The latest news from Philomont, population 275, is that the Microwave Cooking Bus Trip, with eating and shopping opportunities at Tysons Corner Center, was a complete success. Mr. and Mrs. Robert George went to Baltimore's National Aquarium and ate dinner at Haussner's restaurant, and Zachary Taylor Hastings, 9 pounds, 1 1/2 ounces, was born to Richard and Lucy Hastings at Loudoun Memorial Hospital.
As goes Philomont, so goes Laura D. Pearson's column for the Loudoun Times-Mirror. Pearson's reports from Philomont are never explosive, never hard hitting. But then again, neither is Philomont, two square miles of hills, trees, houses and farmland 70 miles northwest of Washington.
A postmistress by day, Pearson, 47, pens her column on her laundry night after the family has been fed. Actually, most people in Philomont know the news before it's published, what with church on Sundays, the ladies auxiliary meeting every third Tuesday, the United Methodist Women meeting every fourth Wednesday, the volunteer fire department meeting every other Monday. Still, the Pearson column has its undisputed place in Philomont and the Times-Mirror.
"The community columns are the way we hold readers and sell subscriptions," says Times-Mirror associate publisher Frances Reid, a staffer since 1921. "People in these places don't read a lot of great books and great magazines. They don't read a whole lot. But they do read about their church supper and that Mrs. Jones had a new baby. Once in a while a column gets dropped for space and you should hear them holler. They miss their news because it's theirs."
Says Pearson, "People like seeing their names and their friends' names in the paper."
The report from Philomont -- along with ones from Purcellville, Hamilton, Bluemont, and 16 other horse-country burgs -- is "vital to the life of our paper," Reid says. In an age of declining newspaper readership, she says her weekly newspaper must carve an exclusive niche. No other publications spend much time or space writing about places like Philomont, so the Times-Mirror covers them like the dew.
News Philomont-style is gathered mostly from Pearson's 8-by-8-foot post office, zip code 22131. Stationed behind her cage in the rear of the Philomont General Store, just beyond the sponge mops, Pearson dispenses mail and collects information.
She sorts an average 200 letters, 100 flats and two parcels a day. When that's done, usually in 55 minutes, she settles in, selling a few stamps, exchanging a few pleasantries.
And if you live in Philomont, you can't avoid exchanging pleasantries with Laura Pearson, herself a lifelong town resident and mother of three. "Sooner or later everyone comes in to get their mail," she says, "and sooner or later everyone gets in the column."
Highlighting her weekly offerings are the town's special events: the Saturday evening fire department turkey shoots, the annual horse show, the spring barbecue. The time and location of the meetings are reported. Vacations are big news, but are reported after the travelers return, a defense against ill-intentioned visitors.
From time to time, Pearson even adds a note about herself. Her Aug. 5 column was headlined "Pearson Attends Convention," over an item about her participation in the 72nd annual state postmasters convention in Richmond. On Oct. 21, she again made headlines, this time for traveling to the 78th annual national postmasters convention in Biloxi, Miss.
Mostly, though, the news "is just kind of steady, people living and visiting and doing." Her most memorable story? "Nothing especially that interesting has ever happened," Pearson says.
Pearson has been Philomont's correspondent for five years. She inherited the job from her mother, who had it for 30 years. (The postmaster job was also in her family. She took over 18 years ago, following her brother-in-law, who had followed her father-in-law, who had followed her grandfather, who had followed her cousin.)
When her mother first took sick, Pearson helped with typing the column. Later, she did the whole column herself, under her mother's name. Today, Pearson says the column "gives me the feeling that I'm still working with my mother, that I'm carrying on her work."
The work takes about an hour a week and she is paid $5 a column. Sitting each Thursday night at her kitchen table, Pearson pecks out two, sometimes three pages on a Smith-Corona typewriter with a correcting cartridge. While she works, Pearson usually does the laundry and listens "with one ear" for her 11-year-old son.
It's not exactly a newsroom, yet Pearson occasionally echoes the universal complaints of journalists from Philomont to Washington to New York: a story gracelessly shortened by an editor, an item killed, a sensational headline (like the one about her Richmond trip, she says) pulled from a short item low in the column. But for it all, she loves her island of newsprint.
"I'll do it forever," Pearson says. "Nobody else wants to."