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Sleepy but thankful

It’s the morning after an election and I’m in the same state I always am 12 hours after the polls close. I’m sleepy but thankful.

This post-election daze—after covering another nail-biter race in our politically purple district—always takes me back to the morning after the 2015 election when I woke with my mind not on the election results, but on the realization that the newspaper so many in our community had spent years pouring into had slipped through our fingers in a matter of minutes. The painful news was delivered three years ago, as I sat with these colleagues who’d become friends around a long, important-looking table in the Leesburg Today office.

~ ~ ~

When I saw the email about a mandatory meeting early the morning of Nov. 3, 2015, I wasn’t happy. We don’t have time for a meeting, I thought. We’ve got an election to cover. That year, Loudoun County voters had a slew of races to vote on, from the state Senate and House to the county Board of Supervisors and the School Board. Even contests for the county commissioner of revenue and the soil and water conservation board were on the ballot. In all, our little team of reporters was keeping tabs on more than 70 candidates. So when one of the higher-ups at Leesburg Today informed us of a must-attend meeting that morning, I almost told our reporters to go out and execute our original plan—cover the governor’s visit and interview voters at the polls—and my editor and I would let them know what they missed in the meeting. Well, I pulled into the parking lot to find staff members in tears. It was clear this wasn’t a meeting about a change in insurance or a new lunchroom policy. The governor’s visit would have to wait.

The higher-ups called us all into the conference room, where we quietly circled the same long table that served as our gathering place for office birthday parties, white elephant gift exchanges, and baby showers. They let us know it would be our last day as Leesburg Today, a publication newsman Brett Phillips had started in 1988. The new owner, a guy from Maine who’d purchased the newspaper a few years earlier, had now sold us to our competitor across town, who was promptly shutting us down. “But,” these higher-ups informed us, “we still need to get a paper out today. So you can go cover the election.”

I said a four-letter word—loudly—that I had later to apologize for.

We asked few questions before returning to the newsroom. We had to get back to work. Unsure where to start, one reporter suggested we walk out right then and there. “What could they do about it? We’re out of a job anyway.” But then Margaret Morton, who’d covered this county for more than two decades, interrupted the chatter in her stern British accent to offer another suggestion. “Or we could make this the best goddamned paper we’ve ever put out.”

Yes. Let’s do that. We all agreed and got to work. Reporters, toting cameras and notebooks, hurried to the polls, caught up with candidates, and began writing and editing. Margaret and our editor Norman manned the phones, which were ringing constantly with calls from readers who’d just seen on our competitor’s website that Leesburg Today was closing at the end of the day. They hadn’t even waited for us to tell our families.

My phone lit up with texts and phone calls. I couldn’t make any progress if I let this news really sink in, so I texted Aaron to fill him in and turned off my phone.

Throughout the day, the higher-ups called staff members one-by-one to the conference room to inform them whether they still had a job with their company, which had other small publications; whether they were one of the few people our competitor wanted to take on; or whether they were out of a job. So while hammering out articles, we’d hear our colleagues’ names announced through a shoddy intercom system and bounce off the historic building’s walls. “Jonathan…” “Danielle…” and so on. When we could make out our name, we stood up, looked around at our team, and slowly made our way back to that long table to hear our fate. Then we’d return—some in tears, some letting out sighs of relief—to report our status to the rest of the news team.

Still, we held our focus on the news cycle.

That night, we kept up our election day tradition. We sent our youngest reporter out to pick up pizza and a six pack, and enjoyed a few minutes of calm before the storm of the results began to pour in. Then we headed back out to cover election victory parties and get interviews from ecstatic or disappointed candidates and voters. We took extra care as we interviewed, wrote, edited, and laid out our work. This issue was special and we knew it.

It was well past 2 a.m. when we sent the last issue of Leesburg Today to the press. We each grabbed a final beer, and allowed the wave of emotion that we’d kept at bay for 18 hours wash over us. We took a final picture of all of us in the newsroom and finally headed home after 4 a.m.

Two days later, Norman called. He said his phone hadn’t stopped ringing with people who believed our county needed a broader voice than the one offered by Leesburg Today’s competitor. Each time he got a call from someone asking what could be done, he invited them to a meeting. He didn’t know what would happen, but figured it wouldn’t hurt to get everyone in the same room. And on that Friday, three days after Leesburg Today had closed, this group of quiet but steady supporters gathered at Sonabank. They put checks on the table, selected a name and started Loudoun Now.

We called some of the best and most experienced journalists we knew and invited them to join the effort. Most had worked at Leesburg Today and moved on from journalism to have kids or try on careers with easier hours, others we’d known about and wanted to hire for some time. We crowded around a small table at Dirt Farm Brewery to plan our first issue. Meanwhile, Susan gathered a sales team and called fellow small businesses who had been longtime advertisers with Leesburg Today to see if they would take a chance and support this new publication, and many did.

On Nov. 11, eight days after Leesburg Today had closed, we went to press and launched a website. And by the end of that first day, our brand new Facebook page went from 0 to 1,000 followers. Loudoun had welcomed us back with open arms.

Thank you to this community for allowing us to do what we love and understanding that what we love—harnessing the first amendment to shine a spotlight on what would otherwise go unreported—happens to make our little corner of the world better.

Help us stick around another three, or maybe 30, years: read and share our articles, listen to our podcast, follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and, most importantly, support our advertisers. And thanks.

The Loudoun Now team at Dirt Farm Brewing. [Photo by Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]

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