This piece is part of a series highlighting stories from the front lines of local news reporting in Virginia. It is presented as part of the Virginia Local News Summit, co-hosted with the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy which took place April 20-21, 2023.
By Christopher Connell for Foothills Forum
There’s a ray of light shining in the otherwise bleak landscape of local news: a profusion of new, colorful websites where readers can find out what’s happening now instead of waiting until morning or midweek. These include the homepages of legacy newspapers themselves, but also nonprofit start-ups such the Virginia Mercury and Cardinal News, as well as an older news organization, Charlottesville Tomorrow, which has reoriented itself to ensure coverage of diverse communities in Albemarle County.
Unlike many newspaper websites, these nonprofits don’t put up paywalls but instead raise funds the way public radio and television stations do – from individuals, foundations and philanthropies, and, in Cardinal’s case, from supportive businesses. In addition, two of the Commonwealth’s largest public broadcasters have ramped up their relatively young news-gathering operations in Central Virginia and the Hampton Roads areas.
Here is a closer look at these innovators, new and old, as well as two modest-sized nonprofits, Foothills Forum and the Piedmont Journalism Foundation, that have stepped up to ensure that vital, often complex issues don’t go unexplored in Rappahannock, Fauquier and Prince William counties.
Refugees from the depleted newsroom of the Roanoke Times — one of Lee Enterprises’ 13 newspapers across the Old Dominion — launched Cardinal News in September 2021, setting out to fill gaping holes in news coverage of rural Southwest and Southside Virginia from the Appalachians across the Piedmont.
Their mission, as expressed by executive editor Dwayne Yancey, is not to cover courts or crime or boards of supervisors but “the political, economic and cultural matters that our communities care about.” Former Roanoke Times health reporter Luanne Rife and former Times publisher Debbie Meade were among the founders, and Rife remains its executive director and chief fundraiser.
Cardinal News deploys 10-plus editors and reporters and operates with an annual budget of $1.3 million, buoyed by six-figure donations from a half-dozen foundations and businesses, including Dominion Energy. Its website discloses every donor, including the 1,842 individuals who have given from $1 to $99 as well as the $50,000 and $100,000 contributors.
Cardinal News quickly made a name for itself with gripping coverage of the aftermath of the flash flooding and mudslide in the mountain town of Hurley and other parts of Buchanan County on the border with West Virginia and Kentucky. The flood struck a month before Cardinal News began publishing, but it caught up with saturation follow-up coverage. Grateful lawmakers later credited the fledgling news outfit’s stories with helping them secure more than $11 million in state flood relief.
Cardinal News garnered national attention when Margaret Sullivan, the former Washington Post media columnist and public editor of The New York Times, wrote a glowing story about it in February 2022.
Cardinal News has no physical newsroom. The staff works remotely, including Yancey, a political news junkie and playwright who spent almost four decades at the Roanoke Times, the last seven as editorial page editor. He bangs out up to five 2,000-word columns a week, mixing savvy analysis of state politics with shoe-leather reporting, including an absorbing account of the day the president of Botswana came to visit Virginia Tech in Harrisonburg. He interviewed the president but also the sole Hokie freshman from the landlocked South African country.
“We set out to do the stories they are no longer able to do.”Dwayne Yancey
Rife spent 16 years at the Roanoke Times before taking a buyout and early retirement in 2021. The year before, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was among those furloughed for two weeks after Lee Enterprises acquired the paper and others from Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway.
She said the worried head of a nonprofit called and asked, “‘What kind of a newspaper would put their health reporter on furlough during a pandemic?’ and I said, ‘Well, it’s not just this newspaper. Look around. It’s happening all across the country.’”
A year later that nonprofit, the Secular Society, pledged a $100,000-a-year matching grant for three years to get Cardinal News off the ground. “We’re based on the public broadcasting mode,” Rife told the Virginia Local News Summit in April. “We ask those who can afford to step up and donate … but is that enough to sustain and grow our organization? No, probably not.” Being nonprofit “is not a business model – it’s a tax status. You still have to develop revenue streams to keep it going.”
Cardinal News started publishing one fresh news story a day and now routinely runs more. The stories are highlighted in daily and weekly emailed newsletters. The website gets 300,000 to 350,000 hits a month.
“We did not set out to compete with existing daily newspapers,” said Yancey. “We set out to do the stories they are no longer able to do. This is a part of the state that has seen its traditional economy decline or sometimes die altogether — coal, textiles, tobacco, furniture, railroads, you name it.
“That story is well known. But what’s not well known is that many of these communities are reinventing themselves. The quarterly earnings for the Bank of the James is not really a story for us, but the rise of solar energy across Southside is very much a story for us.”