Zack Harold

writer/editor

They Keep Old Trains A-Rolling

This story originally appeared in the June 4, 2012 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

CASS — When something breaks on a train at Cass Scenic Railroad, whether it’s as small as a bracket or as big as a boiler, the men and women in the park’s locomotive shops fix it.

They have to. Chances are, you can’t buy a replacement part.

Forget about instruction manuals, too. Although the state park serves as a living museum of the United States’ steam-powered history, there aren’t many reference books lying around.

“You pretty well go by what’s already there. You make it as it was,” said Danny Hoover, engineer for the Cass No. 5 locomotive.

Hoover, 52, has worked at Cass for 15 years.

He said he always has been fascinated by the trains—he remembers when engineers from Cass used to drive their locomotives to the Strawberry Festival in Buckhannon—but had no real knowledge about the machines when he started working in the shop.

Like all of the railroad’s employees, Hoover learned on the job.

“These old men passed it down to us,” said longtime engineer Danny Seldomridge. “What we learned from them is better than books.”

Seldomridge, 56, has worked at Cass for 37 years, but has been around the trains for much longer. His dad worked on the park’s track crew and in the railroad shop.

He originally wanted to work with airplanes after high school but married a local girl and started working with his dad.

“They started letting me mess around with these things, and that was it,” he said. “I’m train crazy.”

Seldomridge said he enjoys the challenge of working on antique machines.

“I just like fooling with them. I like taking something, building it back to where it’s better than new,” he said. “Every day you learn a little bit more. I’ve never stopped learning.”

Although most of Cass Scenic Railroad’s 96 staff members are seasonal, the dozen full-time employees in the locomotive shop work year-round. During tourist season, which runs from Memorial Day to the end of October, they work six or seven days a week.

There’s always something to do.

In addition to their duties in the repair shop, they also ride the trains as engineers and firemen (the lucky souls who shovel coal into a locomotive’s white-hot fireboxes). When their trains aren’t running, they work in the shop.

Once a month, crews take the firebox out of each train, let the engine cool down and wash the sediment out of the boiler. The job takes a week “at the fastest,”Hoover said.

“That’s if you’ve got several guys to help you,” he said.

Then, after a locomotive reaches 1,492 hours of service, railroad mechanics have to break down the train’s boiler and replace its flues, the pipes that run through the water-filled boiler carrying hot gases from burning coal.

If, for some reason, crews can’t repair a part, they hire a pattern maker to fabricate a copy of the original. The shop is rarely able to provide blueprints, so they send either the old, broken part or exact measurements.

Crews don’t get to do many heavy-duty repairs until the off-season, however.
Most shop workers take their vacations between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, because the real work begins in January. That’s when the major repairs take place, when all the trains get broken down and put back together. Axles are replaced, boilers are overhauled and coal bunkers are rebuilt.

“I came here in the first of February and everything was torn apart,” park superintendent Rod Sovine said. “I said, ‘We’re not going to make it!'”

They made it. Cass Scenic Railroad has four trains up and running this season.

Seldomridge’s engine, the Western Maryland No. 6, is the newest train in the rail yard. Built in 1945, it’s the last Shay locomotive ever made. It worked for four years in Elkins before retiring to live in the B&O Railroad museum in Baltimore. Cass obtained the train in the early ’80s.

The Cass No. 5, Hoover’s pet engine, is the oldest train on the lot.
A Shay locomotive built in 1905, it;s the only train that worked at Cass when it was still owned by West Virginia Pulp and Paper. Cass No. 4 was built in 1922 but arrived in Cass in 1943, when the Mower Lumber Company owned the property.

The Cass No. 11 came from San Diego, where it started working in 1923. It is the railroad’s newest acquisition and has been in West Virginia for 12 years.

“It didn’t look like that when we got it,” Hoover said.

He said the shiny-black Shay arrived in West Virginia as a bucket of rust. Shop employees gave it a major overhaul.

Two trains are still down for repairs.

Workers are replacing the coal bunker on Cass No. 6, a Heisler locomotive born in 1928. The train worked in Rainelle for the Meadow River Lumber Co. before the state purchased it in 1967 and brought the train to Cass.

Cass No. 2 is getting a major overhaul. Built in 1928 by the Shay Locomotive Co., it originally rode the rails in Vancouver, British Columbia.

It’s now in pieces at the Cass Railroad shop. It doesn’t look much like a train. The firebox and coal bunker still sit on the axles, but workers have removed the engine’s boiler for repairs.

