In his 10 years as editor, Keith A. Stickley experienced a lot more ups than downs at the Woodstock, Va., Valley-Herald.
Circulation went up. Pretax profits were up. Gross revenues were way up.
Unknown to Stickley, 43, his time at the helm of the small but feisty Shenandoah Valley weekly also was up.
In a meeting in April, he said, publisher Thomas Byrd, scion of the rich and influential Byrd family of Virginia conservative political legend, let Stickley know he did not care for the Valley-Herald's journalistic style.
"He said he didn't like the editorial page," Stickley said. "[He said:] 'I don't like your aggressiveness . . . .' Tom said the readership was not satisfied with that type of operation, that we'd have to tone it down."
At first, Stickley said, he was "surprised, shocked" that Byrd, who currently serves as president of the Virginia Press Association, would order him to take the paper down a peg journalistically. He stopped writing his weekly column and ceased to comment on local issues in his editorials.
An employe at the Winchester Star, the flagship of six Valley newspapers owned by the Byrd family, said Thursday that Byrd would be available Friday to discuss Stickley. But on Friday, the employe said that Byrd was unavailable for comment.
By midsummer, Stickley was mad -- mad enough to quit and launch his own weekly on a shoestring budget, pointedly titled the Shenandoah Free Press and targeted to compete head-on with the Byrd clan's Valley-Herald.
The result is the outbreak of an old-fashioned newspaper war and an affront to Byrd corporate dignity that has some journalists and readers anticipating a circulation shoot-out.
"It may be small town," said David Loomis, former editorial page editor of the Byrds' Winchester Star, "but when you talk about bad blood and big bucks, Keith's got a hell of a fight on his hands."
The battle appears likely to test the editorial tastes of Shenandoah County's 11,500-household readership, where the two newspapers circulate.
"The Shenandoah Valley is more than an hour and a half away from Washington," said Loomis, now an editorial writer at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. "There are good, old-fashioned, rock-ribbed conservative family values there . . . . So you could say Tom Byrd's in touch with his readership."
Stickley is betting, based on his decade of success at the Valley-Herald, that his rural readers will prefer a more outspoken publication. "Circulation indicates that most people in the county want to read that kind of coverage and were paying to get it," he said. "The officials didn't like it, but the people liked it."
Some local officials who were irritated by Stickley's brand of news coverage are political friends of Tom Byrd and his father, conservative former U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd Jr., the former publisher of the Valley-Herald, according to Stickley. They were prone, Stickley said, to go over his head with complaints.
While the elder Byrd kept the criticisms to himself, Stickley said, Tom Byrd, a Republican Party activist who became the Valley-Herald's publisher on Jan. 1, may have been more receptive to political pressures.
"I think a lot of people are rooting for Keith," said Lawrence K. (Lou) Emerson, editor of the Fauquier Democrat in Warrenton and a friend of Stickley's. "But he ticked off a lot of people, no question. There are a lot of people who hate him. He's enraged a lot of people."
When he went out the door of the Valley-Herald, Stickley took with him the advertising manager, the classified ad manager, the computer operator and, he said, the paper's best reporter. His two grown sons, a teacher and a reporter, quit their jobs and returned to Woodstock to help.
"There's a principle here, not to sound too high-blown," Stickley said. "There's more value in being able to tell the whole story than having to accept something less." An editorial in the Free Press' first, 16-page issue, on Aug. 7, underscored the point by quoting the Chicago Times of 1861 as saying it is ". . . the newspaper's duty to print the news and raise hell."
According to Stickley, there have been no open hostilities. He said some of his employes have received letters, however, from Richard Morin, editor of the Byrd-owned Harrisonburg Daily News-Record, saying the company is "distressed that you've chosen to take part in a conspiracy to destroy" their old paper, the Valley-Herald.
The letters were unsettling to some, Stickley said, because he and his staff took pay cuts to work at the Free Press and "the future is uncertain."
A News-Record employe said Morin was on vacation and unavailable for comment.
According to Stickley, the Valley-Herald's news coverage of three stories was cited specifically in the April meeting with Morin and Byrd that led to his downfall.
* The newspaper wrote about the trial and conviction of a local Baptist pastor on charges of sexual misconduct involving a female foster child -- a story Stickley said Byrd regarded as in poor taste.
Stickley said the trial was covered in detail because the minister "had been attempting to regulate the morals of the community politically. We took the position he'd set himself up as a public figure, which he had."
* The Valley-Herald reported that the administrator of the county's public hospital had been fired after exhibiting signs of emotional disorder. "Tom considered [the reason for the firing] libelous, although we had very good and multiple sources inside the hospital and on the board of directors," Stickley said. "Tom felt the information about what led to the [incident] should have been withheld."
* The newspaper chronicled the firing of the county's building inspector. After the inspector resisted his dismissal, county officials engaged in a court fight, which they lost. The county, Stickley said, was billed for $80,000 in damages and court costs.
"I said in a column that this should never have happened, that the administration had handled it poorly and that the penalty was paid not by the county board but by the taxpayers."
According to Stickley, Byrd believed that the story should have been handled differently: "He didn't say, but conveyed [the impression] that the issue should have been reported on the side of the county."
Stickley said his Free Press is gaining a foothold. With enough financial backing to keep it alive for the first 45 days, he said advertising is meeting his goals, including some ad accounts won over from the competition.
"He's trying to apply the same ethical demands and same scrutiny as bigger papers do in bigger cities," the Fauquier Democrat's Emerson said of his friend. "Small papers are changing, too, thanks to people like Keith Stickley. It's not just recipes and who's visiting whom."
It will take six months for the new newspaper to "feel comfortable," added Stickley. "We have to get through the winter -- January and February are dreadful here for ads. If we don't fall on our face, we'll be okay by spring. I'm optimistic."