Norfolk Needs a Newspaper, So Does Virginia Beach

The Virginian-Pilot building in downtown Norfolk

by Kerry Dougherty

Come spring Norfolk will no longer have a daily newspaper. Neither will the commonwealth’s largest city, Virginia Beach. Or its second-largest city, Chesapeake.

No matter how The Tribune company tries to spin its boneheaded decision to drag the remnants of the once-sprawling Virginian-Pilot staff to The Daily Press building in Newport News — 26.3 miles away — this will no longer be a paper that’s produced in Norfolk.

Sad.

You don’t move a newspaper out of its coverage area. Not if you care about covering the news, that is.

Oh, there will still be a daily publication called The Virginian-Pilot, just as there has been for 155 years. But its headquarters will be remote. Worse, tunnel traffic can make the distance between Newport News and Norfolk seem interminable. How exactly are reporters supposed to cover breaking news from across the water?

The publisher is reportedly making tables available at the printing plant in Virginia Beach for any reporter visiting the cities on the Southside and needing a place to work.

This is devastating.

Promises made in 2018 when the Tribune company (then called Tronc) bought the Pilot – that there would be no merger with The Daily Press – were quickly shown to be false.

Now Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that Vanity Fair described as “the grim reaper of American newspapers,” is acquiring control of the Tribune and doing what it does everywhere: taking a chainsaw to the newspaper, stripping it of its value and allowing it to wither.

The solid, imposing four-story Virginian-Pilot building at 150 W. Brambleton Avenue, which opened in 1937, was sold last month for $9.5 million. The newspaper must vacate the premises by April and employees have been waiting to learn their fate.

Yesterday they were told that instead of leasing nearby space for them, the Tribune wants the Pilot staff in Newport News, presumably to fill desks left vacant by senior staffers in that distant Daily Press newsroom.

That sound you hear? Those are champagne corks popping as corrupt politicians and their crooked cronies celebrate. We’ve seen what these arrogant scoundrels will do with a vigilant newspaper on the scene. Imagine what they’ll do when the watchdogs are out of town.

For decades, The Virginian-Pilot was the largest newspaper in the commonwealth and the most entertaining.

The Pilot routinely gobbled up reporting and photographic awards from the Virginia Press Association, leaving our in-state rival, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, in a sad second place.

When I came to work at the paper in 1984 The Pilot had bureaus in Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Suffolk. We also had a good-sized operation in Richmond, an office in Washington and bureaus in Raleigh, Ahoskie, Elizabeth City, Nags Head, Hampton and on the Eastern Shore at one time or another.

Our reporters blanketed the military, the statehouse and local cities with superb coverage.

At its peak in the late 1990s, full-time employees in the Pilot newsroom numbered about 298. Layoffs and buyouts began around 2008 and one by one the bureaus closed. By 2014, the most recent year for which I can find a newsroom headcount, there were only 105 workers.

There are far fewer today. And 20 full-time employees just left in the latest round of buyouts.

I was hired 36 years ago as a general assignment reporter in the Virginia Beach bureau. I had a desk in the long-gone Beacon building on Virginia Beach Boulevard, along with about 10 other reporters and at least six editors.

An investigative team out of the Beach office in 1991 uncovered the seamy side of Gov. Chuck Robb’s extracurriculars in the Resort City. Meanwhile, a reporter in Chesapeake won the 1985 Pulitzer for General News reporting for his investigation into a corrupt economic development official in that city. And The Pilot led the nation in reporting on the shocking Walker spy case in 1985.

Virginian-Pilot photographers were among the best in the nation and the paper regularly showcased their work with luscious photo layouts. Our designers were cutting edge and were shamelessly imitated across the country.

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.

The reporters and editors remaining at The Pilot will do their best to cover the three largest cities in the commonwealth – Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Norfolk – without having a base in any of the three.

I don’t envy them. It won’t be easy.

There’s only so much journalists can do in an environment where the knotheads running the show are more interested in the bottom line than getting to the bottom of stories.

It’s a sad day for a once-great paper. A sadder day still for the cities losing their daily newspaper.

This column was published originally at www.kerrydougherty.com.

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12 responses to “Norfolk Needs a Newspaper, So Does Virginia Beach

  1. I got my start in journalism working as an intern at the Virginian-Pilot. It truly was an excellent newspaper. It is beyond sad what is happening to this pillar of Virginia journalism. The big question, as Kerry rightly asks, is what comes next? Who will hold the bad guys accountable? Who will hold the special interests accountable? When virtually all advertising profit flows to the likes of Google and Facebook, what is the economic underpinning for local journalism today?

