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.
VPM, the public broadcaster in Richmond, calls itself “Virginia’s Home for Public Media,” but not long ago it had only a skeleton news staff that basically was just reading news briefs, according to Elliott Richardson, the current news editor. “It was effectively three people.”
That was five to seven years ago, he said, and it’s dramatically different today with 18 reporters, editors, videographers and anchors reporting the news, including a half-hour “VPM News Focal Point” telecast on Thursday nights. The show explores politics, business, the environment, science, race, health, education and the arts, focused on Central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley.
The transformation has happened on the watch of Jayme Swain, formerly a PBS senior vice president, who was hired as VPM’s president and CEO in 2019, the same year it jettisoned its old monikers of Central Virginia Educational Television Corp. and Commonwealth Public Broadcasting Corp. The 2017 sale of some of its broadcast spectrum generated $182 million and gave it the wherewithal to form the Virginia Foundation for Public Media, VPM’s parent, with a renewed emphasis on filling news gaps in the region.
Robinson, who came to VPM after three years as news editor of Charlottesville Tomorrow and worked at dailies as well, said VPM has reporters covering Richmond and surrounding counties and environment, education, housing, transportation, government accountability and other beats. They track issues and major developments rather than “sitting in hours and hours of [board] meetings to get one sound bite or try to cobble a story out of the meeting,” he said. “We try to find things that no one else is actively working on or to look at them in a different way.”
When Robinson’s predecessor, Craig Carper, took the news director job in 2015, he had one full-time reporter, two part-time reporters and two hosts. When Carper left in 2021, after the infusion of funds from the spectrum sale, there were more than a dozen, including a full-time General Assembly reporter. “Every minute I was there, I was aware how fortunate we were,” said Carper, now a spokesman for Dominion Energy.
VPM even resurrected Style Weekly, Richmond’s alternative arts and culture print weekly, which Alden Global Capital shut down abruptly weeks after buying the Tribune Publishing chain including the Virginian-Pilot. The weekly rose from the grave two months later as an online-only publication.
VPM produces news in a variety of formats, including audio for its radio stations, video for television, and web versions, both stories and sometimes transcripts.
In a city that was once the capital of the Confederacy, it is making a push to produce more content that represents diverse people, places and perspectives, and to broaden the racial, age and gender demographics of its governing boards and advisory councils.
Starting this summer, VPM and WMRA in Harrisonburg will share a reporter from Report for America, the national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms, and Robinson hopes to forge more news partnerships with other public stations.