Ed. — From the Sunday, July 20, print edition.
VIRGINIA BEACH — Peter Coutu’s first journalism job out of college was at The Virginian-Pilot in 2018, and he didn’t take long to make a difference.
He applied lessons learned from college reporting about lottery winners in Wisconsin to Virginia, using public records, analysis and shoe leather to show some repeat winners got lucky at remarkably fortunate rates.
Investigations and change followed.
Coutu started as an intern, then joined the Pilot staff and worked with the Virginia Beach team covering the commonwealth’s largest city. He wrote news and features, often focusing on southern Virginia Beach, including rural communities and the natural resources of our watershed.
Coutu is a young journalist who can both write and report.
He won’t do either around here anymore.
His is the latest departure from the staff of The Pilot under the corporate control of Tribune Publishing and the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. In June, eight journalists from the combined Pilot and Daily Press staff took buyouts, including another notable loss for our city, Alissa Skelton, who covered Virginia Beach government.
According to members of the Tidewater Media Guild, union positions at the papers decreased from 101 to 36 over the past three years since Tribune bought The Pilot. The guild jobs are news positions at both The Pilot and the Daily Press.
Coutu said he put in for a buyout but didn’t get it. He left anyway for an opportunity with another news organization in New York.
“There’s a lot of stuff I wished I could have gotten done at The Pilot,” Coutu said during an interview, noting that good people remain at the regional daily newspaper and he appreciates his time working there.
He initially did not have much experience with flooding or sea level rise, but he had an interest in the environment — and support from The Pilot to pursue such stories.
“It’s such a big issue, too,” Coutu said. “It’s one of the big issues a lot of reporters would consider a ‘high mission’ kind of issue to write about, and try to make it interesting, too. It just seemed like there were a million different stories.”
Reporting and writing environmental stories is complex, and Coutu earned the respect of many of the people he covered through the accuracy and clarity of his work.
City Councilmember Barbara Henley represents the Princess Anne District, an area covering the southern city. She said Coutu’s departure is unfortunate because environmental issues matter so much here.
“He’s been really top notch, and he’s done a good job of knowing the issues and getting them right,” Henley said. “For an area this large not to have a good newspaper, it’s just not right. We need it. The people need it. … He couldn’t be leaving at a worse time for us.”
“He never took sides, but he could sift through all the crap and come out with a clear view,” said Jared Brandwein, executive director of the Back Bay Restoration Foundation.
“Losing him is awful,” Brandwein said, who noted some planned stories were already being missed by reporters stretched thin on The Pilot staff. “It’s bad for the watershed.”
Karen Forget, executive director of Lynnhaven River Now, said The Pilot has a tradition of strong environmental reporting, including the work of the late Scott Harper and, more recently, Dave Mayfield, who is now retired from The Pilot. Coutu is among the reporters who picked up some of that work, though it was not his sole beat.
“That tradition is a reflection of how important it is,” Forget said. “I think we’re losing a lot. We can affect change at the local level, and, talking specifically about environmental issues, we have big challenges. Our economy, our way of life, everything is centered on the water.”
Forget said changes at The Pilot are happening when the city faces public policy discussions.
Mayfield, the retired Pilot journalist, called Coutu an excellent reporter during a telephone interview earlier this month.
“Every story he tackled, he did well,” Mayfield said, adding that talented people remain at The Pilot, and they are still trying to do important work informing the community.
“I can just say with a shrinking staff it gets more difficult to cover anything in depth and certainly with the breadth that had been customary,” Mayfield said. “I’m concerned, just as a citizen in an area that’s vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding, anytime I see a reduction in the staff, especially one as significant as this one.”
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