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.
The arrangements are unusual, but the situation is not: Two weeklies in rural counties near the Blue Ridge struggled to get by with staffs too small to cover all the issues important to residents’ lives. Then they got help from two tax-exempt community organizations created to save local journalism.
While community foundations across Virginia may contribute to sustaining local reporting, that is the singular purpose of Foothills Forum in Rappahannock County and the Piedmont Journalism Foundation in Fauquier County.
Both have marshaled support not only from longtime residents with a civic bent, but also more recent arrivals whose careers took them to the heights of journalism, the foundation world, public affairs and business in Washington and elsewhere.
Not every community with a newspaper in trouble can count on such a pool of talent and financial support in its backyard, but those behind Foothills and Piedmont believe others can learn from their success.
The first to enter the scene was Foothills Forum, which grew out of a “Fourth Estate Friday,” a once-a-month coffee and discussion convened by the Rappahannock News, almost a decade ago. The participants included Bill Dietel, former president of the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, and Larry “Bud” Meyer, former Miami Herald journalist and executive of the Knight Foundation. Meyer took the reins as Foothills’ chair for nine years.
The first thing Foothills did was canvas fellow residents on what issues concerned them most. It enlisted the University of Virginia’s respected Center for Survey Research to poll all 3,200 households and remarkably got a 42 percent response rate.
What that showed was that the issues of most concern were poor Internet and cell service – still a vexing problem – and maintaining the beauty of a largely unspoiled place, one of Virginia’s smallest counties. Limiting taxes, a burning issue elsewhere, was seventh down the list.
Foothills began commissioning seasoned freelance reporters to write in-depth articles about these and other issues. “The Foothills Forum was hard to sell and hard to explain at first,” Meyer later recalled.
“It’s been important for us to constantly stress that we’re nonpartisan,” said Andy Alexander, a former Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers and ombudsman of the Washington Post who recently succeeded Meyer as chair. Foothills had to overcome suspicions that it was a stalking horse for outsiders who wanted to speed development of the county.
It is a completely separate legal entity from the newspaper, which Dennis Brack, president and owner of Rappahannock Media, purchased in 2012. Brack, a former Washington Post editor, makes his own decisions about what to run. But with one editor-reporter and a novice from Report for America, a nonprofit that seeks to plug newsroom gaps, he welcomes all the help he can get. Foothills even pays 40 percent of that novice’s salary and her rent.
That’s not all. Foothills’ 2021 tax return showed it raised $219,000 in contributions from individuals and foundations and spent $159,000. It puts on events to raise funds and educate the public about local journalism. It has a paid, part-time executive director, keeps two of the freelance reporters on retainer and pays for a freelance photographer and graphic designer, as well as a part-time web manager.
“We have a wonderful partnership with the Rappahannock News, but we are independent from them,” Alexander said.
Foothills inspired a similar group of concerned citizens in Fauquier, the county next door, to found the Piedmont Journalism Foundation in 2018 to furnish supplemental in-depth news coverage to the Fauquier Times and its sister weekly, the Prince William Times. Those papers, too, are operated for profit, except there wasn’t any.
The Fauquier Times, first published in 1905, and its sister publication were sold in 2016 to 47 local investors determined to strengthen and improve the paper. In late 2019, the investment group, called Piedmont Media, transferred ownership of both papers to Piedmont Journalism Foundation, with a nominal payment of $1,000 changing hands.
Boisfeuillet “Bo” Jones Jr., former publisher of the Washington Post and chief executive officer of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, became president of Piedmont Journalism Foundation, with Jessica Tuchman Mathews, longtime head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Georgia Herbert, former Fauquier County supervisor, as officers. (Mathews now chairs the board.) Dana Priest, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the Post and a Knight professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, also sits on the board and helps guide its journalism.
Jones, a lawyer and former president of the Harvard Crimson, said a journalism nonprofit that owns a newspaper needs “a community that is capable of funding it.” Small donors “are great to have, but large donors are the ones who carry the weight.”
It’s also vital that the newspaper be run soundly as a business “and not just think that the Lord is going to provide and expect your philanthropic backers to keep putting money into it an uncontrolled losing operation. If it looks like a black hole, they’ll stop donating to you.”
Jones said Piedmont Journalism Foundation now expends about $90,000 a year hiring freelancers and provides other support for its papers, when needed.
Both Alexander and Priest believe other places with struggling papers could benefit from establishing nonprofits like theirs.
“You need people in the community who understand the importance of preserving local journalism and have an appreciation of how journalists work and how a local newspaper comes together,” said Alexander. “Most people don’t understand that. They have a difficult time differentiating local, independent, nonpartisan news from what they hear on TV or on the many ideological websites that call themselves news but aren’t.”
If public trust in the fairness and accuracy of journalism is to be restored, Priest believes that it will be won not by big, national news organizations but by capable local journalists. She began her own career in the 1980s covering county government for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times at a time “when journalism was more trusted and you felt like you were writing for a community that listened. That doesn’t happen in Washington anymore, but it happens here.”