Richmond Free Press founder and publisher Ray Boone's office hasn't been touched since his death in 2014. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Ray Boone’s desk is as he left it. A coffee-stained calendar patched with sticky notes and scribbled reminders — “Tracey, please see me on this.” — sits amid stacks of magazines and newspapers, including his own Richmond Free Press. Last May’s mail is still tucked in its envelopes. Sunlight filters through the shades, illuminating framed photos of Frederick Douglass, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. A picture of Boone’s smiling grandson, Raymond Harold Boone III, is perched on a fireplace mantel. The new basketball that grandfather intended to give grandson still rests on the floor by an adjacent loveseat. Behind the desk, a worn upholstered chair is pushed back at an angle, as if the publisher and editor had just stepped out to pop into the nearby newsroom, perhaps for a last-minute tweak to the week’s editorials on this deadline day. As if he’ll breeze through the door in his trademark suspenders and plop back down at any minute. It’s been a little more than a year since Boone died. At the Franklin Street office downtown, the phone still rings with people asking for him. Even when it’s silent, staffers say, reminders of him are everywhere: in the pages of the newspaper; on the walls in the lobby, where awards are displayed alongside framed milestone issues; behind the locked door to his corner office, untouched since his death. His widow, Jean Patterson Boone, says she can’t yet bring herself to pack it up. “I’ve got to do something, but I’ll get to it,” she says, her voice trailing to a whisper. She pushes the creaking door shut, and locks it again.
After 76-year-old Richmond Free Press publisher Ray Boone died of pancreatic cancer on June 3, 2014, condolences eventually gave way to questions: What would become of the newspaper he worked tirelessly to establish? In what form would it survive without him? Could it, in fact, survive without him? (Photo by Sandra Sellers/Richmond Free Press)
Raymond H. Boone was a provocative figure — sometimes a city goad, sometimes a city conscience — but always a newspaperman and the animating force of the Free Press. The weekly paper advocates for the region’s African-American community and for its poorest residents, two groups Boone felt were underrepresented in the mainstream outlets and exchange of ideas. He subscribed to the old journalism adage: Afflict the comfortable; comfort the afflicted.
After the 76-year-old publisher died of pancreatic cancer on June 3, 2014, condolences eventually gave way to questions: What would become of the newspaper he worked tirelessly to establish? In what form would it survive without him? Could it, in fact, survive without him?
A year after his death, the short answer to that last question is “yes.” Jean Boone has assumed the role of publisher. The newspaper’s 10-person full-time staff still toils to serve as a voice for the voiceless. An estimated 130,000 people read the newspaper’s issues. Its coverage of Richmond’s black community remains unrivaled, its editorial pages still filled with condemnations of local policymakers, as well as syndicated columns and letters from readers. Weekly editions cover City Hall and Richmond Public Schools, along with city politics, housing, public safety, transportation and health-related issues. High school and collegiate sports coverage is included in every issue.
The paper has an audited circulation of 36,000, which generates enough ad revenue to cover overhead costs. The Free Press also won 21 awards from the Virginia Press Association this past spring. In July, the National Newspaper Publishers Association recognized it with three top awards, including one for Best Editorial.
The Richmond Free Press newspaper. (Photo by Rob Hendricks)
“Every week, we perform a small miracle,” says Bonnie Winston, whom Jean Boone hired as the paper’s managing editor last September. “It’s important to all of us to live up to those expectations [Ray] had, because he taught excellence. He expected excellence.”
Although his office remains still, in the year since Ray Boone died, the world he covered, the intersection of black and white life, of power and hypocrisy, has been anything but. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray spurred a heated national debate about race and police power and abuse. One could argue that the need for the perspective the Free Press offers is greater than ever. But that same need highlights some of the Free Press’ greatest challenges.
A paper dedicated to Boone’s more traditional way of print newspapering must decide how to embrace the now, now, now online digital media world and its increasingly symbiotic relationship with social media. This is true for all in the newspaper industry, which must attract a new generation of readers who don’t read newspapers as their parents or grandparents did. It is especially true of a smaller newspaper that is competing for a particular audience at a time of growth in online black media.
Julian Hayter, a University of Richmond professor who’s an expert on the city’s post-civil rights history and African-American politics, questions whether the Free Press as envisioned by its founder can remain relevant in a click-driven culture.
“Do I think the Free Press has a place in local media?” he asks. “Yes. Do I think the Free Press is trying to put forward an alternative narrative? Yes. Do I think that’s a righteous cause? Yes. Do I think the Free Press is being rendered obsolete by forces beyond its control? Yes. And I’d be a fool to say otherwise, and so would you, and so would they.”
To a lesser degree, the paper also faces the challenge of a changing Richmond. According to the most recent census estimates, the city’s African-American population has slipped below the 50-percent mark — though its political power structure remains predominantly black. Gradually, some of the Free Press’ audience is moving — or being pushed by gentrification — to the suburbs.
‘It embodied him’
On a sweltering Monday morning, the Free Press staff gathers in its newsroom to plan the week ahead and prepare for the Wednesday deadline. The meeting is half where-do-things-stand-with-this, half who-heard-what-from-whom.