Boilers in steam-powered engines are constantly expanding and contracting, which eventually weakens the metal. Crews are working to replace those weakened sections in the No. 2 boiler. When they’re finished, workers will use an ultrasound machine to determine the thickness of the steel.

Once that’s completed, workers plan to take the axles from under the locomotive and reshape the wheels on the shop’s massive lathe.

There’s no guidebook to read, no website to consult and no schematic to reference. The older guys like Seldomridge and Hoover teach the younger workers. That way, when Seldomridge and Hoover retire, the trains will keep running. Some young fireman will take their place in the engineer’s seat.

That’s what Andrew Cassell, 27, plans to do.
He’s currently the fireman on the Western Maryland No. 6. When Seldomridge pulls levers to move the train forward and back, Cassell stomps on a pedal to opens the train’s firebox. He heaves shovel after shovel of coal into the opening, working almost the whole time the train is in operation.

Remember the Bible story about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the great fiery furnace? That’s what Cassell stares into all day long.

He doesn’t make much money for the backbreaking work. Hoover said firemen make minimum wage. Cassell hopes to become an engineer, however. He’s worked at Cass since 2003.

“They handed me my diploma on Saturday, and I went to work on Monday morning,” Cassell said. “Once you get started. . .”

“You don’t ever leave,” Seldomridge said.

Coffee keeps friendships warm

This column originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on January 2, 2015.

I remember the day I became a coffee drinker.

I stayed home from school with a blazing sore throat. That afternoon, as I laid on my grandmother’s couch in misery, I got an idea.

I went to the kitchen, grabbed one of her green plastic mugs and poured myself a steaming cup of black coffee.

My sore throat was instantly soothed but the relief didn’t last long. I drank another cup and another and another.

Momaw cut me off after I downed a whole pot and started to make another one.

My dad was never much of a coffee fan — his beverage of choice is Pepsi in a can, not a bottle thank you very much — but my mom always seems to have a cup nearby.

I always liked the way it smelled (who doesn’t?) but never understood the appeal of the bitter brew… until that day I stayed home from school. The bitterness didn’t offend my taste buds any more. Now, it held a strange attraction.

My relationship with coffee has changed over the years.

At first, I drank it when I craved it. Then, in college, I drank it to keep me awake through early-morning classes.

I didn’t develop a full-blown dependency on the stuff I began working at the Daily Mail.

The old movies portray journalists as whiskey drinkers and cigarette smokers. That stuff isn’t allowed in the newsroom anymore, but reporters have more than made up for it with their caffeine habits.

But coffee is more than just a morning pick-me-up. It has become one of my central excuses for getting together with people.

As much as I enjoy social media, there is nothing like a face-to-face conversation with a friend. But asking someone to lunch feels like a commitment.

Asking someone for coffee, however, feels like a fun errand. It’s something you can slip out of the office to complete without feeling guilty.

And drinking coffee, unlike eating, leaves lots of time for conversation. No need to worry about talking with your mouth full. If there’s a lull in the conversation, just take a swig and continue on.

In 2012, comedian Jerry Seinfeld started a web video series called “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”

The title says it all. In each episode, Seinfeld picks up his guest in a special car — his most recent two-part episode with Jimmy Fallon featured both a 1956 Chevrolet Corvette and a 1994 Land Rover Defender 90 — and takes them to get coffee.

Seinfeld did not begin drinking coffee until middle age but, once he did, discovered something that avowed caffeine addicts already knew.

“Meeting someone for coffee suddenly seemed like a wonderful, compact, accessible and portable social interaction,” he told National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” in 2013. “You don’t even really need a place. But you feel like you’re doing something. That is what coffee is.”

I suspect I will come to rely on these “portable social interactions” more frequently in the coming months.

Today marks my last day at the Charleston Daily Mail. And while I am very excited for my next job, I will really miss all the friends I have made at this newspaper.

When I first arrived in the newsroom back in 2009, it didn’t take me long to realize this newspaper’s staff are more than just co-workers. The Daily Mail is a family.

I have celebrated my co-workers’ marriages and new births, mourned with them, laughed, argued and marveled with them as we watched history unfold before our eyes.

I count every one of the people here as a dear friend and I know they feel the same way about me.

So, now that we will work in separate offices, we will need an excuse to get together. And if I know one thing about newspaper reporters, they won’t pass up a cup of coffee.

The next one’s on me.

Carnival of Soles

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, May 7, 2012. 

Jina Jordan has held several jobs in her life.

She owned a cleaning business and then worked as a pizza dough maker at Gino’s Pizza in Sissonville. She drives cars for the St. Albans Auction and repairs purses and leather jackets at the Fife Street Shoe Shop in downtown Charleston.

