J.P. and J.B. Fishburn in a photo taken on a beach boardwalk circa 1918. (The elder Fishburn is holding a camera.) Courtesy of the Fishburn family.

A family whose name has been synonymous with newspapers in Southwest Virginia has named Cardinal News the beneficiary of its foundation’s annual charitable gift.

“The news is in our blood,” said Sibyl Fishburn. “It just seemed such a natural thing, because this is obviously the way of the future. It’s such a pleasure to be a part of it.”

Sibyl Fishburn. Courtesy of Katherine Fulton.

The Fishburn family, which arrived in Roanoke when it was still called Big Lick, owned the newspapers that became The Roanoke Times for 60 years, across three generations.

The Katherine Nelson Fishburn Foundation was created with some of the proceeds of the company’s sale to Landmark Communications. Today, the foundation’s money is held by the Community Foundation Serving Western Virginia, with members of the family acting as advisors on how it is disbursed.

Help us grow

We’re a 501(c) nonprofit that operates on a public broadcasting model. We rely solely on donations, which we disclose to the public.

You can help fund us by signing up to be a budget-friendly monthly donor or by sending a check to:

Cardinal Productions
P.O. Box 4455
Roanoke, VA 24015

The nearly $47,000 gift comes as Cardinal News launches a major fundraising campaign to add reporters to cover both topic beats such as education and health, and geographic beats in areas including Bristol, Lynchburg, Martinsville and the Roanoke and New River valleys, said Luanne Rife, the nonprofit’s executive director and chief development officer.

“We are especially honored and touched that Cardinal News is an heir to the Fishburn newspaper legacy,” Rife said. “We were moved when we learned that the fund was created from the sale of the Times-World Corporation to Landmark Communications in 1969, and that their substantial gift is entwined with the deep roots of public service journalism that the Fishburns established.

“We are delighted that members of the family are among our loyal readers.”

Katherine Fulton. Courtesy of Katherine Fulton.

Katherine Fulton, Sibyl Fishburn’s niece – herself a former journalist and consultant who has helped news organizations chart a path through times of rapidly evolving technologies – said the delivery platforms have changed since earlier generations of her family ran printing presses a century ago, but the purpose of local journalism hasn’t.

“Having really good in-depth coverage of local and regional news is vital to having a functioning democracy,” she said. “Traditional newspapers are shrinking, and this is a void that needs to be filled, or we’re going to be in a lot of trouble in this country.”

In 1909, J.B. Fishburn, who was president of National Exchange Bank, joined with several other businessmen to buy The Roanoke Times and the Evening News. Several years later, they also bought the Roanoke Evening World.

J.P. Fishburn ran the Roanoke newspapers from the mid-1920s until 1954, when he died after having a brain hemorrhage on the steps of the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., where he’d been arguing for a television license to operate WDBJ. Courtesy of the Fishburn family.

Fishburn’s son, J.P. Fishburn, took over as president of Times-World Corp. in 1923. The younger Fishburn’s son, Robert Fishburn – Sibyl Fishburn’s husband – worked there as a reporter and editorial page editor from 1960 into the 1980s.

The business – which during the Fishburn years consolidated the papers into The Roanoke Times & World News – remained in the family until 1969, when it was sold to Landmark Communications of Norfolk.

The foundation was launched in 1980 when J.P. Fishburn’s widow, Katherine Nelson Fishburn, died. Over the years, Fulton said, the family has directed an annual gift from the foundation to recipients including Mill Mountain Theatre, Planned Parenthood and North Cross School – all entities with which the family had a longstanding connection.

Katherine Nelson Fishburn, who was married to J.P. Fishburn. When she died in 1980, a charitable foundation was established using some of the proceeds of the 1969 sale of Times-World Corp. to Landmark Communications. Courtesy of the Fishburn family.

In recent years, Fulton said, they’ve begun funding newer entities like LEAP, which focuses on improving healthy food access in the community, and, now, Cardinal News. The family also shifted from making a number of smaller gifts every year to focusing on a single larger donation.

“We hope that this gift will inspire other people to give,” Fishburn said.

The gifts continue a legacy of civic engagement for the family. According to the family and to accounts written by Rand Dotson and George Kegley and published in the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, J.B. Fishburn donated thousands of acres to the state to create Fairy Stone State Park. He gave land to the city of Roanoke for parks – including, in 1941, the 100-acre Mill Mountain – and the family home in southwest Roanoke was donated to the city upon his death and is now a community center.  Other recipients of the family’s support – both in money and in leadership – include Hollins University, Sweet Briar College, Center in the Square, Burrell Memorial Hospital, Virginia Tech and the American Red Cross.

Cardinal News launched in September with two reporters and an editor and a goal of covering untold stories in Southwest and Southside Virginia. It had the early support of several major donors, and it currently counts about 1,300 individual donors, Rife said.

The Danville Regional Foundation recently made a multiyear commitment to fund a reporting position in Danville, starting this summer. More positions will be added as additional funding is secured, Rife said.

“We are hoping that others who, like the Fishburn family, understand the vital role that journalism plays in healthy communities and informed civil discourse will be inspired by the family’s generosity,” Rife said.  

News is going to have to be supported more and more by subscribers and members, and by philanthropic gifts, Fulton said. “The old advertising-subsidized model is not going to be sufficient.”

She said she sees the gift to Cardinal News as a continuation of her family’s journalism legacy.

“I would like to think that the family members who founded the newspaper and worked at the newspaper – that my grandfather and great-grandfather are smiling down from the heavens on us,” she said.

Megan Schnabel is managing editor for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org or 540-819-4969.