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
Lifelong newspaperman Carlos Santos was once part of a three-person Richmond Times-Dispatch bureau in Charlottesville, one of several outposts across the Commonwealth for Virginia’s second-largest daily. Laid off in 2009 along with dozens of other reporters as the Times-Dispatch pulled back from its statewide coverage, he stayed in the business by purchasing the weekly Fluvanna Review in Palmyra, 20 miles south of Charlottesville.
The Review was born as a free weekly shopper in 1978 for the gated community of 4,000 homes in Lake Monticello, still the heart of its market. “We put a newspaper in every mailbox, and we have about 100 locations with news boxes,” said Santos, publisher and editor. “That gets us up to a circulation of 6,200” a week.
Santos set out to add news coverage to the Review’s pages, but encountered “many difficulties, one being that news costs money and advertising revenues are cyclical …. Some years we were doing fantastic and some years we were just barely hanging on.”
He has no reporters on staff, relying instead on four freelancers paid by the story. “It’s always a struggle every week to cover what should be covered,” including the supervisors, school board, planning commission, crime, arts, scholastic sports and other developments, said Santos.
He posts stories on the paper’s website, fluvannarevue.com, but that doesn’t bring much revenue. “You could have 10,000 hits a month, but you can’t charge but so much for those ads on the website, and it’s nowhere near enough to run a newspaper profitably,” he said.
The Fluvanna Review boasts it has won 93 awards since 2010 in Virginia Press Association contests for news coverage and advertising, including breaking news, investigative journalism, government coverage, design, layout and photography.
“Some years we were doing fantastic and some years we were just barely hanging on.”Carlos Santos
It has the news field almost to itself in the county. Charlottesville’s The Daily Progress and two television stations “occasionally come down to do some type of feature story or if there’s a big enough crime, but there’s no real competition. Just enough that they scrape off a few ads here and there,” Santos said.
Santos is 69 and contemplating retirement in a few years. He believes a buyer could be found for the Review, but harbors concerns about the younger generations’ appetite for news and newspapers.
“Most of our readers are older residents of Monticello and they like newspapers. My fear is what happens as younger people come up who just read news on phones? That’s what my kids do. I used to have two newspapers a day on the breakfast table,” he said.
The press still retains some power, or so it did for an elderly Fluvanna couple whose car was flattened by a pine tree that fell as they drove back to Lake Monticello on a windy day in March last year, trapping them inside. Santos happened upon the crash and helped extricate them. “I thought they were dead,” he said, but they survived with only minor injuries.
Their ordeal was not over, however. A week later the couple received a $2,440 bill from the Virginia Department of Transportation for clearing the tree and their wrecked car off the road. The couple called the newspaper to complain.
“As soon as I started calling, VDOT dropped the bill,” said Santos.