But over a decade ago, Jordan, 53, held her coolest gig of all. For one day, she was KISS bassist Gene Simmons’ cobbler.

The storied rock band played Charleston on May 2, 2000, on the first leg of their “Farewell Tour.”

KISS didn’t actually retire after that tour – they’ve embarked on seven more since then – but the Charleston date was one of the last times the band’s original lineup took the stage together.

Chris Dickerson, the Daily Mail’s city editor at the time, was eagerly anticipating that concert.

“I’m a huge KISS fan and over the years I became friends with KISS’s tour manager,” Dickerson said.

Tommy Thayer, who now plays lead guitar for the group, was KISS’s manager during the 2000 tour.

“I don’t remember all the details, but they had just got into town and there was something wrong with Gene’s boot. Tommy called me and asked me, ‘Where’s a good place I could take them?'” Dickerson said.

“I suggested the Fife Street Shoe Shop.”

That was the last Dickerson heard of Simmons’ boot problems. But it was the beginning of a very interesting day for Jordan.

On the afternoon of May 2, one of Simmons’ assistants brought the boots into the shop.

“It was a rush order,” Jordan remembers.

She had worked at the Fife Street Shoe Shop for about a year, spending much of her time repairing leather jackets and purses, mending rips, replacing zippers and fixing busted buckles. She learned to sew from her mother, Nadine.

“She sewed my sister’s wedding dress and bridesmaids’ dresses,” Jordan said. “I’ve got her old sewing machine, one of those real heavy-duty ones that you can sew blue jeans with.”

Jordan didn’t do a lot of work on shoes, though. Most of the broken heels and worn-out soles went to Andy Arthur, the shop’s manager.

But Jordan knew her client well. She graduated high school in 1977, two years after KISS got its first top 40 hit with “Rock and Roll All Nite.”

“I used to jam out to them when I was younger. I used to have them on an 8-track. We had a Cutlass, we called it a ‘Gutless.’ We used to jam to that,” she said.

The wildly costumed group became as famous for their onstage antics – Simmons’ fire breathing and blood spitting, Ace Frehley’s fireworks-spewing guitar, Peter Criss’ levitating drum set – as for hard-rocking hits like “Detroit Rock City” and “Calling Dr. Love.”

Well, Gene Simmons had aged a lot since Jordan was riding around in the Gutless.

He still was breathing fire and letting his foot-long tongue unfurl, but his ankles were swollen when he arrived in Charleston.

He needed wider zippers installed on the sides of his platform boots.

Though Jordan had done similar jobs before, replacing the zippers on Simmons’ boots presented some unique problems.

First, they were heavy. Even with all of Simmons’ metal adornments removed, the oversized footwear still weighed 35 pounds.

“I don’t know how he wore them onstage,” she said.

The boots also were wet when they arrived on Jordan’s workbench.

“That leather was real soft and the boots were still sweaty from the night before. It was hard to get them cut out,” she said.

Jordan was working on deadline, too: KISS was performing at the Civic Center that night and Simmons needed his boots fixed, pronto.

She started by slicing the threads that held the zippers to the boots’ leather. She had to be careful not to cut the soft, supple, soggy leather.

With the zippers removed, Jordan glued new ones in place. The glue normally sets up fast, but Jordan said the wet leather slowed the process. She used a fan to dry them, but that didn’t work very well.

Finally, after about an hour, the glue set up and Jordan stitched the zippers back into the leather.

“I guess he made it. He performed that night,” she said.

Jordan didn’t get to see her handiwork on stage, though.

Arthur told her he had received free tickets for helping the band, but that was just a little good-natured teasing among co-workers.

Jordan left the shoe shop about eight months after her chance encounter with the famous footwear. She got her old job back about two months ago but spent the intervening years as business-cleaner, dough-maker and car-driver.

She never forgot her most famous job, though.

“I still have the zippers.”

She put them in a plastic bag and placed it in a Pintor cigar box with newspaper clippings from the concert. For a long time, the zippers still smelled like Simmons’ sweat.

“I said, ‘I’m going to keep these ’cause someday something might happen with them.'”

If nothing else, the zippers help her prove that she’s not lying about her most famous client.

Whatever happened to Randolph Scott?

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Friday, May 30, 2014.

Donald Moore knows everything there is to know about film projectors.

He’s sold bunches of them over his half-century running Moore Theater Supply Company on Lee Street. When a repair call came in, he could usually diagnose the problem over the phone.

