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.

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16 responses to “More Bad News for Our Local Newspapers

  1. In 1979, I worked at the Pilot. They had the resources and dedication to put another reporter and me up in Bethesda, Md. for several weeks so we could review U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission safety files of VEPCO’s Surry power plant for a front page story. Sad to see this today.

  2. When we look back at how Newspapers were funded – with advertising – that now has moved to the internet – the real irony is that no such thing happened to broadcast TV and Cable.

    Advertising in newspapers went kaput – and advertising on TV/Cable is now out the wazoo!

    Go figure!

    • Basically correct, Larry.

      There is something new, however which is loading up the thinning pages of papers with full page ads. Case in point: A recent 16 page front section of the Palm Beach Post had a single four page ad for some hearing aid promotion – 1/4th of the entire section! What a waste of ink and trees.

      You can bet that ad was placed at a huge discount.

      I also miss Kerry and the OLD Pilot which I read for about 40 years.

  3. I can remember that from around 1988 until a few years ago that the Pilot was on my must read list. It seemed to me that the paper honored the simplest requirement that editorials were on the editorial pages and news (and advertising) was on the news pages. The paper seemed to be a home for independent thinkers to whom facts mattered and truth was sought. Even when I didn’t agree with the way that facts were filtered and presented, I had no wasted reading time with the paper. However, the gradual decline in the quality of reporting, the seeming lack of diverse, independent viewpoints reduced my enthusiasm. It is sad to see anything great fade away.

  4. Baconator with extra cheese

    Independent newspapers and “journalism” based in facts have been a significant tool of white supremecy….
    Let them go old white men….
    The new paradigm centers on the ends…. screw the means it takes to get there and those who question the means. And more importantly the “right” people must be in control of the message.. and the message must have the ability to change instantly to quickly support the ends.
    Bezos knows this… and to support his ends he bought the message. Zuckerburg and Dorsey are two of the most powerful humans who at-will determine and control the message…. question them and “no message for you”.

    • Assuming all true – where are the folks who say they want fact-based media that is not left wing?

      All I see is a bunch of alternative media, more than a few of which traffic in conspiracy theories and “coverage” that is anything but objective.

    • Good to read some first class snark on this blog. However, your point about tight control of the message is, as the Brits say, “spot on”. I firmly believe that “Social Media” will have its own chapter in The Decline and Fall of the American Empire when it is written 50 years from now.

  5. Tons of us here in the Southside have gotten tired of the political bias reporting from the VP. There are quite a few that had enough and dumped it and we’re trying to get more. Until they decide to report news, none of us want to pay for an opinion rag. It is also getting the word out that we’re reporting more on the issues going on that VP wont’ report on. There are concerns over fines that are not authorized by the state being charged, water bill issues, traffic issues. Gordon Rago of the VP was copied on this, along w/Mayor and City Manager, etc. and not one word have we seen. When the VP refuses to print local issues, why should we pay for it?

  6. Here we go again. Boo hoo hoo. Another well written column about the demise of local newspapers and reporting. The tears are welling up in my eyes just thinking about some paper in Tidewater selling an office building. The column should have included a trigger warning. I didn’t even have time to get to my safe space before reading it.

    Buckle up, snowflakes!

    In the real world of entrepreneurism there is only one question that needs to be answered – is there still demand for local news and reporting? If not, then we should all move onto something more interesting (which would be just about anything). If so, we should be asking ourselves how we can meet the unmet demand.

    So, let’s start with the most basic question … is there demand for local news and reporting? If so, how much demand? Don’t worry about the form or format – how much would you be willing to pay per day to receive local news and reporting? Zero? 10 cents? a dollar?

    • Great post. That really is the only relevant question at this point.

      I would love to hear Kerry, Jim, and Steve answer this:

      One of the biggest functions that the “City Hall beat” used to provide readers was in-depth coverage of City Council or the Board of Supervisors. However, beginning after about 2005, almost every local government in America started posting the Agenda packets online.

      How much did that technological change destroy the “City Hall beat”? In the age of paper, the average citizen wasn’t going to pay for an agenda packet. But now, if they’re interested in a topic, they can go online and read the materials that the Council is discussing. Additionally, they can tune into the Council or Board meeting and see the discussion and the vote on the topic they’re interested in.

      Combine online agenda packets with reporters who don’t do anything except throw a quote or two in a story and what is the value proposition of paying for a local newspaper? The quotes?

      • Some 40 years ago I covered Martinsville City Council. Sometimes the meetings were as dull as dishwater. But other times, a lot of stuff was said that never would have made it into the meeting materials. The job of a good reporter is to know what’s important and/or controversial, and boil it down for presentation to readers so they don’t have to spend hours combing through turgid materials… and still miss all the action.

      • Reporters often do more than just relate what happened that the online agenda and recorded meeting.

        On some issues, they go further and interview the board members and participants to the issue and those on different sides.

        In other words, they add context beyond the basic info.

        Over and over, folks condemn the news then turn around and quote an article. Go figure!

  7. Just checking in, but do those who have previously taken WSJ notice a difference lately?

    I recently refused to pay the 200% raise quoted me to continue taking the paper. In the past, such a refusal would precipitate a trip to the “Retention” department for further negotiations. This time it didn’t happen. I got a polite “thank you” and that was the end of the call. No negotiations. Apparently, they decided to ditch that business model, because instead I suddenly started getting an email at 4 in the morning allowing me to download the paper in pdf form for free. The difference is there are now full page ads strewed throughout the paper. Is this the new business model? If it is, I’m for it.

    I fondly remember my days in DC when we retrieved the NYT (then a great paper) from the porch in the morning. Those of you who took it will recall the front section pages filled with mostly single-column foreign-stringer articles. The remaining space on a page was ads. Doesn’t the current WSJ effort amount to the same thing? Yeh, I’m like Kerry, I really like the feel of paper. But then again, I also liked the telephone.

    I submit that “newspapers” will make a comeback. They just won’t be in the form of paper.

    • I take WSJ in a different way… and am not seeing what you are… There are 3rd party re-sellers of WSJ… not sure how it works – but it does.

      In terms of NYT and WaPo, as far back as I can remember, they tended liberal. They make have chanced but there is also no doubt that people on the right have changed – they now diss other traditional conservatives as CINOs and RINOs.. CINOs and RINO did not move left.. others moved right.

  8. Sorry Larry, you got it backwards. They did move left. Kasich, the guy on the morning news with the Bryzinski girl. But then, an argument could be made that they were never Republicans.

    What’s the format for your WSJ? How much do you pay?

    • Do you think Steve here moved left?

      🙂 I wouldn’t call him a lefty by any stretch and pretty sure he’s
      not moved left on his policies…

      Fiscal conservatives, moderate social conservatives… used to be a lot of GOP that way but no more……

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