    If the Virginian-Pilot has shrunk into near non-existence, it’s not unreasonable to expect the Daily Press, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Roanoke Times, and most smaller newspapers to do the same. Actually, they already are doing the same — they just may not be as far along.

    The only alternative to have emerged so far is philanthropically supported journalism. Find a rich patron willing to stroke big checks. Unfortunately, those most motivated to stroke the checks usually have ideological or partisan axes to grind. Thus, we get the Washington Post, Virginia Public Media, and the Virginia Mercury.

    This isn’t public-interest journalism. It’s advocacy journalism. Worse, it’s unbalanced advocacy journalism.

    • Damn, it was fun, but in my case it was just ten years (preceded by three summer jobs.) My first summer, 1972 in Petersburg, it was like living “The Front Page” because the paper was produced with 1950s linotype machines and the wire service teletype bell rang for bulletins…..

      This is a huge change, a major threat to our freedom and safety. There are dozens of good stories not being seen down at the General Assembly and I assume the same is true of city hall and the courthouses. If you don’t think the jerks will take full advantage of the dark corners, trust me – they are going to. Trump’s Twitter Tactics will become the norm….

      But market forces are what they are. Neither of my kids has ever, ever subscribed to a daily paper. The knotheads were in charge 35 years ago, as well, and in Roanoke we understood full well that our profits fed some of the Good Times in Norfolk 🙁 There was no guild contract for us! I make no excuses for seeking a path that was going to pay alot better….but I fully intended to return some day. I get this, but it’s a poor substitute to the punch of a front page “Holy S&%t” story.

  2. The problem I saw was the reporting wasn’t there. I would uncover serious issues that the people would want to know in the local govt. and they’d never report them. They’d also not correct reporting that was slanted. I broadcast that far and wide. I have 2 pages on Facebook, using hashtag #corruptionjunctionChesapeake, that discussed how the truth was different than their reporting. This was brought on by themselves. Did some of it have to do with online news media? Yes, but as for me, when I spent more time correcting the reporting or informing of what was going on to reporters, there’s no sense in it. I do things for free.
    If you want to see some #corruptionjunctionChesapeake items proving my point, I’d be happy to bring those up.

  3. Jim Bacon’s decisions to create Bacon’s Rebellion and to start publishing Kerry Dougherty’s work is a beacon of hope in a bleak investigative journalism landscape. I encourage every reader to click the donate button of both Bacon’s Rebellion and kerrydougherty.com and help them in their vital work. Nothing is free, including freedom. Without the investigative reporting of the now-distant and crumbling Virginian Pilot, our already corrupt local politics here in southside Hampton Roads will get much worse. Without the efforts of Jim Bacon, Steve Haner and others, the stunning ignorance and corruption of some members of the General Assembly and some of the “watchdogs” in the state government would pass unnoticed.

  4. My 1st cousin Ed Lockett was a White House journalist for the old Washington Star. Lockett had access to Harry Truman and was able to get some great stories printed about Truman thanks to their mutual love of “Old Granddad”. I used to marvel at the tales Cousin Ed used to spin about Truman. I felt like a knew the man. Perhaps the torch will be passed and a 21st century form of journalism will take shape. I like to think that truth, wisdom, and insight will always prevail. I just hope that the light is not overcome by the darkness.

  5. I was shocked to see the story about the Pilot moving to the Peninsula. I add to the praise of the former Virginian-Pilot. Being a lover of newspapers, I felt that, for many years, it had the best coverage of Virginia government and politics. It also had a vigorous coverage of local government, particularly Virginia Beach. I have watched with sadness as the newspaper has withered away in the past years.

    Jim is right that the best alternative right now is rich people who care more about the journalism than the profits. They don’t need the profits. I had hopes when Warren Buffet bought the Richmond Times Dispatch, but he has now sold his newspaper interests. At least it wasn’t to a hedge fund. But the RTD’s days may be numbered. Its headquarters building has been sold, too. At least it gets to stay, as a tenant in its former building. The paper once had a staff that occupied two buildings. Now, it will be “consolidated” on one or two floors of one building.

  6. I know a number of journalists who cover local news. I’ve generally found their reporting to be more reporting information than advocacy. But expand the geographic base of the news and expect to see much more advocacy journalism. Is it egotism or ignorance of what journalism is supposed to be? I certainly didn’t study journalism in college but we had segments about journalism in high school English class. My junior year English teacher said that a good journalist should be making everybody irritated and delighted. Her words still ring true to me today.