Moore, 69, knows which lenses and bulbs to use, based on the screen size and the distance to the screen. He set up theaters all over West Virginia and its surrounding states, including a 1,200-seat movie house in the federal penitentiary in Chillicothe, Ohio.

Unfortunately, there’s just not much demand for his services anymore.

Nobody needs a film projector anymore because there’s no more film. The major movie studios stopped releasing movies on 35 millimeter film last year.

The West Side business is still hanging on, but mostly as Moore’s “man cave.” The space is filled with memorabilia, from old film canisters and projector lenses to movie posters and leftover theater seats.

“It’s just a thing of the past,” Moore said. “It’s a total different business. It’s nothing like it was.”

Here’s how it was:

At one point, Moore’s father owned 15 theaters throughout southern West Virginia, mostly in coal camps.

Every member of the family was expected to help out. On any given Friday night, Moore and his three brothers were at one of the theaters, selling tickets or concessions.

The movie business followed them home, too.

“We popped popcorn year-round in the basement, bagged it up and took it to the theaters,” Moore said. “It was hotter than hell.”

They also made up the preview reels in the basement, taking big rolls of movie trailers and cutting them apart with razor blades. They would pick the trailers they wanted to show and splice them back together with tape.

Each theater would run six movies a week plus cartoons, trailers and newsreels. They got their films from a distributor in Cincinnati. They only received one copy of each film, however, so theaters had to take turns.

“You just bicycled them from one theater to the other.”

It might be weeks before the new John Wayne reached the movie house in your hometown.

On the upside, going to the movies was pretty cheap back then. Moore said in the 1960s, regular price admission at his dad’s theaters was 75 cents for adults and 35 cents for children. On bargain nights—usually Wednesdays and Thursdays, when they played older movies—it dropped to 35 cents for adults and 15 cents for children.

Children could also get in for 15 cents on Saturday mornings, when the theaters would show cartoon reels. They could get a small popcorn and soft drink for 10 cents more.

The theater business started declining by the end of the 1950s, so Moore’s father diversified his business plan. He went to work for Charleston Theater Supply and, a few years later, opened his own theater supply business.

Moore started working with his father in 1962, after graduating from Stonewall Jackson High School. He took over the business when his dad died in 1966, and in 1969 bought out Charleston Theater Supply.

For years he sold everything from projectors, theater seats, movie poster frames and marquee letters. Moore still does the occasional stage curtain installation, although those are few and far between.

“Those jobs only come every 20 years. You put it in, you put it in right and they last forever,” he said.

He now uses the space as a workshop for his other business, the South Charleston Antique Mall, which he and his wife opened in 2005. The tools Moore once used to fix projectors now are used on items he plans to sell at the antique store.

He still likes movies—his favorites are “Shane: and “The High and the Mighty”—but he hasn’t been to a theater in years.

“They don’t match my expectations,” he said.

Moore said it’s difficult to enjoy himself, since he’s trained his eyes to notice every little detail about the projection.

Some things just aren’t like they used to be.

Derecho Damage to Decor

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Friday, June 27, 2014.

LEON — Retired Washington Post photo editor Joseph Elbert didn’t have to go looking for inspiration when he decided to start building furniture.

It nearly fell on him.

When a derecho swept across West Virginia on June 29, 2012, strong winds damaged buildings, uprooted trees and took down power lines across the state. Elbert’s Mason County community did not escape the damage.

“There were just trees everywhere and you heard the sound of chainsaws going, Elbert said.

That gave him an idea.

He decided to gather the downed hardwoods from his neighbors and get them milled into lumber.

His neighbors liked the idea, too, often using their tractors and bulldozers to drag the trees to Elbert’s property.

He then found a portable sawmill that would process the trees for $200 per thousand board feet.

Elbert soon had 4,000 board feet of green sawn hardwood on his hands, but then realized he had no way to dry it.

Professional lumberyards use huge kilns to dry their lumber, and while air-drying is an option, it takes a really long time.

Elbert began researching his problem on the Internet and soon found plans for a solar-powered kiln designed by Virginia Tech in the 1970s for use in third-world countries.

The big, insulated box lets in sunlight from the top, heating the space to 140 degrees. As moisture leaves the wood, it rises to the top of the kiln where it escapes through vents.

Elbert said while oak would take a year to air-dry, his kiln cuts the process down to just a month.

Now, his shop is filled with piles of boards ready to be turned into lamps, chairs and tables.

It’s not the kind of stuff you find at the local lumber yard. Elbert likes wood with knots, holes and other blemishes. He even cuts the boards to showcase these imperfections.

