More Bad News for Our Local Newspapers

by Kerry Dougherty

Yes, yes, we all complain about the local newspaper.

Its editorials are too liberal. The news coverage is too thin. Mistakes are too frequent.

No one can deny that The Virginian-Pilot is a shadow of what it was 15 years ago when the paper was humming with reporters and editors, when its military coverage was the best in the nation, when the newspaper relentlessly collected scalps of corrupt businessmen and politicians.

There was a time — not that long ago — when The Pilot was also considered the most elegant paper in America, with a crack photo department and a genius artist and designer, Sam Hundley, who won award after award for his artistic pages.

The newsroom staff numbered close to 300 at its peak. Shoot, our Virginia Beach bureau, in the old Beacon building, may have housed as many reporters as are covering the entire area now.

We didn’t know it at the time, but those of us lucky enough to be working on this feisty Virginia paper in the 1980s, ‘90s and early 2000s were the last of our kind. The last to experience a newspaper that was profitable. The last journalists to have almost unlimited resources to do our jobs. The last to enjoy the camaraderie of a bustling newsroom loaded with talent, energy, eccentricities and – most importantly – historical knowledge of the area.

If you drive by the empty edifice at 150 W. Brambleton Avenue now, the east side of the old girl is getting a face lift, in preparation for the upscale apartments that will soon transform a homely newspaper building into another Norfolk ant colony.

What happened to the newspapers of Hampton Roads is happening everywhere. When the owners of The Virginian-Pilot sold the paper in 2018 to what was then called Tronc, it was clear the paper wasn’t headed for greatness. The new owners promised that it would not merge with The Daily Press in Newport News.

That was not true.

This spring the The Pilot building was sold and journalists were told to work from home or in the offices of The Daily Press 26 miles away.

Tronc changed its name to the Tribune Publishing Company, which has been threatened with a takeover by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that Vanity Fair has called “the grim reaper of American newspapers.”

The takeover by the hedge fund was put on hold this summer, but the hedge fund’s cut-to-the bone approach to publishing is still evident.

So when the Trib announced this week it was closing the Daily Press facility — after not paying rent on the building in Newport News in three months — it was just one more bleak reminder that local newspapers really are circling the drain.

How do you publish one quality daily newspaper, let alone two, without any office space?

That said, I still subscribe to The Pilot. I enjoy retrieving it from my front porch in the morning and smelling the ink and the newsprint when I pull off the wrapper. Yet more than once I’ve been tempted to call and complain when I see military stories penned by the AP or another Washington Post reprint peppered with opinion.

But even a thin local paper is better than none. And the people producing The Pilot are working without a net.

Instead of news stories being vetted by four or five editors, it appears that many are just thrown online. Hey, they can be fleshed out later.

Cut the rookies a break when you find a typo or a glaring grammatical error in The Pilot. Most of the adults were pushed out of the building – when there was a building – a long time ago.

The latest newspaper news has me worried for our little corner of Virginia. What happens if both papers stop publishing? We know the unseemly shenanigans corrupt pols engaged in when a vigorous newspaper full of hungry reporters was keeping tabs on them.

What do you suppose they’ll do if they think no one’s looking?

This column was re-published with permission from Kerry: Unemployed & Unedited.