Consider this a long overdue thank-you note to the family of Samuel Leroy Slover, Frank Batten and Landmark Communications for the larger-than-life gift they gave Richmond when they purchased Style Weekly and began paying the bills nearly 40 years ago.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan was U.S. President, Charles Robb was Virginia’s Governor and Roy A. West was Mayor of the City of Richmond. The population of the Richmond metropolitan area was, according to macrotrends.net, 637,000, today it is 1,128,000.
The Landmark money was transformative. It allowed what was then a monthly publication to become a bonafide weekly newspaper with real reporters, editors, photographers, graphic designers, a business manager and advertising sales staff.
The infusion of the Landmark money allowed us the opportunity and freedom to provide smart and tenacious coverage of life in Richmond.
We wrote about people — the mainstream and the marginalized, the powerful and the powerless, people of all persuasions, passions, and ages who were active in arts and culture, politics, law, medicine, education, business. (Although Landmark did not dictate content, they did insist that we sell ads and sent staff from Norfolk to train us on how to do it.)
We soon developed a strong reputation for in-depth profiles of people in the news and behind-the-scenes investigations of issues facing our community. We delivered excellent photo journalism and hard news stories, as well as popular features such as “You’re Very Richmond If,” “Best of Richmond” and the back page opinions. We sponsored community events.
At our best, our profiles weren’t glib, sugarcoated puff pieces, nor were our investigations mere chamber of commerce boosterism. We asked deeper and harder questions. We made it our mission to figure out the news behind the news, the news that stays the news.
Thanks to the Landmark money and the boots-on-the-ground efforts of many, we delivered. Since Style’s inception, we consistently won lots of awards from the Virginia Press Association for our journalism and photography, our advertising, design and community service. Lots of awards.
It’s been said that we helped create a cultural awareness that Richmond wasn’t just a sleepy, conservative Southern town dominated by monuments to the “Lost Cause,” a place where old white men with high-toned patrician ways — think the Commonwealth Club and Country Club of Virginia — telling us what we needed to do to save ourselves from ourselves.
Mind you, having endured the right-wing commentary of Richmond newspapers for most of those 40 years, we weren’t afraid of disagreement or controversy. Our back page feature encouraged readers to submit opinion commentaries on topics of importance to them. And if someone disagreed, they were welcome to submit a rebuttal.
A world apart
The distance between Richmond and Norfolk is 94 miles, but the editorial differences between Richmond and Norfolk newspapers were a world apart. The media empire that became Landmark Communications in Norfolk was founded 1905 by Samuel Leroy Slover.
Slover was a native of Tennessee who came from a Jewish family whose forebears proudly fought for the Union during the Civil War. In 1900, when Slover was just 22 years old, he came to Richmond hoping to change his fortune.
He had most recently been the business manager of the financially troubled Knoxville Journal, which despite his best efforts, went bankrupt. Over the protestations of the paper’s board of directors, Slover assumed its liabilities ($36,400) as a debt of honor, according to official histories of the company.
Soon after arriving in 1900, with no formal introduction, Slover approached the wealthy and well-connected Joseph Bryan, owner of the Richmond Times, and asked for a $10,000 loan to purchase a newspaper in neighboring Norfolk.
Bryan was, by all accounts, a quintessential Virginia gentleman who came from a wealthy Episcopalian family. Aghast at Slover’s youthful audacity, Bryan refused him. It is noteworthy that Bryan served as one of Mosby’s Raiders fighting for the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War.
Undaunted, Slover then asked to sell advertising for the Times. When he received a second rejection, he tried another tack: What if he were to sell ads, on a commission basis, to area merchants who were not current advertisers?
With this proposition, Bryan had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so he accepted the offer and soon was rewarded with a multitude of new advertisers.
Over the next six months, Slover’s commissions were larger than the salaries of the other salesmen. He not only paid off the debt to the Knoxville paper, but the owners of the struggling, 6-month-old Morning Herald and Evening Times in Newport News heard about the advertising wunderkind from Tennessee and offered Slover the job of publisher, plus a half-interest in their newspapers, according to official company history.
The catch? He had to pull both papers out of the red in a year. Slover accepted, and the two papers successfully merged into the Evening Times-Herald. By 1901, he was publisher with a controlling interest. In 1905, he founded what became Landmark Communications.
Billions of dollars and multiple successes later, Slover noted to friends that when he asked Bryan for the loan, he had no real hope of getting it, but he asked anyway because, he said, “I didn’t want him to forget who I was,” according to historical information available on Landmark’s website and confirmed by Frank Batten’s biography, “The Untold Story of the Founder of The Weather Channel,” by Connie Sage.
In the book, Batten credits Slover, who was his uncle, for all his successes considering he was raised by his uncle since he was 2 years old, following the untimely death of Batten’s father.
In a saga spanning more than a century, Slover made sure the Bryan family never forgot him. Richmond Newspapers and Norfolk Newspapers were each family-owned enterprises that amassed multi-million dollar newspaper empires that competed and dominated Virginia news as they expanded into other media.
Along the way, The Virginian-Pilot won three Pulitzer Prizes for journalism. In 1929, Louis Isaac Jaffe’s editorials won Virginia’s first (and The Virginian-Pilot’s first ) Pulitzer for his crusade calling for state and federal anti-lynching laws. He called lynching an “unspeakable act of savagery.”
In 1960, Lenoir Chambers, who had been mentored by Jaffe, won the second Pulitzer for his unrelenting advocacy on behalf of reason, compassion and compliance in favor of integrating Virginia’s public schools. Chambers, Batten and Slover stood in opposition to the Bryan family’s support of “massive resistance,” which advocated for closure of public schools and continued segregation in defiance of the Brown vs. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision. The Pilot was the only daily newspaper in Virginia that argued that closing schools was “cruel and unjust.”
In 1985, reporter Thomas Turcol, won the third for general news reporting of corruption in Chesapeake government. In the 1980s, Landmark developed the Weather Channel, eventually selling it in 2008 for $3.5 billion.
Consequently, a proper thank you is long overdue not only for Landmark’s gift of Style Weekly, a weekly newspaper specializing in local journalism, but for the legacy of courageous, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism it gave to Virginia.
To be fair, it should be noted that The Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial writer, Virginius Dabney, won a Pulitzer in 1947 due, in part, to his opposition to the poll tax. But Dabney’s reputation as a progressive suffered in later years due to his inability to withstand the racist drumbeat of massive resistance. Another Richmond editorial writer, Douglas Southall Freeman, won two Pulitzer Prizes not for journalism, but for biographies of Robert E. Lee and George Washington.