The man behind The Rockbridge Advocate

Douglas Harwood shares his story and perspective on journalism today

Douglas Harwood began publishing The Rockbridge Advocate in 1992. Photo courtesy of The Rockbridge Advocate.

Douglas Harwood began publishing The Rockbridge Advocate in 1992. Photo courtesy of The Rockbridge Advocate.

Stuart Scott

It was a cool, clear morning in February when I first went looking for the office of Douglas J. Harwood. My only directions had been to look for a large green door located somewhere across the street from the Stonewall Jackson House on East Washington Street— there are no signs or advertisements marking the home base of local news magazine The Rockbridge Advocate.

I had heard various stories and rumors regarding Mr. Harwood and his monthly publication. On occasion, I had even caught a glimpse of his lean, lanky frame quietly stalking the streets of Lexington— usually while taking deep drags from an unfiltered cigarette in his hand.

And of course, like many other patrons, I had briefly skimmed the front cover of the Advocate while waiting in line at the Stop-In Mini-Mart on South Main Street.

One thing about the publication always stood out to me— directly underneath the magazine’s title, in quotation marks is the phrase “Independent as a Hog on Ice.”

What? Independent as a hog on ice? What on earth does that mean? And why would any journalist choose it as the slogan to represent their publication? These were just a few of the questions in my mind as I pushed open the green door and walked up the stairs to Harwood’s office.

As I entered the office, my first reaction was astonishment. The small, rectangular room was nearly chock-full of papers, books and clippings, some of them in stacks taller than Harwood himself. Perhaps a dozen empty 7-11 coffee cups were scattered across almost every surface in the room.

At the center of the beautiful mess, seated at his computer was Harwood, wearing blue jeans, a sweater and rubber galoshes. He greeted me warmly and offered me a seat, and I began to learn about the man everyone knows but no one seems to know much about.

Photo courtesy of The Rockbridge Advocate.
Doug Harwood says that when he started The Rockbridge Advocate, he didn’t have a single penny to his name. Photo courtesy of The Rockbridge Advocate.

Harwood, originally from western Massachusetts, attended Washington and Lee and graduated in 1974 with a degree in journalism. But upon graduating, he decided to take his life in a different direction than most alumni: He wanted to continue living in Rockbridge County.

For the next 18 years, Harwood would work a variety of jobs in the area. He served as a dishwasher and disc jockey before starting the news department at WREL, a Lexington radio station, in 1976— a position he held for just a few years.

“They [WREL] were worried about getting Schewel’s furniture ads. My manager told me I was going to have to write a news story about a furniture sale,” Harwood said. “So I said, ‘I quit. Bye!”

Soon after, Harwood worked as a bartender and eventually found a position as editor of a newspaper based in Buena Vista, a capacity in which he served for 12 years. But when the newspaper’s owner urged him to write more business-friendly stories, he again quit his job.

It was then, in 1992, that he decided to start his own publication: The Rockbridge Advocate.

“When I started it, I didn’t have a penny to my name and I was in debt,” Harwood said. “I had no credit; I had nothing.”

The most important thing to know about Harwood is that he isn’t in the newspaper business to make friends, to gain advertising funds or to get rich. He’s in it for two reasons, the first of which is that he loves what he does.

“I’m curious about things and I’m fascinated with human behavior,” Harwood said, “and being a journalist is a fine way to get paid for being curious. I get to learn about all sort of things that I would never learn about and then write— it’s fun.”

Harwood said his second reason for maintaining the Advocate for so long is that he feels the community needs it. Many people in Rockbridge County enjoy the magazine and many don’t. But through thick and thin, despite endless encouragement countered by endless criticism, Harwood said he knows he is providing locals with information and perspective that he believes they need to hear.

Each issue of the monthly features two main elements: the first section of the Advocate is news-based, focusing on current events and happenings in Rockbridge County. The last few pages take on a historical nature. In this section, Harwood digs up old facts and stories about the area and its citizens. He calls this section his favorite part of the publication.

“When I started doing the paper, there was maybe one history book written about Rockbridge County every ten years,” Harwood said. “Now there’s a new one coming out about every three weeks. I suspect that the paper doing history pieces has a little bit to do with that.”

Over the last 24 years, The Rockbridge Advocate has consistently reported on and exposed the county’s various scandals, happenings and history in a professional and entertaining manner. It’s gained Harwood many friends and also made him quite a few enemies.

Harwood said he initially started the news magazine with a partner who left the job after three years. Since then, he has run the Advocate largely on his own. He serves as the magazine’s publisher, editor and paperboy, in addition to supplying nearly all of the magazine’s print material.

The publication does have a few employees who assist Harwood with layout, as well as with interviewing and photography.

Harwood cites necessity rather than choice as the reason for the personal and self-sufficient way he publishes the Advocate— the publication isn’t big enough to employ many full-time journalists. But this gives him the opportunity to run his magazine in a more traditional manner, something he said he feels is important given the state of journalism today.

“The thought of going to a city council meeting and having to write about it, while I’m videoing it, while I’m live tweeting about it – that is all so wrong,” Harwood said. “There’s an awful lot of emphasis these days on the tools of the trade, instead of on the actual work— thinking, researching, listening, being curious, and letting your nose take you where it will.”

While Harwood acknowledges the presence of “some” good journalism being produced currently, he said he is largely disappointed with the direction the industry is headed. He describes much of today’s journalism as “vapid and shallow” and takes pride in the individuality of his publication.

Photo courtesy of The Rockbridge Advocate.
Harwood was inducted into the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame in April 2013.  In his nomination letter for Harwood, Washington and Lee journalism and mass communication Professor Douglas Cumming equated Harwood to the likes of 19th century frontier editors.  Photo courtesy of The Rockbridge Advocate.

In addition to his work at the Advocate, Harwood has hosted a radio show on 91.5 WLUR-FM every other Saturday for over 40 years. The show, called The Anti-Headache Machine, features solely vinyl music playback. It reflects one of Harwood’s main passions outside journalism— he is a self described “music nut” who plays the drums and has been a member of multiple bands.

Harwood’s continued excellence in journalism was formally recognized when he was inducted into the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame in April 2013. He was nominated for this honor by Douglas Cumming, associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Washington and Lee. Cumming said he has been a fan of the Advocate since he moved to Rockbridge County in 2003.

“Harwood is most deserving of this honor as a rare surviving embodiment of a journalistic ideal that seems almost lost to history,” said Cumming in his letter of nomination. “To locate that ideal and appreciate Harwood, one would have to think back to the bravest frontier editors of the 19th century.”

In addition, Harwood received two awards at the 1997 Virginia Press Association Better Newspaper Contest— first place for editorial writing and second place for in-depth or investigative reporting.

After getting to know Doug Harwood and his publication, I’m still clueless about the meaning of the phrase “Independent as a Hog on Ice.” What I have learned, though, is how important Harwood’s work is— to his readers, to Rockbridge County as a whole and to the industry of journalism. Almost singlehandedly and in a most unlikely location, he has established and maintained a tradition of excellence in the field.

His steadfastness, dedication and passion should serve as motivation for any aspiring journalist. Suffice it to say Harwood is truly one of the last of a dying breed.

Next time you’re standing in line at Stop-In, do yourself a favor: Don’t just skim the front cover. Pick up a copy of The Rockbridge Advocate and experience journalism in its purest form.

“I never wanted any power or influence— never gave a damn about that stuff,” said Harwood in his Hall of Fame induction speech. “I’ve just run a community paper. But if a paper runs stories that’ll stick to your ribs, it holds up a mirror.”