Ed. — This originally ran in the Friday, Feb. 28, print edition.
VIRGINIA BEACH — One of the journalists covering Virginia Beach for The Virginian-Pilot, the leading media organization in the region, is Peter Coutu, 24. He started as an intern, then joined the staff with a pitch for what became impactful reporting about frequent winners of the Virginia Lottery that led to investigations and changed practices.
To southern Virginia Beach readers, Coutu may be known for his reporting about flooding and related issues, including a story he broke recently about a report making the case for reforesting. And he broke an accountability story about businesses owed tax refunds by the city. He also is part of the team that has reported about the 2019 mass shooting here.
The Pilot had office space near the municipal center in Virginia Beach that was used, among other things, to cover the Friday, May 31, tragedy, but the organization abandoned that office late last year. Once, the newspaper grouped its staff into city teams working out of bureaus in each of the cities they covered. No more.
Now the Norfolk newsroom on Brambleton Avenue – an iconic building from the time when newspapers were centerpieces of the places they served – is moving to Newport News. That news has led to concern among employees and readers — and an unusual joint statement by three local mayors asking Tribune to reconsider.
Coutu lives in Norfolk. Part of his work involves traveling to places in Virginia Beach that are near the North Carolina border because journalism, done well, involves reporting from the places you cover and looking people in the eye. The Pilot will still cover the area, but some reporters will be expected to telecommute, work from coffee houses or use space at The Pilot’s printing plant on Greenwich Road.
“Aspects of the paper are really, really great,” Coutu said. “Some of the work we do is vital and important to the community. The paper does look very different since I came here – what? – 20 months ago.”
Journalists are gone due to staff downsizing, and there has been unease about The Pilot’s future under Tribune Publishing, which bought the paper two years ago and essentially merged its operations with the Daily Press in Newport News. Coutu said The Pilot is still a newsroom where editors help staffers work on complex, long-term stories and redirect resources – in journalism, that means people and time – toward big stories.
“While the industry is facing challenges,” he said, “there are (newspapers) that are doing well without buyout after buyout and not moving out of their coverage area. …
“You really can’t find good stories unless you’re out there talking to people,” he said.
The news that The Virginian-Pilot’s iconic offices on Brambleton Avenue in Norfolk had been sold was not a shock. The once family-owned paper, now in the hands of Chicago-based Tribune, has showed the struggles of print media as much as others have – staff reductions, thinner papers and the shuttering of bureaus, and now, of course, the big relocation away from South Hampton Roads.
But valuable real estate was part of the deal when The Pilot sold, and this isn’t the only newspaper leaving behind office space that once suited a much larger workforce. Staffers believed their bosses were looking for office space to keep the newspaper of record in South Hampton Roads. Instead, The Pilot broke the news that its own operations will move to the Peninsula.
The Pilot and two other newspapers, the Daily Press and The Virginia Gazette, are gathered under the Tribune arm called Virginia Media, billed as the largest news organization in Virginia. The Pilot, with roots that date back to 1865, has long been recognized as the best newspaper in the commonwealth. Under Tribune, it has continued to produce award-winning journalism.
Kris Worrell, executive editor of The Pilot and the Daily Press, did not return a phone call seeking comment. In a note about the move, Worrell wrote, “For readers, there really should be no impact. …
“Our journalists still will be at city council meetings and basketball games and music festivals and breaking news events. We already work from the field, traveling around the region to cover the stories that matter to readers. That commitment won’t change.”
Reporters will keep doing the work, but they have made it clear through their union, social media posts and interviews that the changes will make their jobs harder.
Newspapers have been in decline for years, but the coming move out of Norfolk wasn’t just concerning to reporters and average readers of the paper.
Elected leaders from the three biggest cities in Virginia – Mayors Rick West of Chesapeake, Kenny Alexander of Norfolk and Bobby Dyer of Virginia Beach released a joint statement urging Tribune to reconsider moving The Pilot. The statement released on Monday, Feb. 24, said they “are saddened and dismayed” by Tribune’s decision.
“Without a local newspaper connected to our community, informed citizen participation in local government will suffer,” Alexander said in the statement.
“The Virginian-Pilot has been a driving force for transparency and change in government, and now that reporters will be based across the water, it will be harder for reporters to do the job that residents need them to do,’ Dyer said. “We need our local newspaper to stay local.”
“With the cuts The Virginian-Pilot has already endured, local coverage has been shrinking,” West added. “I fear it will all but disappear with the newspaper leaving South Hampton Roads.”
The concerns of employees of a diminished Pilot newsroom are many, but an overarching worry is that The Pilot is not secure in the hands of Tribune. In part, this is due to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital’s investment in Tribune, and cuts that have happened here and at other Tribune properties.
In a letter seeking support, the Tidewater Media Guild, which represents Pilot journalists, among others, asks for owners with as much of a stake in the local community as locals have. “We need new owners who care about us — and you.”
There are 64 journalists at four publications represented by the guild (the fourth is the Tidewater Review) left from more than 100 positions when the union organized in 2018 shortly after Tribune bought The Pilot, according to the guild.
Sara Gregory, an education reporter at The Pilot, is also the chairperson of the guild, and she said reporters are already dealing with stagnant wages and job insecurity. They will face additional challenges when The Pilot leaves South Hampton Roads.
Gregory covers schools in two South Hampton Roads cities, Norfolk and Portsmouth, and she said commuting to Newport News is a challenge for reporters who cover cities here and live on this side of the water.
“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for me to come to Newport News to cover my communities,” she said.
She said the reporters love their work and are dedicated to covering the area.
“We’re still here, and we’re working really hard,” she said.
It will just be harder.
“Physically, where do we work?” she asked. “They had told us staying in Norfolk was a priority.”
Working in a newsroom with other journalists is how the work gets done well, she said, calling journalism a team sport. “It’s hard to play a team sport when your team is dispersed.”
It is also important to have access to the places where news happens. In many cases, The Pilot is the media organization covering the lion’s share of local meetings, in addition to breaking news stories, around here.
“Norfolk named a new (school) superintendent last night,” Gregory said during a recent interview at a downtown Norfolk coffee shop. “I was the only reporter there.”
The Norfolk School Board named Sharon Byrdsong the superintendent of schools in a split vote, and Gregory reported it came with little notice in the middle of the meeting.
“Everyone behaves a little better when they know someone is watching,” she said.
She hopes the public keeps supporting the paper. “Subscribing is still the best way to show you support local news.”
That day, at another coffee shop in Norfolk, a retired educator named Tom McAnulty worked on a crossword puzzle in the newspaper. He was one of two people reading papers in the busy shop. Others typed on laptops, looked at phones, read books, talked.
He reads his local newspaper.
“I do,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot in it anymore. I like to keep in touch with the local stuff. This morning, they had Byrdsong as the new superintendent. That was good. Yeah, I like the local stories.”
It isn’t just the big news stories The Pilot’s reporters break that matter. They also write stories that reflect the places and lives of people who make our cities, our communities and our institutions what they are.
McAnulty picked up his phone to show a reporter a story published by The Pilot. The 2018 headline read: “After 42 years in education, a Norfolk principal says goodbye.”
It was about his own career. Who had the byline? He looked at his phone again.
“I didn’t make that connection,” McAnulty said. “Sara Gregory. There you go.”
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