“It’s part of its character, he said. “Most wood workers, it goes into the burn pile.

Elbert’s work is a combination of rustic and modern.

He might use knotty, blemished wood, but his furniture is inspired by architecture and the mid-century design of the Mad Men era.

His chairs have high backs made up of long wooden slats, cut individually and glued together.

The strong vertical lines mimic those of the Empire State Building. In fact, a large poster of the iconic building hangs on the wall of Elbert’s shop.

His lamps continue the motif, as does the base of his triangle-shaped coffee table, which was originally inspired by an old Mechanics Illustrated magazine article about outdoor furniture.

“All music has one simple little theme that repeats. That’s what I was trying to accomplish here.

The furniture is similar in other ways, too. Every piece Elbert makes is collapsible, except the lamps.

His table’s legs unbolt from the top and fold together for easy transport. The chairs’ backs and legs detach just as easily. All the pieces use the same 7/16-inch bolts and Elbert even throws in a wrench with every purchase.

It’s like high-end Ikea furniture.

“It just seemed like the natural thing to do, he said.

Elbert said it’s one thing to design a pretty piece of furniture, “but to design something with form and function and comes apart, that takes it to another level.

His design process is more like improvisation than composition, however.

Elbert comes up with the designs in his head, then starts cutting out pieces of wood and fitting them together.

He said his abundance of building materials has given him courage to experiment with his pieces.

“When you’ve got 4,000 board feet of hardwood sitting around, you can take some risks.

He’s never been adverse to risk.

Elbert graduated from Indiana University with a degree in music. But he had also fallen in love with photography and decided to take a job as a newspaper photographer in Bloomington.

He spent the next several years bouncing between publications – shooting for four different papers in five years – before landing in Miami, Fla.

Elbert would spend the next 15 years at the Miami Herald, first as a photographer shooting everything from Super Bowls to a revolution in Nicaragua before moving behind the photo editor’s desk.

He joined The Washington Post in 1988 as assistant managing editor of photography, hired by the paper’s legendary editor Ben Bradlee.

The Post’s photography staff won more awards under Elbert’s direction than any other newspaper in history, including four Pulitzer Prizes, two Best World Picture of the Year awards from the World Press Photo organization, six Photographer of the Year awards from the National Press Photographers’ Association and 17 Photographer of the Year awards from the White House Press Photographers’ Association.

Elbert was named the National Press Photographers’ Association’s Editor of the Year in 1995 and the Joseph A. Sprague award, the organization’s highest honor, in 2003.

But that wasn’t the biggest prize Elbert received during his 20 years at the Post.

He met his wife, Kathy, when she was an art director at the newspaper.

“I would go in and complain to him all the time, she said. “He was attracted to that for some reason.

Kathy also introduced Elbert to West Virginia.

She was raised on the farm where they now reside – the property’s been in her family for a century – and the couple decided to relocate there after Elbert left The Washington Post in 2008.

They still keep an apartment in the city and spend about three months there each year, but Elbert is most happy among the West Virginia hills.

“When I’m in D.C. there’s nothing to do, he said.

Elbert said he feels lucky his furniture has received such a positive response. His work was accepted into Tamarack earlier this year and will make his first showing at the Capitol Street Art Fair this Saturday and Sunday.

“I couldn’t have done this anywhere else, he said. “West Virginia has a commitment to arts and culture.

Late Edition

This story was originally published in the September/October 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

GZAround 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 19, the newsroom staffs of the Charleston Daily Mail and Charleston Gazette were called to the front lobby of their shared headquarters at 1001 Virginia Street East in downtown Charleston. Employees immediately knew something strange was happening. Although situated on opposite sides of the same hallway, the newsrooms seldom had contact with one another—and certainly did not hold mid-Sunday afternoon meetings by the front door.

Workers walked down the stairs from their second-floor offices and stood around the perimeter of the high-ceilinged lobby. Only about 30 people were in attendance. The newsrooms ran bare-bones staffs on Sundays, mostly just the sports departments along with copydesk staff, who edit stories and design the next day’s paper.

When everyone was assembled, recently named Gazette publisher Susan Chilton Shumate spoke up with an announcement: Effective immediately, everyone worked for the same publication, the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The brand-new publication would go to press in just a few hours. After more than 100 years as fierce competitors, the Gazette and Daily Mail were no more.

