Joseph Barreto “Brett” Phillips died Sunday in Kearneysville, WV, one year after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Phillips, 76, was living with his longtime friend Hilary Cooley, of Harper’s Ferry, WV, at the time of his death.
Phillips built a multi-million-dollar publishing company from the launch of a small community weekly newspaper in Northern Virginia. In 1988, he launched a small weekly called Leesburg Today with a circulation of 3,000 serving the Loudoun County seat of Leesburg. By the time the newspaper and its parent company were sold to American Community Newspapers in 2006, Leesburg Today’s circulation had climbed to over 64,000, and had become the dominant print media title in the rapidly growing Loudoun market. The newspaper’s parent company, Amendment I Inc., launched a four-color monthly called Loudoun Magazine in 2001 and the following year, Loudoun Business, a monthly targeting the county’s business market.
While Phillips’ publishing career had encompassed major metropolitan newspapers and national as well as international magazines, his passion was driven by community journalism.
Phillips was born in Washington, DC, and grew up in Loudoun County. Both his mother and father were journalists—the former Delores deCastro Phillips wrote a column for the old Washington Star newspaper and served as a correspondent for Time magazine. While attending Greenbrier Military School, Phillips began working as a summer stringer for the Washington Star, covering equestrian events in the Washington area. After graduation from Greenbrier in 1960, Phillips attended Virginia Military Institute and the then-George Mason College before going to work full time for the Star. In 1962, he got his first taste of community journalism when he went to work as a reporter for the Loudoun Times-Mirror, a weekly newspaper based in Leesburg.
“There is a different and much more serious level of accountability in community journalism,” Phillips said of that first experience. “When you get something wrong in a community paper, the offended party can walk up and punch you in the nose. You feel first-hand the impact of error, and you tend to work a lot harder to get things right.”
Four years after joining the Times-Mirror, Phillips was appointed managing editor of the paper by publisher Arthur Arundel, who admitted to some misgivings about naming a 25-year-old to the top post at what was then the largest weekly newspaper in Virginia. “I’m placing this trust in you in spite of your age,” Arundel wrote Phillips in making the appointment. “I do not expect to be let down, nor does this community.” Phillips went on to manage a team of reporters that won more than 50 Virginia Press Association awards in the next eight years, as well as being named the top weekly paper in Virginia in winning the Copeland Memorial Award. During his tenure at the Times-Mirror, Phillips developed a talent for photography and honed a keen interest in the rugged equestrian sport of steeplechase racing, chronicling that sport over a period of several years for the newspaper.
Phillips resigned from the Times-Mirror in 1976. Loudoun’s emerging struggle with its proximity to the Washington Metropolitan Area had been a major theme of the paper’s news coverage and it became a subject of intense concern to Phillips. After leaving the paper, he won a contract from the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors to write a Purchase of Development Rights program that would form the basis of a publicly funded effort to conserve rural land in Loudoun. While the program had support from a broad range of county citizens and organizations, the supervisors voted not to pursue it. That decision was the first definitive evidence to Phillips that political will to preserve rural land in Loudoun was limited to regulatory tactics rather than market-based incentives that would allow farmers to become investors in the strategy rather than targets of it.
In 1977, Phillips became managing editor of a small company based in Gaithersburg, MD, that was preparing to launch a new national magazine aimed at horse owners. Equus became an overnight hit, bringing cutting-edge veterinary information to horsemen while couching the content in lay terms. The next seven years saw the company, called Fleet Street Corporation, launch a string of monthly newsletters, a national conference program and a consumer products division that included uniquely designed instruction booklets based on editorial material that had appeared in Equus.
Phillips bought one of Fleet Street’s publications in 1984 and moved it to Virginia. By 1987, his love of community journalism had begun drawing him to develop a business plan for a new weekly newspaper in Leesburg, which he considered was underserved by existing media even as it was continuing to grow and prosper. Phillips put together a group of local investors and formed a company called Amendment I Inc. In November 1988, he launched Leesburg Today on the cusp of the savings and loan scandal that wrecked Loudoun’s real estate market.
“At the time, it didn’t look like we were especially bright in launching while the local economy was tanking,” Phillips said. But the gamble paid off as thirteen years later, Loudoun magazine was still able to launch one month after the events of September 11, 2001, turned the nation’s economy on its ear.
The newspaper’s success was driven by a heavy emphasis on coverage of local governments, from the county to the seven incorporated towns to a rapidly growing school system. The newspaper recruited and retained an extraordinary large editorial staff for a company with limited resources, blanketing government meetings with reporters. “There were times we would run as many as five reporters through a single board of supervisors’ meeting,” Phillips recalled, “because each of them had special areas of expertise that crossed paths with the day’s agenda.”
In interviewing prospective reporters, Phillips would point to a sign he had placed over the entrance to the newsroom: “The Job of This Newspaper Is To Report To The People.” That summed up both the mission of the paper and his own philosophy, which was that journalism’s constituency should be the readers, not those being covered. While Leesburg Today’s editorial page could pass harsh judgment on the performance of government policy makers and the bureaucracy, it also staunchly defended the government when issues that rubbed special interest groups the wrong way came to the table for debate.
In 1991, the company received a State Corporation Commission certificate to allow it to sell stock to members of the community. Following that capitalization, there were more than 150 stockholders representing the political, civic and business fabric of the community.
In 1998, Phillips left the helm of the publishing company, while retaining his equity. A year later, he returned and undertook a nonprofit rural land conservation project along with preservationist Jack Walter. Phillips wrote a tax-district based program centering on creation of a new Rural Economic Development (RED) Zone, that would secure conservation easements on a vast majority of a property owner’s rural land in exchange for additional non-residential development on residual portions of the land.
Although the current board of supervisors was elected on a slow growth platform, the county again shunned the incentive-based approach to rural land preservation, enacting a new zoning ordinance the backbone of which was a major downzoning of rural property. Although that ordinance eventually was negated by the Virginia Supreme Court, by the time of the ruling the county had lost much of its rural land to residential developers.
In 2000, Phillips returned to Amendment I Inc. and for the next six years presided over unprecedented growth in the company’s revenue and profitability. In late 2005, the board of directors was approached by American Community Newspaper with a purchase proposal. In 2006, shareholders voted to sell the company to ACN.
“We had done what we set out to do as journalists and had turned a civic-driven project into a very lucrative investment for our shareholders,” Phillips said.
Phillips moved to Georgetown, SC, where he started a home restoration business in that city’s historic district, and served as a board member and president of the Kaminski House, a historic house museum. He continued his longtime passion for tennis—having helped run the annual Waterford Tennis Tournament for many years—playing in USTA amateur competition as well as delving into as sports car racing and deep sea fishing.
He is survived by his former wife Anne Victoria Phillips, the mother of his children, daughter and longtime art director of Amendment I Inc., Elizabeth deCastro Pinner; son and New York-based musician Joseph B. Phillips Jr.; and two grandchildren, Erin Elizabeth Pinner and her wife Valerie, and Joseph Michael Pinner. He also is survived by his sisters Katherine Dolores “Lita” Phillips of Denver, CO, and Marie Louise Barrett of Sudbury, MA; his brother John Ireland Phillips III, of Washington, DC; his sister-in-law Barbara Koones; and nine nieces and a nephew.
He was predeceased by his older brother Robert Becker Phillips III and sister Emory Stein.
Harman Funeral Home in Gaithersburg, MD, is handing funeral arrangements, which will be announced shortly.