This story 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
Six years out of college, Sarah Vogelsong made $11 an hour when she landed her first newspaper job at the Caroline Progress in 2014. The minimum wage in the Commonwealth was $7.25 at that time. She left in 2016, two years before the paper closed.
“I was really the only staff reporter and then there were an editor and a page designer, and occasional freelancers,” said Vogelsong, now editor-in-chief of the Virginia Mercury, a nonprofit, online news enterprise that covers politics and policy.
“I think so fondly of my time at the Caroline Progress,” she said. “It was a hard job, but did I ever learn a lot. I went to every meeting in the county and spent a lot of time driving. That was when I started understanding and feeling very passionately about the value of that kind of local and statewide coverage because it was crystal clear how many stories were not being told.
“I imagine a lot of journalists have this moment in their first jobs where you’re just like, ‘How can this possibly be? How is there so little scrutiny going on?’” said Vogelsong, who subsequently did stints at the Progress-Index, a daily in Petersburg, and the Chesapeake Bay Journal in Maryland, which covers environmental issues.
From thumbing through the big, bound volumes of old editions of the Progress, “you could see that it used to be a much, much bigger paper,” she said.
And the empty desks that surrounded her in the Progress-Index’s newsroom signaled how much that paper had shrunk. “We had three reporters, a city editor, a managing editor and a photographer,” she said. Its owner, GateHouse Media, merged with Gannett Co. in 2019.
Vogelsong was an early freelance contributor to the Virginia Mercury, founded in 2018 by three former Richmond Times-Dispatch reporters to fill the gap in coverage of Virginia’s statehouse.
She was hired full-time as its energy and environmental reporter in 2019 and promoted to her current job in July 2022.
The Mercury has three full-time reporters, a deputy/commentary editor, an intern and the editor-in-chief. It also has a raft of regular columnists who delve into policy issues and disputes.
The Mercury’s parent is States Newsroom, a national nonprofit network of online news organizations covering state politics and policy in 31 states. Vogelsong is heartened that a small but growing number of Virginia papers run Mercury stories. “We see that list growing all the time,” she said. “That’s one of our goals, to provide high-quality, Virginia-specific content to local newspapers that are stretched thin.”
In Virginia and elsewhere, coverage on certain national issues “can almost be oversaturated sometimes, while lots of local stories go uncovered,” she said. “Hugely consequential decisions get made at the local and state levels and you might have one or zero people covering them.”
She believes there’s been too little coverage of the impact of changes to policing, sentencing reforms and other criminal justice matters made after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. “There are all sorts of issues that require that kind of deeper reporting that you just don’t get when newsrooms are shrinking,” she said.
When Vogelsong began contributing to the Mercury and called people for interviews, “I would get a lot of questions about, ‘Oh, what is nonprofit news?’ There just wasn’t a huge amount of awareness. We almost never get asked that now.”
While philanthropy is the major source of support, “we also get a lot of donations and emails from readers who basically say, ‘We’re really happy that you’re around and we want to make sure that you stay around,’” she said. “They still want news and they see nonprofits as a way we can help keep news, which is so essential to our democracy, going.”