The managing editor, Winston, leads the proceedings from behind her corner desk, occasionally plucking the glasses from the top of her head to point in the direction of the person she’s addressing. Winston’s job is to plan and oversee coverage and the paper’s layout, as well as to write weekly editorials. Ray Boone handled the positions of publisher and editor until the day he died. He also managed the paper’s finances when he wasn’t writing headlines and editorials and laying out the front page.
“Eat. Live. Breathe. Free Press,” says Tracey Oliver, a longtime Free Press employee who served as Boone’s assistant in the years leading up to his death. “He was always here.”
Boone’s editorial stances regularly drew condemnation. Critics often accused him of political grandstanding or race-baiting, but personal attacks did not faze him. In fact, he would regularly publish letters to the editor opposing his point of view. In one such instance, a 2008 editorial by Boone blasted a Sons of Confederate Veterans plan to erect a statue of Jefferson Davis outside of the American Civil War Museum. In the next issue, he published two letters that disputed his position, including one from a Henrico County reader who said the editor was pandering to the “Yanks” to preserve “free lunches, etc.” for African-Americans.
“He could have blistered someone in the editorial and the next day would be shaking hands with them at a social event. To him, it wasn’t personal,” says Joey Matthews, a Free Press staffer who worked with the late editor for six years. The quality earned Boone the begrudging respect of many of the politicians and leaders he lambasted over the years.
Mayor Dwight C. Jones was a frequent target. To say the two men didn’t see eye-to-eye would be an understatement. In one of the greatest nose-thumbings in city history, the late editor invited hundreds of Occupy Richmond protesters, whom he compared to civil rights leaders, to camp in his yard after the city kicked them off of public property in 2011. Jones was Boone’s next-door neighbor.
But after news of Boone’s death broke last June, the mayor was one of the first politicians to release a statement honoring his contributions to the city.
“Through grit and will, he made the paper a player on the scene. It embodied him — robust and with a touch of defiance,” reporter Jeremy Lazarus says.
‘It’s not your parents’ revolution’
As a fledgling journalist in the mid-’50s, Boone wrote for the “colored pages” of the Suffolk News-Herald, his hometown newspaper. By 1964, he was a correspondent covering the White House for a prominent black-owned newspaper chain. A promotion in 1965 landed him in Richmond, where, as the editor of the weekly Richmond Afro-American, he faced down the segregationist politicians of the day. In 1976, Boone left for Baltimore, where he served as vice president of the chain and editor of 13 editions of the Afro-American for five years and went on to teach journalism at Howard University.
When he returned to Richmond in late 1991 to launch the Free Press with his wife and a small staff, he found a city in ruin. The economy was anemic and job opportunities were scarce. Violent crime had reached near record levels. Drug abuse was endemic in poor communities. Downtown was practically abandoned. The decay, and those who were to blame for it, did not deserve to skate by, Boone wrote in the newspaper’s mission statement.
He outlined the publication’s goals in the statement, pledging, “The Free Press will not shy away from the hard problems — including racism, holding politicians [black and white] accountable to the people and what needs to be done — immediately — to revitalize Downtown Richmond.”
The city has changed since the newspaper’s first issue was published on Jan. 16, 1992. After decades of decline, Richmond’s population has rebounded. Instead of making national news for its murder rate, the city enjoys positive press for its restaurant scene and tourist attractions. Virginia Commonwealth University has expanded, churning out graduates who have fueled a downtown resurgence and a burgeoning creative class. Arts, cycling and the James River are a growing part of Richmond’s identity.
At the same time, the city has embarked upon the redevelopment of its public housing projects, where nearly all residents are African-American and living below the poverty line. City Hall and the School Board are engaged in an ongoing tug-of-war over funding for public schools that are, as well, attended largely by African-American students whose families earn wages low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. And the debate about Shockoe Bottom’s future and the memorialization of the second-largest slave-trading district in the country still rages.
Since 2005, the city’s white population has grown by 30 percent. The black population is growing as well, but much more slowly, the University of Virginia Demographic Research Group’s Hamilton Lombard found in a recent analysis of the city’s demographic changes. The influx of whites has diluted a once-firm black majority, as gentrification has pushed the poor from the city proper into Chesterfield and Henrico counties.
“There’s still a lot that’s plaguing our communities of color,” Winston says. “If anything, our mission is more critical now than ever.”
The question is how to best fulfill it. Boone was reluctant to embrace the digital era, a hesitancy that can be attributed, in part, to preserving the paper’s bottom line. Crucial to the traditional print business model is that advertisers pay to place ads in the newspaper next to stories. Publishing those stories online doesn’t net the publication nearly as much profit.
The protests in Ferguson and Baltimore exemplified how technology is changing media coverage for both journalists and consumers. Journalists and activists on the ground turned to social media to post their own photos and videos, some of which challenged, or outright disproved, what news organizations like CNN were broadcasting. Put simply, they were doing with their phones what Boone did in print throughout his career: Presenting an alternative narrative. Refusing to be told otherwise.
