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.
WHRO Public Media began broadcasting educational television shows in Norfolk and Hampton in 1961 and went on to expand in reach and capabilities through four television and five radio stations. It is owned by 21 school divisions, an unusual arrangement reflected in the wide range of educational programming, online courses and other media services it provides them. Its stations carried National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting System newscasts, and announcers read some local and state news off the wires, but until 2020 it had no newsroom of its own.
Starting a newsroom had long been a goal of Bert Schmidt, president and CEO since 2007, and leasing some of its educational broadband spectrum to Sprint for 5G purposes suddenly put WHRO in position to make that happen. It hired a news director and a trio of reporters. Now it has a 10-person news staff to fill gaps in the region’s local and state news coverage, exacerbated in 2021 when the hedge fund Alden Global Capital purchased the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk and the Daily Press in Newport News and immediately slashed their staffs.
“We could see we were at great risk of becoming a news desert,” Schmidt told Current last year when WHRO acquired the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism (VCIJ).
WHRO is making rapid headway on Schmidt’s ambitious plan to ultimately build a $20 million endowment, separate from the broadcaster’s own endowment, to put the growing news operation on a sound financial footing. He has $3 million in hand and expects to add at least $6 million more shortly, with an eventual goal of raising $15 million in Virginia and $5 million elsewhere. Using the customary 5% draw on endowments, that would yield a $1 million annual budget for news gathering.
WHRO provides a mix of hard and soft news. On a recent morning, the Local News page on its website featured a story on an effort to make Black visitors feel welcome in the resort town of Virginia Beach, as well as stories on a hospital’s plan to deliver medicines by drones on Tangier Island and a celebration of independent bookstores in Hampton Roads.
Schmidt, speaking at the Local News Summit, believes that news organizations need to convince foundations and other donors to support journalism, not seek government assistance.
“I am not a journalist. I’m a business person,” said the longtime public broadcasting executive. But “don’t rely on elected officials. Rely on yourselves. Be smart business people and reach out to those who believe in democracy and journalism ….Educate people about why nonprofit journalism matters.”
Last fall the invigorated WHRO brought under its news umbrella VCIJ, which two former Virginian-Pilot journalists, Chris Tyree and Louis Hansen, launched as a nonprofit in 2019 to pursue investigative and long-form journalism on topics of concern to all Virginians, including the housing crisis, COVID, mental health and toxic chemicals. At the time, both had day jobs elsewhere – Tyree, a photojournalist, as a content creator for the University of Virginia, and Hansen as an enterprise and investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. They originally took no salary but raised funds to pay freelancers and employ a fellow from ProPublica, a nationally known journalism nonprofit, to pursue investigative stories.
“We typically publish three to four stories a month, and our goal is for one of those pieces to be an in-depth investigation every other month,” said Hansen. “We expect to ramp up publishing as we build our newsroom and network of freelancers.” Both he and Tyree are now salaried employees of WHRO.
The stories are published on VCIJ.org and WHRO.org, broadcast on parent WHRO and other public media stations, including VPM in Richmond and Blue Ridge PBS in Roanoke, and shared with print weeklies and other newsrooms.