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
When Tom Lappas graduated from the University of Richmond with a journalism degree in 1998, his dream job was to become a sportswriter at a daily. But he also wanted to stay in Richmond and wound up at a community paper in nearby Henrico County, Virginia’s sixth largest county by population (333,000). Something clicked, and three years later he left to launch his own twice-a-month paper, the Henrico Citizen, and convinced three fellow reporters to join him.
“I’m the last person who ever thought I’d own a business or certainly start one,” he said. “I didn’t have that typical confident business owner mindset. I just knew how to do journalism. But I thought, ‘Hey, I know how to publish a worthy community newspaper.’”
For almost two decades twice a month, he distributed up to 20,000 free newspapers on 120 racks in grocery stores, libraries, restaurants and businesses. He made a decent living. But the print Citizen was an early casualty of COVID in March 2020 when his three biggest advertisers – a funeral home, a home improvement store and a senior living community – pulled out. He could no longer cover printing costs.
The Citizen survived online, where it has 10,300 followers on Twitter and 6,500 on Facebook. Readers are also reached through other digital platforms, including daily updates by email. All told, the Citizen’s stories attract 65,000 readers each month. Lappas broadcasts – or podcasts – an “Henrico News Minute” on weekdays, which actually runs five minutes.
Keeping the enterprise afloat is a challenge. There’s no paywall. “We believe access to fair, trustworthy local news is or should be a fundamental human right,” the website says. So ads are crucial to survival.
“News costs money,” he said. “We’ve got 25,000 businesses in our county. I still think advertising will pay a large percentage of our bills if we do it right. But if we can raise another 20 or 30 grand a year from readers, that makes a tremendous difference for us.”
Lately Lappas has been buoyed by organizations dedicated to shoring up local news operations, including ostensibly for-profit ones like his.
He has a single full-time reporter covering education, a novice from Report for America, a nonprofit that taps philanthropic dollars to help fill depleted local newsrooms. A pair of part-timers help with editing and online duties. The education writer is his second hire from Report for America, which models itself after Teach for America and covers half the reporter’s salary for a year.
Henrico Citizen also belongs to LION Publishers, an association of 400-plus local independent online news organizations that has garnered grants from the John S. and James L Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund, Google News Initiative and the Meta (formerly Facebook) Journalism Project.
Lappas recently participated with 18 other publications in a six-month Local Media Alliance lab “learning how to fund journalism through philanthropy.” Borrowing a staple of public radio fund-raising, he kicked off a membership drive last year with the aim of getting 500 readers to contribute $75 or $150 a year, which would allow him to hire an additional reporter. He’s a third of the way there.
He is hoping to convince local civic organizations, charities and foundations to help him hire more reporters to cover health, transportation, the shortage of affordable housing and other problems. “How can a community advance itself if most of the people aren’t aware of what the critical issues are?” he asked.
Lappas uses some stories produced by University of Richmond student journalists and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Capital News Service. Twice he has taught classes at his alma mater, but otherwise has no outside income. He and his wife have 9- and 4-year-old sons. “My bank account would probably tell you I’d be better off working at Walmart greeting people, but this is my baby,” the 46-year-old said. “I want this to continue. I want it to be there 20 years from now if my son wants to take it over one day.”