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.
Charlottesville Tomorrow, by its own description, is “a community-driven, socially conscious news organization” that posts stories online and in newsletters with the aim of connecting Charlottesville-area residents to the issues that most concern them.
The site was launched in 2005 by civic activists to provide nonpartisan information on land use, public education, transportation and other issues to “protect and build upon the distinctive character of the Charlottesville-Albemarle area.”
It co-founded the Charlottesville Inclusive Media project with two Black companies, In My Humble Opinion radio talk show and digital production company, and Vinegar Hill magazine, named for a Black neighborhood in segregated Charlottesville that was demolished in the name of urban renewal in the 1950s
Especially since the deadly protest by white supremacists over dismantling the statue of Robert E. Lee that shook Charlottesville in 2017, Charlottesville Tomorrow has increased its emphasis on racial justice and telling the stories of communities of color long ignored by legacy, mainstream news organizations.
The mission of the Fourth Estate should not be “about helping [real estate] developers and planners refine their games” before zoning boards or catering to the interests of the rich, former Charlottesville Tomorrow executive director Giles Morris said at the Local News Summit. “It’s about whether Black people have ever been represented by their local paper …. It’s all of the people who never got in the newspaper.”
That’s who Charlottesville Tomorrow has sought to reach, he said. “We nailed our values to the mast: truth, equity and community” and gained traction “when we committed to the smallness of our audience and our values.” It has five reporters of its own and over the years has trained dozens of news interns.
“We’re attracting new talent into this space,” said Morris. As for the larger goal of shoring up the news business and stemming the erosion of local news coverage, the aim is not to restore “the white, male newsrooms” of old, he said. “We have to do this from new clay, not gluing it together from broken vessels.”
Editor-in-Chief Angilee Shah succeeded Morris as CEO and executive director in April.