For many on this side of the river, their first experience with the Edgefield Daily, edgefielddaily.com, came with the story about the mountain biker allegedly attacked on the bike trail in Modoc, S.C., a story that continues to fuel visits to both the Edgefield Daily and the Metro Spirit website.
“That story originally ran on July 27, but it’s still showing up as one of the top four pages this month,” says Roy Blackwell, owner and editor of the Edgefield Daily. “It’s still getting a lot of play.”
Though Blackwell didn’t necessarily give the story the prominence that the Metro Spirit did — and as an internet-only media outlet, he hardly could — he was nevertheless the first to break the story, and not by accident. Blackwell has a lifelong connection to Edgefield County and he’s built an information network that’s tough to beat. Combine that with the nimble simplicity of his distribution system, and he’s made himself the go-to source for the hyper-local news of Edgefield County.
That’s one of the things that makes this all so interesting. As newsgathering organizations large and small try to figure out how to rise above the clamor of the internet and effectively deliver content, Blackwell’s Edgefield Daily has been doing it since 2005.
The Modoc bike story is an excellent example of how he’s made it all work.
In case you’ve somehow forgotten the story, on Saturday, July 26, a Lexington, S.C., man claimed he was knocked off his bike on the Stevens Creek Trail by a rope of some kind that was stretched between two trees. When he opened his eyes, he said one of the three attackers was attempting to take off his shorts and sexually assault him. The rider told McCormick County deputies he was able to elbow his assailant in the face and run away, shooting his handgun at him after one of the suspects shot at him.
Blackwell has a friend who’s active with SORBA-CSRA, the mountain bike organization that oversees and maintains the trails, and within an hour of the man’s wife’s account of the story on the SORBA site, he contacted Blackwell and Blackwell went to work on it, though things were more difficult for him because it occurred in McCormick County, which is outside his regular beat. Though he knew some deputies, none of them would freely communicate, even off the record.
“It’s just so bizarre,” he says. “But when you go back and look at the comments, very, very, very few people believed it.”
Wandering Minds is the section of his site where readers can post their own anonymous interpretations of the day’s events, and most comments doubted the validity of the story, which has changed several times.
The most recent version, posted on the SORBA-CSRA site by the alleged victim on August 9, says that it was the news media, not him, that claimed the rope was tied to a tree. He also criticizes the McCormick police for a variety of things and claims to be working with the Edgefield police and others to find his attackers.
“When all the smoke finally clears on my case a lot of big mouth sobs are going to be sorry,” he wrote. “I’m one vindictive sob when I need to be.”
Because Blackwell was the first to report the story, all eyes in Augusta media quickly turned to him. Though Blackwell likes to cooperate with other local media, he’s leery of many of the TV stations, which he says often air his reports almost verbatim and then complain that he enjoys preferential treatment from local officials.
“’We want what he’s got,’ they’ll tell the sheriff’s office, and they’ll say they gave me the same thing they’re giving them,” Blackwell says.
Blackwell actually devotes one of his editor’s columns to Channel 12’s story about a one-sentence memo written by the sheriff and given to Edgefield County deputies telling them to keep traffic stops to serious violations. News 12 obtained the memo and ran with it — in a direction Blackwell felt was irresponsible.
“Stop the presses!” he wrote. “Major breaking news! The sheriff made a policy decision that an obviously disgruntled employee is unhappy with.”
Though the website has all the sections you’d expect, from sports and a crime blotter to his editor’s column, the site itself is easy to dismiss. The homepage looks a little like one those paper placemats you sometimes see in a truck stop dining room, with static ads that are short of artistic value and lack any of the bells and whistles you’ll find just about anywhere else. Headlines with a paragraph of copy link to the full story on another page. It’s like stepping into the Wayback Machine and setting the dial to the pre-AOL days.
But there’s a reason it looks like a throwback from the turn of the century.
“People are always telling me I’ve got to update and become more modern,” he says. “But the thing is, the majority of people in Edgefield County don’t have high-speed internet, so if I’m trying to reach those readers, I can’t build a site that’s going to take 15 minutes for them to load the front page.”
In fact, for the first several years of its existence, Blackwell ran the paper with a dial-up connection.
“I’d finish up at 11 p.m. and it would be 3 a.m. before I finished uploading just because you’re uploading every picture and every page,” he says. “And then I had to go back and check and make sure all the links worked and all the stories worked. When DSL came along, that was a godsend.”
And even that was something of a fluke. Go a mile in any direction and everybody’s still got dial up, and had Blackwell not encouraged a friend to sign petitions and force AT&T to live up to its agreements following the merger of AT&T and BellSouth, he’d probably still have it, too.