The Free Press reacted by using published wire-service reports in its print issues about each successive incident, as well as reporting local reaction and protests linked to the Black Lives Matter movement. Most notably, a January issue sought to explain the youth-driven movement to the paper’s readership.
The story’s headline provides a bit of double context: “#BlackLives Matter: It’s not your parents’ revolution.”
But the paper has no Facebook page, no Twitter account. Until recently, its website consisted of PDFs of pages from the print issue. Now, the website offers both PDF and HTML formats, but it’s only updated once a week — on Friday, a day after the issue hits newsstands.
The practice is meant to give print readers dibs. Daily updates are out of the question at this point, Winston says. She also points out that the digital divide still plagues the African-American community. Not everyone has a computer or is comfortable using one. As long as that divide exists, publishing stories online that aren’t made available in print wouldn’t fully serve Free Press readers, she says.
But, Jean Boone acknowledges, “We’re babes in the woods with our website.” Ray Boone Jr., the newspaper’s vice-president for new business development, says his father “didn’t really like social media or computers, but we have to keep up with the times.”
Boone's son, Ray Boone Jr., and his widow, Jean Patterson Boone. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Boone Sr. gave his wife the “green light” last May to explore expanding the organization’s online presence. Encouraged by their national advertising representative, Ethnic Print Media, Jean Boone saw promise in cultivating a website, even if the payoff wasn’t immediate for the organization. Print ad revenue still pays the bills, she says, and will for the foreseeable future.
“He thought it was necessary,” she recalls, “but he also looked at the early trending with the daily newspapers and was not ready to jump in with a lot of gusto.”
Boone Jr. sees social media as an extension of the newspaper’s circulation. If it reaches readers, it’s a worthwhile pursuit, he says, and the newspaper plans to enter that realm in the coming months. He’s reluctant to divulge details of when a rollout might occur. Likewise, Winston and Jean Boone are hesitant to put a timetable to the newspaper’s digital plans.
The sooner, the better, says Jeff South, an associate professor in VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture.
“ ‘To motivate readers to be fully heard’ means embracing the Web in today’s environment,” South says, referencing the Free Press’ mission statement.
Paul Goldman, a longtime Democratic political operative in the city and admirer of Ray Boone, says adjusting to the digital age may be inevitable, but doing so doesn’t necessarily mean relinquishing the watchdog role the publication has carved out in the last two decades.
“The biggest thing that the Free Press has going for it is that it has credibility to say things that aren’t being said and need to be said,” Goldman says. “Ultimately, that’s what Ray established, and that needs to be maintained.”
The staff Boone Sr. assembled in the second-floor office of the old Imperial Tobacco Building is still intact. A handful of current employees, including Oliver, production manager April Coleman and reporter Lazarus, spent more than 20 years working with him.
Richmond Free Press managing editor Bonnie Winston (left) and vice president for production April Coleman. (Photo by Jay Paul)
In the weekly meeting, staffers chime in with story ideas, and the banter is easygoing. Eventually, the managing editor defers to Oliver for the week’s motivational mantra.
“Stay in the race,” Oliver says.
“Sounds like something Ray would say,” Winston quips, alluding to what is known in the office as a “Boone-ism.”
When the late editor ran the weekly meetings, Oliver recalls, certain phrases he’d repeat to his employees became synonymous with him: Exceed the promise. If you aim only for the bottom line, you’re aiming too low. People demand integrity and honesty as much as they demand a good product or service. Always think big and high; never allow anyone to put a ceiling on your dreams.
It’s fitting that a man whose legacy was forged in ink on newsprint, one column inch at a time, should be remembered for his words. That his words still mean something to the staff he left behind reveals him as more than just a fearless journalist or an uncompromising editor — or, for that matter, a larger-than-life personality. To his staff, Ray Boone is a standard — the standard — by which they should be doing their jobs.
So, how the paper carries out its mission may change, staffers say, but the mission itself has not — and will not.
As the region commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, local media outlets revisited “the fall of Richmond.” In a three-part series titled “When Freedom Came,” the Free Press instead covered the same events as told from an African-American perspective.
“When the lion tells the story of the hunt, the hunter won’t always be the hero,” Winston says, referencing an African proverb.
The newspaper hasn’t shied away from covering controversial issues. A front-page story shared the accounts of two men who said they were mistreated by the Richmond Police Department. A separate two-part reader service feature with the headline “When they come for you” listed dos and don’ts of police interactions.
After a court decision legalized same-sex marriage in Virginia last fall, the Free Press ran a package of stories that included an interview with the first black same-sex couple who received a license at the John Marshall Courts Building. Above the flag on the front page, a commentary written by longtime local attorney David Baugh asked: “Is gay the new black?”
In an attempt to draw younger readers, the newspaper has expanded its coverage of the city’s growing spoken word poetry scene and the music industry.
Jean Boone is optimistic about the paper’s future, as long as its print advertising revenue remains steady.
“When Ray passed away, the question was ‘What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?’ And I said, ‘We’re going to work the next day,’ ” she says. “We’ll continue. That’s what we came to Richmond to do.”