A flurry of confused activity consumed the newsrooms, according to several employees who spoke with West Virginia Focus. They asked not to be named, for fear of losing their jobs. Both papers had been planning their respective Monday editions since the week before—now Daily Mail editors had to send each story and photo to the Gazette. Daily Mail copy editors went to the Gazette newsroom to help lay out the paper but had trouble accessing the computers since they did not have log-ins for the Gazette’s system. Someone cobbled together a new Gazette-Mail flag for the top of the front page. Charley West, the cartoon punster who had appeared in every issue of the Daily Mail since 1958, was nowhere to be found.

Copies of the reborn newspaper arrived on newsstands and doorsteps Monday morning. The front page featured a story about a domestic violence pilot program from crime reporter Tyler Bell, of the former Daily Mail, and a story about the Public Service Commission of West Virginia by business reporter Andrew Brown of the late Gazette. Both were listed as “staff writers.” A photo spread of public murals took up the middle of the page—although copy editors, in their haste, had forgotten to include an accompanying story by Gazette city reporter Rachel Molenda.

But the big news on that Monday’s front page—the “play” story, as it is called in newspaper lingo—does not feature a byline. The headline simply reads: “Announcing the Charleston Gazette-Mail.”

The text of the article was the same as an email sent to staffers around 5 p.m. Sunday. The statement also was published online around 8 p.m. Sunday night. “Beginning today, the two newspapers are combining newsroom functions with the exception of editorial page content,” it read. “Welcome to the Charleston Gazette- Mail.”

The story assured readers the new Gazette-Mail would retain two independent editorial pages—a conservative Daily Mail page and liberal Gazette page—and the new, larger staff would be able to cover more news than ever before. “This is not one paper gobbling up the other. It is a combination of the two newsroom staffs working in cooperation to produce the most comprehensive news product in West Virginia.” What the story did not mention was the interesting timing of this change.

Paper Route

The Gazette and Daily Mail had shared the same printing press, advertising, circulation, and business operations under a joint operating agreement established in 1958, but the newsrooms had remained independent. The Daily Gazette Company owned the Gazette, while MediaNews owned the Daily Mail. Each company held a 50-percent stake in Charleston Newspapers—the legal name for their joint operations—until 2004 when MediaNews sold the Daily Mail to the Daily Gazette Company for a reported $55 million.

The deal drew scrutiny from the federal government, and in 2007 the U.S. Justice Department filed an antitrust suit alleging the Daily Gazette Company “planned to deliberately transform a financially healthy and stable Daily Mail into a failing newspaper and close it.” Three years later U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver issued a final judgment in the case, requiring that the Daily Mail remain a daily newspaper and returning control of the paper to MediaNews Group. No changes could be made to this arrangement without federal approval for as long as the judgment was in effect. Copenhaver set the ruling to expire five years from the date it was issued: July 19, 2010. It seems no one outside the newspapers’ upper management noticed as the fifth anniversary approached.

In the meantime, the world became an increasingly inhospitable place for newspapers. Especially after the Great Recession, publications all over the country folded as a result of diminishing advertising revenues and faltering subscription numbers. Charleston’s newspapers were not immune.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I spent five and a half years working at the Daily Mail, leaving in January 2015 to become managing editor of West Virginia Focus. During my final months at the Daily Mail I watched as the company made efforts to cut costs, raise revenues, and shore up its finances. Some of these changes were relatively small, like replacing expensive comic strips with less expensive ones. Others were more pronounced.

In January 2014, the Daily Mail sold its longtime domain name, www.dailymail.com, to the Daily Mail of London. The much larger London newspaper had coveted the web address for years, and the sale netted Charleston Newspapers around $1.6 million, according to news reports from the time. In October 2014, the Daily Mail and Gazette increased their newsstand prices from 50 cents to 75 cents Monday through Saturday, and from $1.50 to $2 for the Sunday paper. The newspapers also began producing joint editions for holidays. Subscribers received combined papers on Thanksgiving and Christmas 2014 as well as on New Year’s Day and Memorial Day 2015.

The company got rid of its in-house custodial staff, allowing some of those workers to move to other departments, and began contracting with an outside company for janitorial services. In January 2015, employees were required to begin using a new time clock and automated payroll system, which the company installed to replace its retired payroll clerk. Charleston Newspapers also switched to a thinner-weight newsprint in early 2015. This initially caused some headaches, as the paper had a tendency to break while passing through the printing press, leading to multiple delivery delays.

But the biggest indicator of Charleston Newspapers’ financial distress would not be made public until 10 days after the merger was announced, when the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) filed a federal lien against the company. It turns out Charleston Newspapers had fallen behind in payments to the PBGC to the tune of $1.34 million. So as the clock counted down on Copenhaver’s final judgment, executives had begun eyeing the company’s biggest cost-saving measure of all: combining the two papers.

