, has been sitting in front of The Monroe Watchman for the past thirty years.
Three decades are practically the blink of an eye for a publication that has been operating continuously since 1872, in the same building since 1903. For nearly all of its 140-year history the only newspaper in Monroe County has been owned by one of two families. If you don’t count Elbert Fowler, who launched the weekly under the name The Border Watchman in 1872 and ran it until 1876, the paper has always been in the hands of a Johnston (three generations from 1876 to 1965) or a Mohler (two generations from 1965 to the present). With the exception of The Greenbrier resort, The Monroe Watchman is arguably the Greenbrier Valley’s oldest business.
First-time visitors to the paper’s office are sometimes taken aback by what appears to be a century’s worth of clutter. “New employees are always telling us they’re going to clean the place up and get us organized,” Dale Mohler, Craig’s mother, the paper’s publisher and general manager, says with a smile. “That lasts about ten minutes. When they realize how much work their new job is going to involve it turns into a project for another day.”
Putting out a weekly paper for a county with a population of 13,500 is a more time-consuming business than it might seem at first glance. While the operation is far less labor-intensive than it was back in the day it required setting lead type and printing large sheets on the printing press that now sits idle in the back of the room, it still takes four full-time and two part-time employees to gather the news, sell advertising, lay out copy, paste up camera-ready pages, work with the newspaper in Covington, Virginia, that has been printing it for the past 20 years, and distribute 4000 copies locally and by mail to subscribers in 48 states.
Like his father, Craig first developed an interest in the newspaper business when he started working at the Watchman as a teenager. He had planned to pursue a career as a veterinarian, however, and he’d returned to the county with a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Georgia and set up a practice when his father died unexpectedly of cancer at age 64. Suddenly the young veterinarian found himself in the position of having to simultaneously run a clinic and put out a weekly newspaper. Something had to give, and eventually he decided to close his practice and help his mother with the Watchman. Dale had always coordinated the business end of things behind the scene, usually working from home, and she started reporting to the office, where some of the locals were surprised to see her.
“People didn’t realize how much work Mom had been doing over the years and how much she knew about the paper,” Craig comments. “Actually she knew just about everything.”
Many observers view print newspapers as a dying industry, and cite the recent closure of major city papers as proof. In the case of his own weekly, Craig disagrees. “That might be true in cities, but rural weeklies fill a niche that’s not being filled by TV or the Internet. When the Watchman started, it actually covered the national news. You can look at old issues of the paper and read articles about the exploration of the West and other things that weren’t related to Monroe County. Now people can get national and international news anywhere, but there aren’t many places they can go for local news and sports and classifieds. That’s where the local weekly comes in. We also benefit from the legal advertisements that have to be published – public notices, delinquent tax rolls, trustee sales and estate closings. And in election years we see a bump in our advertising revenues from local political ads. We’re not about to go out of business.”
When asked about his paper’s political affiliation, he shrugs. “Dad was a Democrat. I’m a Democrat. Mom’s a Republican. The West Virginia Press Association lists us as Independent, so I guess that’s what we are.”
In addition to his day job, Mohler has served two terms as a county commissioner, and in his spare time he plays the piano well enough to tackle Scott Joplin rags. He’s a husband (wife Sue is a vet in Greenbrier and Mercer Counties) and the father of two (daughter Maddie, 11, and son Harry, 10). He tries to be practical about his children’s futures. “I guess we’d all like our kids to be able to stay in Monroe County and have good jobs here. But then again, if all the children who were ever born to Monroe County families had stayed here, we’d be as crowded as New York City. Then I wouldn’t want to live here myself.”
He likes the area’s rural, unspoiled quality. He feels Monroe County can preserve this heritage by focusing on agriculture and tourism. “Farming is the main reason this area looks the way it does. Our farmers deserve the credit for our scenery. We’re lucky that we don’t have an interstate running through the middle of everything, because it would have changed things.”
Mohler views his editorship from both practical and idealistic perspectives. He’s pleased to be able to offer the public a forum for discussing ideas and issues, and he’s proud to be able to occasionally have an impact on public sentiment. On the other hand, he’s troubled by the times his positions bring him into conflict with people. “Whatever you do in the newspaper business, you’re going to make friends and enemies. That’s just the way it works. You’ll publish letters that are the opposite of your own views, and people will assume they’re your opinions. No matter how well you try to explain it, sometimes they just don’t understand.” He points out the motto that has always appeared on the paper’s masthead: The Noblest Motive is the Public Good. “You try to keep your own motives pure and promote the public good, but sometimes it all comes down to the fact that people have different opinions about things.”
Like all careers, his stint as an editor has had its highs and lows. “My most difficult experience was our school board controversy,” he mentions a well-publicized episode when he supported a long-time school superintendent who was viewed as wonderful by some and less so by others, who eventually lost her job. The controversy cost some board members their own elected positions. “Some people who were my friends still won’t speak to me because of it. But I did what I thought was right for the children of the county, and if I had it to do over again I wouldn’t change my stance.” He shakes his head, still visibly bothered by the way events unfolded in his small, close-knit community. “Dad had his stressful times, too. He supported a controversial school levy in the 70’s, and opponents of the levy lined up on the street outside to cancel their subscriptions in protest.”
Mohler prefers to dwell on the high points. He’s especially proud of his efforts to turn an abandoned Norfolk and Western Railway line dating back to the 1800s into a hiking and biking trail. The result was the 4½-mile Potts Valley Rail Trail in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. The trail officially opened in October 2010, and it brings locals and tourists to a scenic corner of Monroe County most have never seen. He promotes the trail enthusiastically, handing out brochures and talking about its history.
On the afternoon we visited the Watchman and talked with Craig and Dale, young Harry popped in after school and sat down in the chair his grandfather and father have occupied since 1965. It was hard not to wonder if perhaps someday Harry or Maddie might want to officially assume this seat and carry on the family tradition. Whether or not they do, at age 140 and still going strong, chances are The Monroe Watchman will continue to serve its readership for many years to come.