BACK BAY — Because I went and started a newspaper, the remarkably kind and patient Dr. Elizabeth Janik from Old Dominion University recently interviewed me about local journalism as part of ongoing research for the Hampton Roads State of the Region report due out later this year.
I talked her ear off. I can only apologize and warn her that it will not go differently should we ever talk again on this subject.
I jawed about The Independent News, which is the sort of thing middle-aged people fall into when they cannot afford a hot rod and are scared of buying marijuana.
Yet mostly I prattled on about The Virginian-Pilot because it’s getting super bad for our big local newspaper, folks.
What’s next for Hampton Roads news?
That’s the question the big brains around here should be trying to answer for the region. I look forward to the report and its concrete recommendations.
I’m more concerned about the Beach, though. So I will start with us.
I get a question whenever something less than amazing happens with the health of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, which has been a fair bit the past couple of years: Are the big paper’s woes an opportunity for a little paper like The Independent News?
At face value, it seems like a reasonable inquiry with some obvious logic behind it – the big guy struggles, a competing business steps up, roll credits, etc. The Pilot has its reporters essentially working from home these days. I guess that makes me kind of a pioneer, though I actually wrote most of the early editions in a small Pungo barn.
One time, a chicken pooped on me. That never happened back when I worked at The Pilot.
Anyway, the hedge fund Alden Capital is working to take over Tribune Publishing, which owns The Pilot now.
Over the past couple of years, Tribune has shown a lack of concern for the communities it covers and the staff that makes the paper. It has shuttered offices throughout Hampton Roads, closed the printing plant in Virginia Beach, shedding jobs along the way, and has no apparent centralized newsroom anymore.
Alden has a reputation for squeezing profits out of papers. I’m not sure what The Pilot has left to squeeze, but Alden, if they take over, will manage to get handsy.
The loss of the printing plant in Virginia Beach hurt this business. We’re printed out of Richmond now. They’ve been really great, but I’m paying a good bit more to do it. That’s a big deal because printing is this little newspaper’s biggest cost. I’ve had a decent bit of fun. Having that number shoot up mid-pandemic was a different feeling.
About a year ago, I advocated for locals with a bunch of money piles filling up their swimming pools to buy The Pilot, restoring local ownership. I also wanted a unicorn even though they have exactly half as many horns as animals that are useful.
I’ve come to see local ownership as highly unlikely, especially after Tribune has sold off its real estate and further weakened the newspaper. I hope to be proven wrong about this, as well as Santa Claus and the little whirring noise my pickup makes while idling for any extended period of time.
The best option, however implausible, is for a small startup to cover local news, prioritizing public affairs reporting. A nonprofit makes sense, but it would have to frontload fundraising in a way that might panic people who don’t understand that reporting is actually pretty expensive, whether you print it up or send it over the web.
I don’t think it can cover all of Hampton Roads. The case I always make is for Virginia Beach because this is home and it’s Virginia’s biggest city. The Pilot has about four reporters aimed at this city, more than any other news organization. If The Pilot folds, those reporters go, too. There is no model to replace it. My paper cannot scale up. TV lacks the bodies and depth to fill in for a diminished local newspaper.
As I’ve said in the past, I am not insulting local TV news when I write that sort of thing. They do good work. It’s just different.
And none of this is self-serving. I’m not going to be the person to lead or probably even be a part of whatever comes next. I’m doing what I want to do with The Indy. I write freely about the pitfalls of this, such as my utter lack of business competence, only because it may help the next, better thing.
The opportunity I have is to keep doing this paper as long as I can, but it is what it is. I like what it is. I wasn’t sure this thing would go six months, and that was nearly six years ago. We’ve told some stories. We’ll tell a few more. Then I get into fulltime shaking my fist at the sky or whatever it is middle-aged folks do after journalism.
The bottom line here is that the big local journalism we take for granted is on fumes. The regional report I mentioned is due later this year, but conditions are changing for local news media very quickly.
They’re thinking regionally, which is their gig. A regional news media startup, to me, is impractical and likely unaffordable. A citywide new media startup also may be impractical and unaffordable, but less so.
That’s why I think leaders in Virginia Beach need to consider the matter now, despite other pressing priorities.
We need local journalism, regardless of what some knucklehead on social media types with their big, sweaty toes.
It’s an economic development issue, to me, because journalism done well helps set the conditions for stronger local government, equitable society and better-informed, engaged citizens. It’s also a human rights issue for that exact same reason.
If anyone was asking me in our city, the Virginia Beach Human Rights Commission could be a good umbrella for a Virginia Beach Task Force on Local Journalism.
There may be other issues, but it is time to walk and chew gum while we still have some gum.
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