Press Release

At 3 p.m. Monday, July 20, staff members of the newly combined paper gathered in a conference room to hear from top executives and editors about the future of the company. A staffer who attended the meeting provided West Virginia Focus with an audio recording. Shumate began with a brief statement, echoing the story in that morning’s paper. “We’re not losing one newspaper … we’re combining them together to make the best possible news product we can for this area, for this size paper.” She said the new, combined newsroom would be “considerably larger,” allowing reporters to write “deeper stories” and “take a different or more creative look.”

But Shumate made clear there would not be enough room for all existing employees. At the time of the merger the Daily Mail had around 33 full-time positions while the Gazette had 44 employees. The newly combined newsroom would only have room for 67 people. Every member of the newsroom staff—with the exception of former Gazette executive editor Rob Byers and former Daily Mail editor and publisher Brad McElhinny—would have to reapply for his or her job. The newspaper would offer severance packages for those who chose not to reapply and those who were not rehired.

McElhinny encouraged employees to view this as a positive step. “If you feel stuck in a beat or stuck in a role, there are going to be new opportunities,” he said. “This is not newsroom versus newsroom. This is, I swear, an attempt to find the best possible personnel moving forward.”

About halfway through the meeting, staffers began to ask questions about the merger. One asked why the change was so abrupt. “There’s no real easy way to do something like this,” said Trip Shumate, president and chief financial officer of Charleston Newspapers and Susan Shumate’s husband.

Another staffer asked how long the merger had been in the works. No one answered. Susan Shumate only said, “It’s a necessity. I know that’s not the answer. But unfortunately now, it’s an economic reality.” She said the company planned to send out a press release to “make a positive spin” on the situation. The statement drew a few rueful laughs—the papers were usually in the business of deciphering “spin,” not publishing it.

The meeting did little to allay some staff members’ concerns about the future of their jobs. For some, it seemed to add insult to injury. “They didn’t have answers to legitimate questions,” said one former Daily Mail reporter following the meeting. “There’s just so many I-don’t-knows.”

But others were optimistic, excited about what a larger newsroom might be able to accomplish. In their minds a larger staff would give reporters freedom to cover stories they couldn’t before, give copy editors more time to work on pages, and make photographers’ schedules a little less hectic. “I think the Gazette-Mail is in a position to do great things,” one editor said.

In the intervening weeks, the two staffs grew steadily more comfortable working together. The copy desk staffs divvied up pages, while editors worked together to assign stories. Erstwhile Daily Mail reporters went on assignment with former Gazette photographers, while former Daily Mail photographers shot photos for ex-Gazette reporters.

The competition between the two papers did not completely cease, however. Although they were no longer jockeying for stories, staffers were now competing for jobs. Some employees cranked into overdrive, determined to prove themselves before the rehiring process was over. “It’s easy to spot somebody that’s going to an interview,” one staffer said. “They’re dressed better than they have been all summer.” Others became listless. Suddenly unsure of their roles in the newsroom, their bylines began appearing less and less frequently.

Employee interviews began on Monday, August 10, conducted in the same conference room where employees first learned about the rehiring process. Tables were arranged to resemble a capital letter I. Shumate, Byers, and McElhinny sat at one end with large binders full of resumes. Employees sat at the opposite end. One employee said the three-judge panel reminded her ofAmerican Idol.

Each interview took around 15 minutes. McElhinny or Byers led the conversation, depending on which newsroom the employee came from. They asked why the employee wanted the job and quizzed them about their work experience. Shumate mostly remained silent, staffers said, only occasionally chiming in with a question. Almost every employee West Virginia Focus interviewed described his or her interview using the same word: “awkward.”

Some opted to avoid the process altogether. Like several employees, Gazette reporter Rusty Marks opted to take severance. He spent more than a few sleepless nights mulling his options. “I’ve been at the Gazette more than half my life,” he says. “I had intended to retire from the Charleston Gazette. I’d say it’s one of the four toughest decisions I’ve had to make in my life.”

But Marks, 50, says he expects the newspaper will see more layoffs in the near future. “I just wasn’t willing to take the chance the paper would still be around in some kind of form I could live with in 15 more years,” he says. “I don’t want to be 55 or 60, laid off, and much more unemployable.”

Although he knew there was a chance he would be laid off, Daily Mail photographer Bob Wojcieszak wasn’t too worried. He’d first arrived at the newspaper in the early 1990s and had proved himself as a more than capable photographer. His photo essay about a local homeless shelter won Best Photo Feature at the 2015 West Virginia Press Association awards ceremony, held August 15.

