This story is part of a series highlighting stories from the front lines of local news reporting in Virginia. We hope you’ll join us in Richmond, Virginia from April 20 to 21 for our Virginia Local News Summit, co-hosted with the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy.
By Christopher Connell for Foothills Forum
Greg Glassner worked at six newspapers over a 42-year career: afternoon dailies in Syracuse, N.Y., and Norfolk, and four weeklies in Virginia, only one of which is still publishing, the Madison County Eagle. He edited the Herald-Progress in Ashland for eight years and later did a stint as interim editor of its sister paper, the Caroline Progress in Bowling Green, as well as contributing columns and features before retiring.
The Herald-Progress had been around since 1881 and the Caroline Progress since 1919, but the owner, Lakeway Publishers, abruptly folded both papers in 2018, making Caroline County what Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism calls a news desert.
Glassner, 78, chronicled the demise of Caroline County’s only newspapers for a Columbia Journalism Review series on the plight of small-town newspapers. The articles will be republished soon in a book, American Deadline, including similar tales from Macon, Ga.; McKeesport, Pa.; and McAllen, Texas.
For nearly a century, he wrote, Caroline’s 31,000 residents turned to the paper “to read about births, deaths, wedding announcements, church notices, coming events, school sports victories and defeats, government meetings, political intrigue, highway accidents, house fires, and a variety of other local news and features, as well as editorials, op-ed pieces, columns, and a multitude of letters to the editor, particularly in election years.”
Bowling Green, the county seat, sits 20 miles south of Fredericksburg. which is bisected by U.S. 1 and I-95. Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth were killed in the county, and it was the birthplace of the racehorse Secretariat. Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, made their home there and were arrested by its sheriff in 1958 for violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law, which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down nine years later. Caroline was among the places that turned Virginia into a swing state, voting twice for Barack Obama and twice for Donald Trump.
“There’s nobody that’s actually churning out news. We really are in a news vacuum.”Greg Glassner
Glassner, who lives in Ruther Glen, said the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg once gave “us pretty good competition. They covered a lot of the big stories and cherry-picked the interesting stories, but the local paper, of course, was the one that went to all the meetings: the supervisors, the school board, the town council and planning commission in Bowling Green and that sort of thing.”
Now, not only is the Caroline Progress gone, but the Free Lance-Star has “slashed their newsroom drastically in the last three or four years,” he said. It was one of several dozen papers billionaire investor Warren Buffett purchased a decade ago in the belief that, as he put it, community newspapers would continue “to reign supreme” and “remain indispensable to a significant portion of its residents.” Buffett thought otherwise after a few years and sold them to Lee Enterprises.
Without a local paper, “people really don’t know what’s going on anymore unless they diligently go around and read the sheriff department’s and county press releases or watch the meetings online on closed-circuit TV,” said Glassner. “Very few people are going to do that.”
An exception was in 2020 when Caroline, like other counties in Virginia, wrestled with what to do in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement with the Johnny Reb statue outside the Caroline County Courthouse. The local NAACP chapter gathered 2,500 signatures to take it down while defenders collected 808 to keep it. The board voted unanimously to remove the statue, which was relocated to a private cemetery near Confederate graves.
There are official and unofficial Facebook pages that seek to keep residents informed. One Facebook group set up by residents in 2015 to share local news and events has 12,000 members. The Caroline County School Board has 7,600 followers, the Sheriff’s Office almost 4,900 and the County Fire Rescue & Emergency Management 4,300. But the County Government page is followed by just 177.
“There’s nobody that’s actually churning out news,” said Glassner. “We really are in a news vacuum.”
These days Glassner, like most Americans, gets news principally online. “Sometimes I decide I’m too old to worry about it, quite frankly, but yes, I go online,” he said. He gets emails daily from the Virginia Mercury, a nonprofit site launched in 2018 to fill gaps in statehouse reporting. The Mercury’s editor-in-chief, Sarah Vogelsong, is a former Caroline Progress reporter.
As an editor Glassner used to caution young people that the financial and job prospects were not good. But “I certainly enjoyed four decades in papers and was probably a whole lot happier than if I’d shuffled papers in an insurance company,” he said.