    But I find a constant stream of advocacy journalism as offensive as listening to an entertainer providing me with his/her economic, social or political views. When most of an industry (MSM) writes/reports from the left, you are bound to see a substantial decline in news consumption from large segments of the population. These declines lead to layoffs and shutdowns of media outlets. Who cares? I don’t.

    I read the St Paul morning and evening newspapers religiously from early grade school on. When I lived in Omaha and Des Moines, I read those papers and subscribed to the Post for many years. But even a national newspaper’s reporting, spurred by advocacy journalists, paled in quality by comparison of the small St Paul papers.

    I’ve been active in Fairfax County affairs for almost 20 years. But back in 2007-08, my wife said we should stop subscribing to the Post as it was too expensive and took up too much time for her. We did. I managed to get my information sans the Post, often directly from government officials and bloggers with links to primary sources. Local TV and radio websites are good for general, high-level news.

    The MSM misplayed the Internet but has also lost much through its arrogant advocacy reporting. Who cares?

  7. Hedge funds and private equity concerns are the blowflies of media corpses. But blowflies don’t infest healthy animals any more than a hedge fund or PE company could buy Facebook to drain it of cash on the way to killing it. The media properties that are being rushed to their graves by the likes of Alden Capital were terminally ill before Alden came calling. Steve Haner’s comment was insightful, “Neither of my kids has ever, ever subscribed to a daily paper.” The model is broken and the parasites are jostling each other in order to exsanguinate the newspaper in the moments before its final demise. The financial types are blood suckers but they didn’t kill print media. The market and technology killed print media.

    But has the demand for news died or just the demand for news as purveyed by traditional media? I suspect the latter. The old model is broken and can’t be fixed. We need a new model.

    The so-called “gig economy” has revolutionized transportation. Micro-billing has revolutionized IT through low cost, variable “as a service” offerings. Perhaps these two trends can save the news business.

    The “gig economy” in media is already observable at BaconsRebellion. Nobody works for BaconsRebellion but there are at least 12 regular contributors to the blog. I’ll let Jim disclose what he wants about the details of the blog’s viewership but I’ll say that more content equals more views. The problem is that nobody gets paid for the content they provide.

    The micro-billing revolution would imply a very small charge to read any article published on BaconsRebellion – say, 2 cents per article. Using this pricing scheme a popular article might generate a few hundred dollars. Half goes to the blog and half to the author. The reader see a synopsis and decides whether to spring for the 2 cents to read the whole article. Now, imagine that the articles from The Virginia-Pilot are also offered for sale by the article. And the Richmond Times Dispatch. Instead of subscribing to a particular media brand you buy only the articles that interest you. A lot of people would pay $1 per week to read 50 articles of interest. Many fewer people would pay $20 per month to subscribe to any given media property.

    Somewhere in this there is a solution.

  8. I was a summer intern at the Pilot in 1973 and they let me go as far as i could. I was a staffer from 1975 to 1981. I loved the paper and its liberal stances that won it Pulitzers in the 1920s against the Klan and in the 1950s against Massive Resistance. Sadly, the management got nasty in the late 1970s in its efforts to get rid of the Newspaper Guild. I actually ended up at the RTD which was actually (at the time) kinder to its staff. But I missed the Pilot so much.

  9. I’d be curious to know how many BR readers, commentors still subscribe to one or more papers.

    There’s a little bit of irony here when those who routinely condemn the MSM as corrupt liberal rags, then bemoan their loss.

    If the problem was folks did not like the way that WaPo and most Virgina media portrayed the news – then where are the Conservative replacements? Is there truly a real “market” for news these days or just whatever appeals to your own biases?

    It’s even more quixotic when the same critics bemoan the failure of the MSM to do “good” investigative reporting – the very same folks who say the MSM produce biased news reporting!

    Fair and balanced news from Blogs! Ummmm not so much..

    and those “studies” – right after they say correlation is not causation – they do just that!

    • I subscribe on-line to the NYT, WP, the Daily Press, and the Virginian Pilot. I get the RTD at home in my driveway every morning. That is one of the real joys of being retired–being able to sit back with a newspaper and a cup of tea. I am obviously a newspaper junkie.

  10. kerrydougherty.com
    I don’t know where you think she’s not slanted, she certainly is. I quit reading her mess and its VB only. No one is covering Chesapeake. I am.

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