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Relearning Richmond

One reporter suddenly met a Richmond that wasn't the one he knew.



Then in 1992 Lazarus applied for a position at the fledgling Richmond Free Press and was hired by editor and publisher Raymond H. Boone. When he came back, the veteran reporter discovered there was a whole side of the city he had never explored — neighborhoods he'd never visited, leaders he'd never met.

He hit the streets to find the stories others ignored and sought to fulfill the Free Press's goal of giving a fair voice to African-Americans in Richmond. Now the city's black-owned, free weekly newspaper is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Lazarus, its senior reporter, reflects on his years on the job, which he calls a daily "journey of discovery."

Style: You've described your career with the Free Press as a chance to break through artificial lines of race, class and stereotypes. Can you describe any specific moments when that happened?

Lazarus: I think in 1992 or something I had the opportunity to go to a Crusade for Voters meeting. It was just walking in and realizing, wow, there's a whole bunch of people who actually are involved in this city that I didn't know about. I did not know Oliver Hill's name before I came to the Free Press. I literally never heard of Maggie Walker. ... I glanced at The Afro-American, but so rarely. So I wasn't even aware of the black community. …

Those are the paradigm shifts, just in seeing that this is a broader community. I've written about Blackwell. I live in Blackwell. ... When the television was getting into this thing [covering violence in Blackwell], … it was like there was this astonishing — what do they call it? Cognitive dissonance. There's a dissonance. There I was living in Blackwell; there I was reading about it. And it was like there was this terror-filled area where people cringed, terrible; people were inside, and it was all terrible, drugs everywhere. And then you go home and people were out walking the neighborhood, people walking to the store. There were people going to church. Cognitive dissonance … It's like you're waiting for the world, for the newspaper or the television pictures to reflect that. Frequently, I don't think they do.

What were the biggest challenges in the first few days on your beat?

Nothing really, it was mostly learning different places. ... Things I was totally unaware of were happening around me. That was the challenge. It was meeting people who were playing a role in the city, who I didn't have the foggiest notion who they were. ...

We're a small paper and much of what we cover has to do with government. And Ray [Boone] expects … [that] you're up in the middle of the power sector and that's who you walk around with. As a reporter, I wasn't used to that. ...

Again, when you're at the Times-Dispatch, much of your worldview is shaped by where people live, or who you know. … It's not that people don't go out and talk to important people, but the kinds of people you're talking to also will be shaped. If you have to find a professor, you're not gonna look at Virginia Union as a source of knowledge. ... Here, if you're doing a political story, well, people call Larry Sabato [of the University of Virginia] and they'll call Robert Holsworth [of Virginia Commonwealth University] or they'll call a guy over at Washington and Lee. There's nobody else. But nobody will think, maybe Norfolk State might have somebody. Or Virginia State. ...

[In Style, in the past five years], there is a broader effort to look at stories that cross lines. ... It's something I've noticed from the Times-Dispatch as well. And I think that is an influence of the Free Press.

Do you ever feel that your race (Caucasian) has been a handicap in reporting stories?

No, I haven't ever found that here. Everyone has been very kind. Would I do things differently if I had grown up differently? I just think my experiences sometimes may get in my way, just from growing up. You can't escape your background and you can't escape your things, so some of the richness of the full experience that I might have had previously, I can't have. I have to fill that in. Kind of like learning a language late — it's easier when you're a kid, harder when you're an adult.

What's it like working for Raymond Boone?

He can be very difficult. He can be very brilliant. When we're in synch, it can be very pleasant, because he really is very good. In terms of presentation — of a story — when he's able to focus on that, he's as good or better than anyone I've ever worked for. He does the dozens better than anybody I know. If you want to play, you better be very good. ...

(earlier in the interview) Ray really understands the value of power, as no editor that I've ever seen before. The Times-Dispatch has nobody like that. They may understand stories, they may understand graphics, they may understand design. But in terms of influence and a deliberate interest in influencing the world about him, Ray is … brilliant. He's been there, he's done it with the Afro[-American newspaper], and he at least understands who holds power and why one goes after them to talk with them. And his hope is to have a paper that would get people who have power or influence to think about the ideas he's presenting. ...

If we don't do it perfectly, we at least need to get people on equivalent planes. Again, that's Ray's view. [He] does not bar white opinion. It's just that he wants, also wants, equal leverage. In the AP, it is repeatedly true that Bob Lewis or other reporters will quote the important white statesmen of this state, whether it's [Senator] Walter Stosch or whether it is a leading legislator, but he will not religiously get someone from the legislative [black] caucus who has equal seniority or who has served on the same committee to be part of that, unless it is a black story. ... That is a bete noire with Ray.

In some cases we do stories just with black opinion, and sometimes the legislative black caucus, and sometimes we try to project people as being more important or more influential than they are — in part, just to, because, well, we're a black newspaper, so we do that even if it's iffy about being true.

Everyone has their shortcomings. It's because the legislative black caucus isn't, sometimes isn't, as organized as we would like them to be, so we may project them as being more organized than they may be actually on the floor of the legislature.

Many members have their own bills to do. While they may have a few bills that they're promoting as a caucus together, the caucus itself is not — people vote different ways on the bill. It's kind of hard to have the legislative black caucus when people are dividing up in the legislature, because they vote the district more than they vote the caucus.

And the Crusade — it's been a long time since they were able to turn out thousands and thousands of voters. So it would be wonderful if they could do that…. Sometimes, we would like things to fulfill our wish. But not every time are they able to do what they would love to do. S

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