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 online Virginia Mercury — the name itself has the ring of an old-school newspaper — began in 2018, based in Richmond and staffed by three former Richmond Times-Dispatch reporters and a fourth from the Virginian Pilot. Today it has a news staff of five and is looking to hire more reporters at salaries that start at $60,000 — enough to attract experienced journalists.
The Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a national network of nonprofit, digital news enterprises stretching across 33 states that relies on philanthropy and other donors and doesn’t run ads or accept corporate donations or underwriting. States Newsroom funds the salaries of four of the Mercury’s five staffers.
Close coverage of the governor’s office, General Assembly and state politics is its calling card, but it also tracks energy and environment, education, gambling and other issues.
Sarah Vogelsong reported for several small Virginia and regional publications after graduating from the College of William and Mary, and she was one of the first freelancers to whom the brand-new Mercury turned. She became a full-time staffer covering energy and the environment in 2019, then was promoted to editor-in-chief in June 2022. Today, with a second editor, three full-time reporters and several regular columnists, the Mercury aims to publish three original stories a day.
It’s punching above its weight. “People say, ‘We had no idea your newsroom is so small!’” Vogelsong told the Local News Summit, convened by Virginia Humanities and the Karsh Institute of Democracy at the University of Virginia.
One Mercury reporter is assigned to her old beat, energy and environment, while another covers education, technology and transportation, and the third covers elections, politics, campaign finance, gambling and other issues. “Our next focus is to raise the money to get a full-time health reporter,” said Vogelsong. The Mercury’s annual budget is roughly $500,000.
Virginia newspapers post eye-catching links to Mercury stories on their own websites as many as 40 times a week, said the editor. “That’s always a great feeling.”
And she knows from audience data that visitors typically spend four to six minutes on the websites, meaning “they are reading most of the way through our stories.” That’s an eternity compared with the under-two-minute average visit to major newspaper websites, according to the Pew Research Center.
Jill Palermo, managing editor of the Prince William Times, makes ample use of the Virginia Mercury’s reporting, both on its website and sometimes in the print edition of the weekly, which is owned along with sister publication the Fauquier Times by the Piedmont Journalism Foundation.
“They are a great source of state news, particularly about the Virginia General Assembly,” said Palermo. She singled out its coverage of COVID, mental health and nursing-home staffing as exemplary and essential since the Times cannot afford an Associated Press membership.
“I’m happy to run their work on our website on a daily basis,” she said. “If I have room in the print version of the paper, I will sometimes run their stories in the paper, but that’s unusual given that space is a premium.”
Ideally Vogelsong would like to double the reporting staff to do more reporting on housing, criminal justice and other issues, “and get more into the weeds on stuff than a traditional newsroom might be willing to let its reporters do.”
Vogelsong worked for academic journals and textbook publishers after college before she “stumbled into” news reporting. A part-time job at the Caroline Progress — which no longer exists — paid $11 an hour. Now she’s sold.
Vogelsong is bullish on the future of nonprofit, online news gathering. “When I was freelancing for the Mercury, I’d get a lot of questions from people about ‘Oh, what is nonprofit news?’ We almost never get asked that now,” she said.
“We get donations from foundations, but we also get a lot of donations just from readers. They’re much smaller — maybe a monthly $10 donation or $100 — and we also get a lot of emails from people who basically say, ‘We’re really happy that you’re around and we want to make sure that you stay around.’”
“I do think that the move away from print is going to be a lasting one. The world changes. I know that everybody likes the feel and smell of newsprint, but it’s just not really the way that most people are consuming news right now.”