Published May 1, 2023

By Christopher Connell for Foothills Forum

It is, unfortunately, old news.

Virginia’s newspapers, the single biggest source of local news, face unprecedented challenges, with their readers, revenues and staffs steadily dwindling.

It’s a paradox because news writ large now seems to be available everywhere, all the time, on phones in our pockets and purses.

People still hear about bickering in Congress, mysterious Chinese balloons overhead and blizzards burying Buffalo. What they learn less about is what’s going on in their own backyards, towns, schools, counties and state capitals.

Some 2,500 U.S. newspapers have closed since 2005, some over-reliant on advertising-dependent business models that cratered in the rise of the Internet, many simply killed by their market areas’ struggling economies. Most were print weeklies where most people got their local news.

The casualties as of September 2022 included about 42 Virginia newspapers that closed or were merged, according to a tally by researchers with the State of Local News Initiative, originally housed at the University of North Carolina and now at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Two were dailies, the rest weeklies.

Just shuttered: The Shenandoah Valley-Herald out of Woodstock VA

And that total doesn’t include several other weeklies that closed or merged this year, including the 60,000-circulation Chesterfield Observer, the Shenandoah Valley-Herald and the Washington County News, which shut down, and the Mechanicsville Local and the Virginian Review which merged with sister papers, according to the newspaper cataloguers at the Library of Virginia.

Virginia now has about 20 dailies and 100 weeklies, not counting specialized publications. Some of the dailies publish print editions fewer than five days a week, but update their websites continuously. 

Nonetheless, those still standing have suffered deep staff cuts. Some weeklies are down to one or two reporters. Many of the bigger papers have retreated from parts of the state they used to cover from satellite bureaus. Now they only pay attention outside their market when something big happens, like a natural disaster or juicy scandal.

Virginia’s two biggest papers, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, once had print circulations approaching 200,000. Now, counting both print papers and replicas that subscribers read online, they stand at 57,695 and 51,284 respectively, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. 

Readers may notice the papers are thinner, but “people aren’t really aware of the extent to which traditional journalism, with a set of values and proper procedures, has wilted away,” said Clark Hoyt, a retired Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and vice president of Knight Ridder Newspapers. Once the nation’s second-largest chain, Knight Ridder was sold in 2006 to McClatchy, a smaller newspaper company, which subsequently went bankrupt. 

“You don’t have people covering school boards, city and county commissions, courthouses and police departments on a regular basis,” said Hoyt. “That lack of solid background information for communities to understand what’s going on has serious consequences. Study after study shows how it contributes to polarization and even corruption.” 

Clark Hoyt in Virginia Humanities’ With Good Reason radio studio. Photo by Pat Jarrett

“Local news and local journalism are absolutely critical for democracy,” said Melody Barnes, executive director of the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Barack Obama. 

Without reporters showing up to cover the boards and other meetings where important decisions are made, “who is tending to the issues that are relevant and critical to life in [that] community?” asked Barnes. That’s “where people first and most intimately engage with democracy and with their fellow citizens, to ensure that they are able to actively participate … in the decision-making process and have what they need for their lives to progress.”

The statewide council Virginia Humanities, the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy and Foothills Forum are convening an April 20-21 summit in Richmond on what to do about the crisis in local news coverage. Nonprofit media pioneer Evan Smith, the Karsh Institute and Virginia Humanities’ inaugural practitioner fellow, and “Johnny Appleseed of local news,” will deliver a public keynote address. 

The models springing up run the gamut. Which will work? Which will survive the persistent headwinds? 

News Deserts 

Two-thirds of the nation’s 3,143 counties have no daily paper, according to the State of Local News. The presses have stopped rolling at more than a quarter of the newspapers that existed in 2005 and some of the 6,380 surviving papers are “ghosts” with skeleton staffs, according to Penelope Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Medill and principal author of its report. The one positive development is the growth of online news organizations, which number 545 at last count.

