Published May 22, 2023

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

Norman Styer, publisher of Loudoun Now

Norman Styer has devoted his career to reporting news in Loudoun County, an outer Washington suburb that has quintupled in population over 30 years and is now Virginia’s third-most populous county. He signed on as Leesburg Today’s first full-time reporter in 1989 and was editor-in-chief in 2015 when rival Leesburg Times-Mirror purchased it and shut it down the next day.

But “a couple days later people got together and said, ‘Well, we don’t want to shut down. We want to keep it going,’ so we started the new paper the following week,” said Styer. Without missing a beat, he became publisher and editor-in-chief of Loudoun Now, a community-owned weekly with a print edition mailed for free to 25,000 homes in Leesburg, Ashburn and western Loudoun and a website updated almost daily.

Before COVID, it reached 40,000 homes and is trying to build back up while competing with the Times-Mirror for ads and revenue.

Leesburg Today had seven or eight reporters when it folded. Styer, in addition to himself, has two full-time reporters, a part-timer and two freelancers. They are stretched, but “we haven’t really changed our philosophy about what needs to be covered in a community paper. We still cover the meetings of all six town councils, the board of supervisors and the school board pretty intensely,” said Styer. “What we’re missing is the time to do the extra, more in-depth stuff. But I’m not willing to sacrifice the government watchdog function. We sit through the meetings so you don’t have to.”

It has been a particular challenge covering angry protests at Loudoun School Board meetings by parents upset with the district’s efforts to address racial bias and promote diversity and its policy allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. The protests intensified after a transgender student was accused of sexually assaulting two girls in restrooms at different high schools five months apart. Republican Glenn Youngkin made the case and parents’ rights an issue in his successful 2021 campaign for governor and has since pushed schools to require students to use bathrooms of the sex identified at birth.

Styer said it was a tough story for his then-new school board reporter to handle, but “we caught up to it” when a special grand jury issued a scathing report on how the district handled the assaults. The school superintendent was arrested and fired for allegedly lying about the case.

Pleasing readers can be hard.

“Like anyplace else in the country these days, we have extremes on both sides [who are] the most vocal, and that could be a bit tough to deal with,” Styer said. “With the echo chamber we have on social media, people want to be fed what they want to hear. That’s not the way we do business. All we can do is give everybody the same set of facts, but not tell them what they need to be mad about.”

Hanging on to advertisers and fighting competition from the Internet are the biggest challenges. Local advertisers – retailers, real estate companies and health providers – still want to be in the print paper, but other businesses “are sending all their [online advertising] dollars out to Silicon Valley.” Loudoun Now has 22,000 followers on Facebook, but advertisers “don’t see the value of those online eyeballs.”

His goals for the new year are to drive the controlled circulation back up and to turn his part-time reporter into a full-timer. “Those would be successes,” said the 57-year-old journalist.

Is he optimistic? “You’ve got to be sort of an optimist to keep doing this,” he replied.

What about young people who get all their news online?

“Well, we’re in their phones and their in-boxes. We’re there, too.”

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