By Liz Weiss
Nicholas Benton is no ordinary journalist. In fact, as Editor-in-chief, publisher, and owner of the Falls Church News-Press, he’s single-handedly pioneered a successful, well-read newspaper in Falls Church. As if this feat isn’t impressive enough, he’s also managed to incorporate issues of national importance into his small, community-based newspaper. Benton discusses his unique role at the Falls Church News-Press with Washington Life as well as his plans for the future.
Washington Life: What initially attracted you to the Falls Church News-Press?
Nicholas Benton: Well, I published my first newspaper when I was seven years old… I’ve pretty much been in the business and writing industry my entire life. When I moved in the Washington DC Area, I wound up in Falls Church. I cultivated friendships with people who had been living here for a long time.
WL: I understand you are owner and editor of the newspaper. That’s incredible.
NB: It’s the journalist’s dream.
WL: What do you believe is the best part of working at a small community newspaper?
NB: What you have here, our newspaper is kind of an appeal to the particular community, and the features of the community. And of course Falls Church is inside the Beltway. It has the second highest percentage of college degrees among its population of any jurisdiction in the U.S. What we’ve attempted to do is provide in depth coverage of the community from politics to development issues, reports on the achievements of the city’s youth to high school sports over the years…every week for over 1,000 Wednesday night deadlines. We have commentaries of national interest…we may be the only general interest newspaper that does this.
WL: The Falls Church News-Press covers issues that are pertinent to the Virginia and DC community. How has the paper faced the challenge of addressing issues of local importance rather than national significance?
NB: Our location gives us a unique kind of readership. Nothing moves or sneezes in the city of Falls Church that we’re not aware of. I’ve spent many more hours than I’d like to sitting in on City Council meetings. We also have a Kaiser Permanente clinic in Falls Church, which historically has been one of our most active distribution points. You don’t have to live in Falls Church to find the newspaper interesting to read.
WL: How long has the paper been in existence and what obstacles has the newspaper encountered over the years?
NB: Well, the first issue was March 1991.
(After explaining the newspapers beginnings, Mr. Benton kindly directed me to Editor Al Eisele of The Hill’s interesting article “A Very Good Week for a Small Town Newspaper Publisher,” which discusses some of the obstacles Benton has had to overcome as a small town newspaper owner, editor, and publisher who has encountered opposition against his liberal ideology manifest in the newspaper’s political columns and inclusion of a weekly Gay and Lesbian column.)
WL: What do you believe has made the Falls Church News-Press so successful?
NB: I think it’s a number of things. For one thing, you have to earn the trust of your readership community and that doesn’t happen automatically, that happens over time. People begin to be aware that the newspaper is reliable, responsible, and its writing is of high-quality. Once you start to achieve that, readers are going to read your paper. That’s what we’ve succeeded in doing.
WL: How has the paper maintained its success over time? What was the next step after establishing credibility and readership?
NB: Well, you have to have a sustainable revenue flow, paid advertising. I consider our advertisers as important as the readers. They use a tool that we provide for them. We take a lot of care and we’ve had advertisers in the newspaper from day one till now—and they’ve never left. It’s worked for them. We’re proud of that. We’ve picked up important people over time. There was this case of guy in the mid 70’s who was let go from the Fairfax Journal, who put in 10 years of tremendous contributions starting part time as a high school student in 1996, and has been with me full time since graduating from college in 2001 and has represented the newspaper extremely well to the community. We’ve also dipped into the local high school to find willing people to work here part time, and they provide a lot of enthusiasm and vitality. And my managing editor has been with me full time since the 1990’s.
WL: With the technological changes that have occurred over time such as digital media and blogs and online advertising, how has the newspaper adapted?
NB: We’ve stayed current with all of those advances. We developed our website and that’s gone through a number of iterations. It also enables us to be a twenty four seven news organization. We use social media such as Facebook and Twitter to send out alerts to our readers as well.
WL: What changes do you predict for the Falls Church News-Press in the future?
NB: I think that we have a workable model that is going to survive well into the future. There’s a fundamental difference between online versus print. Anything online [relies on] the initiation of the reader while a newspaper is dropped at your doorstep. The other thing is that the newspaper exposes people to stuff they may not be aware is out there. If you have to turn the pages of the newspaper, you exposed to a lot of stuff—columns, feature stories. I think there’s always going to be a role for a print newspaper. The key is you’ve got to have content that people want to access. I’m confident there will always be a role for us.