The State of Local News said 205 U.S. counties–affecting 70 million Americans–were “news deserts” where coverage of local institutions is insufficient. Five were in Virginia: Buckingham, Caroline, King George, King and Queen, and Surrey. 

“Most communities that lose newspapers and do not have an alternative source of local news are poorer, older and lack affordable and reliable high-speed digital service,” said Abernathy.

Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, remains upbeat. “There’s still coverage going on in most every place in the Commonwealth,” she said, even if news staffs have shrunken. “People are continuing to create new print and online news outlets. Circulations continue to go down for print, but they are through the roof online.” 

Edwards says the combined circulation of Virginia’s papers is 3.2 million and their websites get 16 million visitors a month. Pointing to the profusion of public health ads from the Virginia Department of Health during the pandemic, she says newspapers are still “the way to reach into every nook and cranny of Virginia.”

“If people want that news in new and different ways, then newspapers need to meet them there,” Edwards said.  “They need to push it out on a website, through email blasts, and whatever else.”

The story of the Henrico Citizen illustrates this.

COVID-19 helped kill off the print edition of the twice-a-month Henrico Citizen. Tom Lappas launched it with three other reporters when he broke away from another small paper in 2001. At its peak, the Citizen distributed 20,000 free copies in Henrico, Virginia’s sixth-largest county by population (333,000) and neighbor to the state capital of Richmond. But he printed his last paper on St. Patrick’s Day 2020 just as schools and businesses shut their doors after President Trump declared a national emergency.

Lappas continues to aggressively report the local news online–and attracts 65,000 readers a month on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. He has a single reporter, whose salary he splits with Report for America, a national nonprofit modeled after Teach for America that places novices at newspapers that need help. He also runs stories written by students at the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Taking a cue from public radio, Lappas launched a campaign last summer to entice 500 followers to contribute $75 or $150 a year to keep the Citizen going. He is a third of the way toward that goal. 

What’s Lost: Voting, Citizenship

Researchers have documented that with the loss of local news, citizens are less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office.

Political scientists Danny Hayes of George Washington University and Jennifer L. Lawless of the University of Virginia wrote in their 2021 book, News Hole: The Demise of Local Journalism and Political Engagement: “As struggling newspapers have slashed staff, they have dramatically cut their coverage of mayors, city halls, school boards, county commissions, and virtually every aspect of local government. In turn, fewer Americans now know who their local elected officials are, and turnout in local elections has plummeted.” 

Their examination of more than 200 U.S. dailies of all sizes over nearly two decades found that proportionately, the cuts in local coverage were worst at the smallest papers, the very ones uniquely positioned to keep their communities informed on important matters of local concern.

The Long Island weekly North Shore Leader exposed George Santos as a liar who fabricated his resume when he was a little-known Republican. New York’s big papers never followed up the story. Voters were none the wiser and elected him to Congress last year. 

Hayes and Lawless also pointed to YouGov national election-year surveys that found that 40% of newspaper readers said they followed national news very closely, but only 27% read up on local news that much. “The great danger for local communities is obvious: With fewer, less capable watchdogs, there is often no one keeping tabs on government officials,” Hayes and Lawless warned.

The Search for New Models

The remedy does not seem to lie in the old ways of the industry. 

In 2020, for the first time, U.S. newspapers brought in less revenue from advertising ($9.6 billion) than from circulation, both subscriptions and newsstand sales ($11 billion). For local newspapers, ad revenues plunged 40% in that year alone, according to Pew.

Five of the nation’s 10 largest newspaper companies are now owned by hedge funds or other investors with unrelated holdings, according to the Associated Press. Hedge funds are notorious for selling off the papers’ real estate and decimating the staffs.

Younger Americans in droves never acquired the habit of subscribing to newspapers. Even older readers, who are more likely to buy subscriptions, may now opt to pay for less expensive digital access rather than getting the paper delivered to their front door.

In 1987, daily newspaper circulation peaked at nearly 63 million. In 2020 it barely topped 24 million, a drop of more than 60%. Just 12 percent of Americans read a newspaper daily and 42 percent said they never read newspapers, according to a survey by the firm Statista. 