But when Wojcieszak arrived at work on Tuesday, August 18 he quickly noticed something was amiss. He tried to log onto the paper’s computer system to check his assignments for the day but couldn’t. He rebooted the computer and tried to log on again. This time there was an error message. “It said my account had been deleted,” he says.

A few minutes later he received a call on his cell phone. It was Crystal McIntyre, Charleston Newspapers’ human resources director. She instructed him to report immediately to her office. “There’s Crystal, and Susan, and Rob, and Brad. Basically, they told me I didn’t ‘fit their vision.’ Whatever that means.”

Wojcieszak was asked to forfeit his parking garage keycard and key to the photo lab. McIntyre offered to escort him from the building and box up his possessions later. He balked. “They weren’t even going to let me say goodbye to anyone.” Wojcieszak walked back to the newsroom, shook a few hands, and collected his things. He already had everything packed up, assuming he would have to move to the Gazette newsroom sometime soon. His recent West Virginia Press Association award was still lying on the desk.

Reporter Tyler Bell learned of the layoffs over the phone. He got a call that morning from the newspaper but ignored it. Then his girlfriend, a copy editor in the former Daily Mail newsroom, called and said she was let go. Bell realized what the missed call was probably about. He called back and reached McIntyre, who put McElhinny on the phone. “I just start laughing because I know what’s coming,” Bell says. His time at the Daily Mail had ended after only seven months.

In all, seven people were laid off, including four employees from the former Gazette newsroom and three from the Daily Mail. An additional eight opted to take severance or left for other jobs, while three—the Daily Mail’s Charlotte Smith and Craig Cunningham, as well as Paul Nyden from the Gazette—decided to retire. All told, the rehiring process cost the Gazette-Mail 18 staffers.

West Virginia Focus asked Shumate for comment after the rehiring process was completed. She declined our request for an interview but sent a press release that also appeared in the Friday, August 21 newspaper. “Unfortunately, we said goodbye to a number of employees who were talented, dedicated members of our newspaper family,” she wrote. “The Gazette- Mail will miss them.” Shumate also repeated her assurances the combined papers would “provide deeper, stronger local coverage.”

Hard News

Rob Rabe has heard all this before. “The hair on the back of my neck always stands up when I hear publishers talk about streamlining and efficiency,” says Rabe, a journalism professor at Marshall University who specializes in the history of American newspapers. “That’s what they always say when one of these happens. Then a year, two, three years out, that doesn’t always happen.”

When papers merge, Rabe says, it’s common for publishers to tout a bigger, better paper. But as advertising and circulation continue to decline, it usually isn’t long before another round of layoffs. “I’ll be surprised if in three or four or five years the combined newsroom isn’t substantially smaller. That’s the way it seems to go,” he says.

Democratic political consultant Tom Susman says he feels the Gazette-Mail is living up to Shumate’s promises, so far. “It appears the paper’s thicker, there’s more content in it. It seems like they’re maintaining a writing staff and covering more stories.” But Susman, also a former newspaperman, predicts it will be more difficult to pitch stories. In the past, if one paper didn’t bite on a story, there was a good chance the competition would. Now, you get one shot. Conrad Lucas, chairman of the state Republican Party, wonders how the newspaper will handle political endorsements in the coming election year, with the newspaper’s dueling opinion pages. “Is every candidate going to be endorsed by the Gazette-Mail?”

There is some effort to postpone the inevitable. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is now pursuing a possible suit against Charleston Newspapers, alleging executives violated Copenhaver’s judgment by planning the merger while the judgment was still in effect. “This conduct, if proved, is a violation of the Antitrust Act,” Morrisey wrote in a petition filed in Putnam County Circuit Court on Aug. 13. The attorney general asked the court to cease “further merging” of the newspapers until the company complies with his subpoena. At press time, judges have not taken any action on Morrisey’s request.

It’s difficult to imagine what “further merging” might be left. All around Charleston, at gas stations and fast food restaurants, it is common to see two newspaper vending boxes sitting side by side. There’s a blue one for the Gazette and a green one for the Daily Mail. For years, the newspapers in these boxes often looked extremely different. There were different stories on each front page, different photos, different bylines. Now the boxes are sometimes filled with the same newspaper, but most often one box— usually the green one—is left empty.

This is the unfortunate history of American newspapers. It’s a story that has played out again and again throughout the country, in Cleveland, Denver, Seattle, Tuscon, and innumerable smaller cities and towns. As with most things, the news just took a little longer to reach West Virginia.