As Newspapers Struggle, Local News is Harder to Find in Virginia

by Christopher Connell

It is, unfortunately, old news.

Virginia’s newspapers, the single biggest source of local news, face unprecedented challenges, with their readers, revenues, and staffs steadily dwindling.

It’s a paradox because news writ large now seems to be available everywhere, all the time, on phones in our pockets and purses.

People still hear about bickering in Congress, mysterious Chinese balloons overhead, and blizzards burying Buffalo. What they learn less about is what’s going on in their own backyards, towns, schools, counties, and state capitals.

Some 2,500 U.S. newspapers have closed since 2005, some over-reliant on advertising-dependent business models that cratered with the rise of the Internet, many simply killed by their market areas’ struggling economies. Most were print weeklies, where most people got their local news.

The casualties as of September 2022 included about 42 Virginia newspapers that closed or were merged, according to a tally by researchers with the State of Local News Initiative, originally housed at the University of North Carolina and now at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Two were dailies, the rest weeklies.

And that total doesn’t include several other weeklies that closed or merged this year, including the 60,000-circulation Chesterfield Observer, The Shenandoah Valley-Herald and the Washington County News, which shut down, and the Mechanicsville Local and The Virginian Review which merged with sister papers, according to the newspaper cataloguers at the Library of Virginia.

Virginia now has about 20 dailies and 100 weeklies, not counting specialized publications. Some of the dailies publish print editions fewer than five days a week, but update their websites continuously.

Nonetheless, those still standing have suffered deep staff cuts. Some weeklies are down to one or two reporters. Many of the bigger papers have retreated from parts of the state they used to cover from satellite bureaus. Now they only pay attention outside their market when something big happens, like a natural disaster or juicy scandal.

Virginia’s two biggest papers, The Richmond Times-Dispatch and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, once had print circulations approaching 200,000. Now, counting both print papers and replicas that subscribers read online, they stand at 57,695 and 51,284 respectively, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.

Readers may notice the papers are thinner, but “people aren’t really aware of the extent to which traditional journalism, with a set of values and proper procedures, has wilted away,” said Clark Hoyt, a retired Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and vice president of Knight Ridder Newspapers. Once the nation’s second largest chain, Knight Ridder was sold in 2006 to McClatchy, a smaller newspaper company, which subsequently went bankrupt.

“You don’t have people covering school boards, city and county commissions, courthouses and police departments on a regular basis,” said Hoyt. “That lack of solid background information for communities to understand what’s going on has serious consequences. Study after study shows how it contributes to polarization and even corruption.”

“Local news and local journalism are absolutely critical for democracy,” said Melody Barnes, executive director of the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Barack Obama.

Without reporters showing up to cover the boards and other meetings where important decisions are made, “who is tending to the issues that are relevant and critical to life in [that] community?” asked Barnes. That’s “where people first and most intimately engage with democracy and with their fellow citizens, to ensure that they are able to actively participate … in the decision-making process and have what they need for their lives to progress.”

The statewide council Virginia Humanities, the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy, and Foothills Forum are convening an April 20-21 summit in Richmond on what to do about the crisis in local news coverage. Nonprofit media pioneer Evan Smith, the Karsh Institute’s inaugural practitioner fellow and “Johnny Appleseed of local news,” will deliver a public keynote address.

The models springing up run the gamut. Which will work? Which will survive the persistent headwinds?

This article was written for Foothills Forum, a community-supported nonprofit that provides award-winning local news coverage of Rappahannock County. It was originally published in the Rappahannock News and is reprinted here with permission.