Carlos Santos, owner of the Fluvanna Review

“Most of our readers are older residents. They like newspapers,” said Carlos Santos, publisher and editor of the Fluvanna Review, in the Piedmont. “My fear is what happens as younger people come up who just read news online.” Nearly a third of adults say they regularly turn to Facebook for news and 25 percent get it from YouTube, according to the Pew Research Center.

“I love sitting with a newspaper and going through it and seeing things you never expected and weren’t looking for,” said Hoyt, 80, the retired Knight Ridder executive who serves on the Virginia Humanities board. But “the world has moved to digital.”

So Where Are People Getting Local News?

When a local newspaper closes or becomes a shadow of itself, residents look for news in other places, such as Facebook and the Nextdoor app, but also around town. That’s what Nicholas Mathews, a former regional editor for Berkshire Hathaway papers in Virginia, found while researching his doctoral thesis in media studies at the University of Minnesota.

In interviews with people in Caroline and Surry counties, residents said they learn what is happening while shopping at stores or waiting in line at the post office. “It’s going to sound crazy, but [at] our local Dollar General, everybody talks. It’s our information hub about anything,” one told him.

This is clearly not optimum.

A Bowling Green man complained that he missed Caroline County’s big Harbor Festival after the Caroline Progress closed because the paper wasn’t there to remind him. “I would have gone … but it wasn’t in front of me.”

Mathews, now an assistant professor of digital journalism at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, wrote: “Without the Caroline Progress, participants were starved of the most basic currency of any newspaper, news and information. They missed news about town council actions, new businesses and, even, a new sidewalk.”

One resident told him, “You might have to ‘like’ 20 different Facebook groups or pages to get the same information that you used to get from one source.”

The Yorktown Crier-Poquoson Post, a weekly, shut down abruptly in July 2019. Nancy Sheppard, a local historian and writer, was its sole reporter and editor-in-chief, along with a layout editor. “We were limping at the end. There wasn’t enough support from the ownership.” Sheppard went on to do a two-year stint at the online Williamsburg Yorktown Daily, also strapped for resources. “We were all going nonstop.”

“You have to be passionate about local journalism” to keep pursuing it with bare-bones resources, she said. 

Newport News Realtor Greg Garrett was a minority owner in the Yorktown Crier-Poquoson Post. “We just were not able to make it work. We were not able to get enough ad revenue … and nobody took the reins to make it successful,” he said. “So many tasks have to be done to run a newspaper as far as getting the stories written, getting subscribers, collecting for subscriptions, renewing subscriptions, getting an online presence. We just didn’t have the horsepower.”

The paper’s demise was part of a deterioration of news coverage across the entire Hampton Roads area, home to 1.8 million Virginians, he believes, including in Newport News and Norfolk, where the hedge fund Alden Global Capital purchased the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot in 2021 and combined and cut their already-depleted news staffs.

“There’s only a fraction of the local news that used to be in this area,” said Garrett, who estimates he spent more than $3 million placing real estate ads in the Daily Press over the years, but no more. “Buyers and sellers of real estate don’t go to the local press anymore. It’s all online. We go to sources like Zillow and realtor.com” because that’s where sales are made,” said Garrett, who nonetheless remains an inveterate reader of newspapers himself. He gets five delivered to his home.

Nonprofits Plug the Gaps

Roughly a half-dozen nonprofit news organizations and foundations have sprung up in Virginia to help plug the gaps and bolster the papers that continue to get the job done. Most rely on donations from foundations, businesses and individuals.

