In 1982, when Harry Byrd Jr. retired from the U.S. Senate seat he had shared with father, Harry Sr., since 1933, the Byrds got out of the politics business.
In 2003, after Hurricane Isabel tore through the state, the family gave up the apple business.
At the end of this month, the Byrds, who for nearly a century imbued Virginia with a still-lingering, flinty conservatism on taxation, spending and, most notably, race, are quitting the business that made the others possible: newspapers.
On March 6, Tom Byrd — the fourth of five generations of apple-cheeked men to head the family’s publishing arm — made the stunning announcement that it would sell its two dailies, the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record and The Winchester Star, along with four weeklies, to a West Virginia newspaper-and-magazine clan that also has a controlling stake in the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The price paid by The Ogden Newspapers Inc. was not disclosed. The acquisition gives the firm a continuous string of small-town newspapers from western Maryland to eastern West Virginia and south, into the Shenandoah Valley. That includes The Star’s rival, the Northern Virginia Daily, which Harry Sr. tried to put out of business during the Depression.
“They played it close to the vest all the way through,” Dick Helm, a former member of Winchester City Council, said of the deeply private Byrd family’s decision to sell. “They’re a deliberate bunch. I’m sure it was not done without adequate consternation.”
The Byrds’ departure from print — Tom Byrd said it had been under discussion within the family since September — was hastened by an all-too-familiar story: declining readership and revenue, which have roiled the newspaper industry for years and have only accelerated with audiences shifting to the internet for news, information and entertainment.
Harrisonburg has a daily circulation of 23,700; Winchester 18,672, according to the most recent data available from the Virginia Press Association.
“Those have been definite challenges,” said Byrd, evincing the signature economy with which his father and grandfather — both of whom were also orchardists and newspapermen — typically expressed themselves.
This has brought low other Virginia newspaper dynasties.
The Bryans, who for more than a century had owned the Richmond Times-Dispatch, sold the 63 publications they controlled through debt-mired Media General Inc. to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in 2012. The Battens, the only family still publishing a Virginia newspaper, trimmed their holdings to one daily in Norfolk, The Virginian-Pilot.
With a big stake in Virginia’s agriculture economy and a firm hand on its long-clubby government, the Byrds had in their newspapers — especially their hometown Winchester Star, which operates from a tidy brick building paces from the cemetery where generations of the family are buried — an instrument for perpetuating both.
The Star’s reliably conservative editorial page, even as Winchester became more moderate — largely because of growth attributed to nearby Washington, of which the Byrds were eternally wary — could be read as the family’s manifesto.
Over the years, Star editorials — usually anonymous, the custom in newspapers, because they’re understood to reflect the views of the proprietor — might heap grief on local officials about spending. Helm remembers pointed skepticism over school construction costs, but “typically, it was fair and factual.”
Editorials, particularly those written by a Byrd, could skewer considerably bigger prey. Some might have seemed surprising targets, given that they were largely in sync with Byrd philosophy.
In 1997, when Republican Jim Gilmore was poised to win the governorship in a landslide on the appeal of his no-car-tax message, The Star carried an editorial branding a rollback of the personal property tax fiscally unwise; that it could blow a hole in the state budget unless there was a reliable way to recover lost revenue.
The piece, by Harry Jr., who would write editorials for the newspaper well into his 90s, was prescient. By 2004, Virginia’s budget had been ravaged by recession and the ever-escalating cost of the car-tax scheme, compelling a Democratic governor, Mark Warner, to break a no-new-taxes promise and press for — and win — a $1.4 billion increase for schools, police and welfare, which Little Harry would publicly endorse.
In 1952, Harry Sr. used The Star editorial page to turn on one of his own — Virginia’s junior senator, A. Willis Robertson, father of television evangelist Pat Robertson — because he had done what Byrd had stoutly refused: endorse fellow Democrat Adlai Stevenson for the presidency.
Harry Sr., who championed Virginia’s Massive Resistance to court-ordered school desegregation, forcefully opposed Stevenson as a big-spending, labor-loving social liberal.
In his 1996 biography of the elder Byrd, Ron Heinemann of Hampden-Sydney College said Robertson believed the editorial, published when Harry Jr. was running The Star, would not have appeared without Harry Sr.’s consent — also, that it signaled a possible effort to dump Robertson for Bill Tuck, a governor-turned-congressman whose views were nearly identical to those of Big Harry.
The Star, an afternoon paper that shifted to mornings to boost circulation, is a wellspring of Byrd lore, most notably an unflinching commitment to fiscal discipline.
In 1903, Harry Sr. dropped out of high school at 15 to save the near-bankrupt newspaper, then owned by his father, Richard, who was speaker of the House of Delegates. Because the Star’s credit was exhausted, Harry Sr. arranged to purchase — based on in-hand cash receipts — enough newsprint for each day’s press run.
Within five years, The Star was thriving and Byrd, who would start buying and leasing apple orchards, was on his way to becoming a multimillionaire. His abhorrence of debt would forge the pay-as-you-go approach that Byrd, as a state senator and governor, demanded of Virginia and which remained in place from 1923, when he single-handedly defeated a proposed bond issue, until the legislature approved debt-backed bonds in 1968 — two years after his death.
Fast-forward to 2018 — and a diverse, suburban-dominated Virginia, antithetical to nearly everything for which the Byrds stood.
Tom Byrd, a Republican who flirted with running for lieutenant governor in 1981, has been retired since January. His son, also Tom, is The Star’s general manager and will continue for at least a year. Other newspaper employees have been told their jobs are secure through the transition to Ogden ownership and that consolidation of the Byrd and Ogden Virginia dailies is not being considered.
What might be reconsidered is the Byrd legacy, as a family synonymous with what Virginia was, departs from an industry that powerfully shaped it.
“They’re gone,” Heinemann said of the Byrds, “but they’re not forgotten.”