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
It was hard to get a newspaper out five days a week with only two reporters. Emily Oaks faced up to that challenge during four years as editor the Culpeper Star-Exponent by doing considerable reporting herself. It wasn’t easy. “The daily grind of putting out a small community newspaper is an enormous effort and a huge sacrifice,” said Oaks, who left the job last summer for personal reasons. “The people who are doing it really care about their work and the community. They don’t do it for the money.”
The Star-Exponent – one of 13 Lee Enterprises-owned papers in the Commonwealth, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch – publishes Tuesdays through Fridays as well as Sundays, running local news but also stories from other Lee papers and the Associated Press.
“We put the most important local news on Page One along with the biggest state story of the day,” Oaks said. “The idea was to put content in the paper that people couldn’t get elsewhere.”
She’d field complaints from readers that it was missing stories or not covering Culpeper as thoroughly as it once did, but they were also proud “when their own kid (or grandkid) was in the paper or their neighbor or church was featured in some way, they’d come in and buy 10 copies and save them forever.”
Oaks, now executive director of the news nonprofit Foothills Forum, worries about what happens when a community paper withers or gives up the ghost. Most of the 2,500 newspapers that have closed nationally since 2005 were community papers, usually weeklies.
“Much of what would disappear with the loss of a newspaper is difficult to quantify, but at the local level, losing a newspaper means a loss of community love, community pride, community responsibility – people don’t know one another in their own community any more,” said Oaks. “People do not realize what a loss it would be.”