Blackwell has always been civic-minded. After getting married to his high school sweetheart and moving away for a bit, he and his wife returned to Edgefield County in 1998 just as Merriwether was going through a contentious zoning issue. He didn’t like the way it was handled, so he and some like-minded neighbors formed a group and unseated two of the five council members. In the process, he sat through a lot of meetings and saw a stark disconnect between what he saw at the meetings and what was reported in two papers that were serving the area at the time, the Edgefield Advertiser and the Morris-owned Citizen News, which is no longer in business.
“I’d go to a meeting and then grab a paper and think, ‘What meeting did they go to?’” he says. “I just got fed up because nobody was telling the truth. I’d even give interviews and they’d just cut my interviews out and make it sound like I said something I didn’t say.”
Though he didn’t go to journalism school, Blackwell had always excelled in the arts, especially writing, so after years in construction sales and a stint as a private investigator, he decided to try and buy the Advertiser, but after forming a tentative agreement, the ailing owner died before the sale went through, leaving Blackwell with nothing but the website he’d developed to serve as a companion to the paper.
“That’s when I said we’ll just back up and punt,” he says. “We’ve got all this time and money invested in the website, we’ll just change the name and we’ll do it every day. That will be our niche. We’ll do it every day instead of once a week.”
It was a decision that was to pay off.
The local papers each had about 3,000 readers and he figured he needed to have about that many himself if he was to compete, and almost immediately he did. And then some.
“I went from 3,000 to 5,000,” he says. “And from 5,000 to 8,000, and from 8,000 to 10,000, to 15,000, to 20,000. We’ve had a month now — I think it was July — where we had 56,000 unique readers. A usual month shows between 525,000 pages read to 635,000. It just depends on how much is reported and how many major stories are reported.”
Not bad in a county with around 23,000 residents.
Along the way, the Citizen News, the Morris-owned weekly, was forced to close, in large part, Blackwell says, because of the fact that he posted his news daily and he wasn’t afraid to tell the truth or include the grit and the crime.
“The papers — unless it was a murder or something like that — just didn’t report on crime,” he says. “Everything was wonderful and everybody loved everybody.”
So Blackwell came along and started reporting on crime and started using his editor’s column to take on government officials. Though readers responded, those government officials were slower to warm.
“I would explain things in-depth and of course it would make them look bad,” he says. “They’d be like, ‘Write something good for the good of the county,’ and I’d turn around and say, ‘If you want positive stories, do positive things. I’m reporting the news, I don’t make it.’”
That led to various boycotts and lawsuits, he says, all with the goal of shutting him down.
“The county tried [banning the Edgefield Daily from being accessed from their computers] back in 2006 and I embarrassed the hell out of them,” Blackwell says. “I told them that if they wanted to ban the Edgefield Daily, go ahead and ban the Edgefield Daily. And the Augusta Chronicle. And CNN. And Fox. If you ban one, you have to ban them all. You can’t pick and choose.”
The county backed off its ban, but that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t face controversy. You can’t practice serious journalism in a small community without ruffling a few feathers.
“The sheriff has called me into his office more than once, and he had a bullet-proof vest sitting on the chair next to me. ‘That’s yours,’ he’d say, and I’d tell him that if somebody wants to get me, they’re going to get me. The fact that they’re making the threat makes me feel like they’re less of a threat. If somebody wants to take me out, they’re not going to warn me.”
Because he publishes a crime blotter, people are often eager to get him to overlook certain arrests, something he steadfastly refuses to do.
“My own son got arrested and his name was in there,” he says. “Now, take a guess at the odds of getting your name pulled out.”
He says it all comes down to telling the truth.
“We were founded on a motto,” he says. “I’ll never report what never happens. I’ll never report what’s never said. Anything else is fair game.”
Living up to that motto comes at a cost, however. Though he works with a small, part-time staff, including Tim Crane, who he calls the greatest sports writer in the CSRA, it’s basically a one-man operation. Blackwell covers the county and the crime, and he is the one who puts everything online.
Though he’s working through some health issues that have slowed him down a bit, it’s not at all unusual for him to go out and report on a wreck or a fire at 11:30 p.m., get it online and go to bed, only to be awoken at 3:30 by the scanner with a fatal car accident. After writing that one up, the sun will be coming up and it’s time to do it all again.
Though now the Edgefield Daily streams video of Strom Thurmond High School’s home football games and streams audio from both home and away games thanks to an agreement with the school district, a few years ago he spent a good deal of time doing the very old-school process of writing the play by play.
“That’s when the war was going really hard and we had a lot of guys over there,” he says. “I would sit and write a play by play and update the page every three to five minutes so the guys over there could experience the game.”
Now that’s dedication, and though Blackwell is in a position where he can devote himself to this enterprise without drawing a paycheck — early on, he didn’t even want to bother with advertisers — he does pay his writers and, more importantly, he says he does not charge readers to view content and will ever require them to register in order to read.
“I view my job as being a public servant, and our collective work as a public service to the people of Edgefield County and the surrounding counties.”