They include:

  •  The online Virginia Mercury, based in Richmond, which covers state government, politics and policy, publishes news and commentaries on politics, the environment and energy, education and other issues. Launched in 2018, it is an affiliate of States Newsroom, a network of similar news nonprofits in 33 states. It has two editors, three full-time reporters and an intern. Some papers around the Commonwealth link to Mercury stories on their own websites.
  • Cardinal News, a fast-growing, online nonprofit covering Southwest and Southside Virginia with a growing staff of two editors and six reporters and a budget of $1.3 million. It covers the politics, economy and culture of a region that is rebounding from the loss of jobs in old industries, including coal-mining and furniture-manufacturing.
  • WHRO Public Media in Norfolk, the face of public radio and television in the Hampton Roads region, established a four-person newsroom in 2020 to remedy the growing death of local news coverage in the region. It also acquired the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism last year.
  • The nonprofit Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism was launched in 2019 by veteran journalists Louis Hansen and Chris Tyree “to probe issues vital to all Virginians, to train the next generation of journalists and to provide a place for civic engagement.” The Center posts reports on its own website and WHRO’s and makes them available to other news outlets through its Virginia News Service.
  • Piedmont Journalism Foundation, backed by local donors concerned about the future of journalism, now owns the Fauquier Times and Prince William Times, both sharing new offices in Warrenton and expanding their enterprise and investigative reporting.
  • Foothills Forum has collaborated with the award-winning Rappahannock News since 2015, raising local support that has allowed the News to expand its journalism and produce in-depth stories regularly. VPA named the paper the best weekly of its size last year. Foothills was instrumental in convening the Local News Summit and commissioned this series on the news crisis as a curtain-raiser for the summit.
  • Charlottesville Tomorrow, by its own description “a community-driven, socially conscious news organization,” posts stories online and in newsletters with the aim of connecting Charlottesville area residents to the issues that concern them most. It stresses coverage decisions to overcome what it calls the failure of legacy news organizations to cover communities of color.

At a time when much of the news about the news business is grim, the emergence of online news organizations has provided hope.

Graciela Mochkofsky, the new dean of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, voiced that optimism in a stirring commencement address last December.

“It is a challenging and uncertain time, like all times of profound change, but it is also an incredibly exciting time to be in journalism ….” she told the Class of 2022. “You have read the number of local newsrooms that have shuttered and jobs that have been lost. But many outlets large and small are finding business models that work for them. Creative entrepreneurs are coming up with ways to serve communities who have long been underserved. Local newsrooms have been replanted across the nation.”

Sue Cross, executive director of the Institute for Nonprofit News in Los Angeles, said: “Nonprofits are reinventing journalism in a lot of ways. They are going beyond and doing different kinds of journalism fitting what their communities want.

“They aren’t trying to substitute for a general-purpose newspaper that covered everything–sports, business, the chicken dinners and deeper civic coverage,” Cross said. “The nonprofits tend to start by carving out a handful of topics of greatest reporting need or deepest interest of the community and then they broaden out from that.” 

The Institute for Nonprofit News has 400 members employing 3,000 journalists across the country, she said. “That’s more than AP has [now], and more journalists in the field than the whole NPR network. It’s close to what Gannett, the remaining largest newspaper chain, has.”

Is this an adequate substitute for the healthy and thriving newspapers that used to be read by tens of millions of Americans?

“That is to be determined,” Cross said. In an era when many watch YouTube and TikTok for their news, “the challenge for us is how do we make it engaging?”

Profiles: Part One

Profiles: Part Two

Profiles: Part Three

About This Series

With little awareness among Virginians themselves, the Old Dominion has seen a steady erosion in the staffing and delivery of local news over two decades. 

For two years, Virginia Humanities and the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy have worked with local journalists to better understand how to meet Virginia’s news needs. With support from Knight Foundation, the American Press Institute, Piedmont Journalism Foundation, PATH Foundation, Foothills Forum and others, the organizers of the April 20-21 Local News Summit have produced a series of stories made available for newspapers and news websites to publish around the state. This public service project profiles Virginia journalists and involves national, state and local partners including practitioners, academics, funders, students and policymakers.

About the Author

Christopher Connell is an independent journalist and former assistant bureau chief for The Associated Press in Washington. He writes primarily for foundations and nonprofit organizations about higher education and other public policy issues, including reports for the Carnegie Corporation on efforts to improve the education of tomorrow’s journalists.

Our work brings people together and honors our shared humanity.