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Layoffs At The Richmond-Times Dispatch And The State of Local News In Danville, Virginia And Beyond – Mike Swanson

This month, Richmond’s Style Weekly ran an article titled The Incredible Shrinking Richmond-Times Dispatch. The Lee Enterprises owned newspaper has lost one third of its staff since last November. The article interviewed some of those who had been laid off by the corporate bosses and some that remain. The newspaper had served as a major flagship regional newspaper in not only the state of Virginia, but the American South for most of the twentieth century, but as the Style Weekly author writes, “For the past two decades, as the business of American newspapers has contracted and ceded ground to the digital age, a refrain from management has become commonplace in newsrooms: ‘Do more with less.’ Like most dailies, the RTD has slowly shed staff for years, with reporters straining to cover multiple beats and editors picking up additional duties, including extra weekend and night shifts, to make up for lost positions.”

Lee Enterprises also owns the Danville Register and Martinsville Bulletin, which serve Southside, Virginia, where I live. Both papers have great reporters, but also have shrunk substantially in the past ten years as the papers got bought and sold by various giant corporations before coming under Lee Enterprises. This is happening to newspapers across the country, which had been hurt by a loss of revenue due to rising printing costs, loss of advertisers, and competition from the internet, where so many people simply want to get everything they consume for free. Personally, I think Facebook has been extremely destructive to the newspaper industry. The Columbia Journalism Review once called what they have done to them “Armageddon.”

If you spend a few hours to look you can find lots of articles and studies that have been written over the years that question the viability of the local news industry. Probably the best resource on the topic is a large study done by the UNC Journalism School titled The Expanding News Desert. It finds that 200 counties in the United States do not have a single local news source and half of all counties have only one newspaper, usually a weekly, with many newspapers turning into what are essentially “ghost newspapers.” These are papers run by only one person and dominated by far away corporate owners, who buy up once vibrant papers and engage in slash and burn downsizing as is happening this month to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The full UNC report is worth reading. “Extensive research has established that the loss of local news has significant political, social and economic implications for our democracy and our society. Yet, according to the Pew Research Center, almost three-quarters of the general public remains unaware of the dire economic situation confronting local news organizations. By documenting the transformation of the local news landscape over the past 15 years, and exploring the challenges and potential solutions, we hope this report will raise awareness of the role that all of us can play in supporting the revival of local news,” it says in its introduction.

When people are not informed of what is happening locally they become disconnected from the real world around them. If you look at counties in Virginia there are many of them in Southwest Virginia that don’t have a news outlet at all.

Here is one discussion on this topic you can view. In March, the Virginia Festival of the Book help a panel discussion titled “The Critical Role of Local Journalism.” At it, authors and media specialists Christopher Ali (Farm Fresh Broadband) and Jennifer Lawless of the University of Virginia shared their work and discussed the many challenges to open access to local news, including struggling newspapers, limited coverage of local government, and a widening divide between rural and urban broadband access. They did this in conversation with Jim Brady of the Knight Foundation. This program was part of the “Democracy and the Informed Citizen” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils.

You can watch it here:

The presentation has a lot of dire stats in it – there are half as many people subscribing to newspapers now than there were in the 1990’s and the size of newspapers has shrank with local political and sports news being reduced the most. A point argued is that most newspaper subscribers are older people and younger people tell surveys that they do not want to pay for anything, having been trained by their internet life to feel that they are entitled to get everything for free. Paying $8.99 for a coffee they will do, but to pay $8.99 for a newspaper subscription goes against what many of them believe in. At the same time, the surveys show that people want local news and believe it is very important to have access to it. People become interested in it when presented with it, but when they don’t see it at all and only have access to national news outlets they start to think only about, often becoming obsessed with, national Presidential candidates and hot button issues surrounding them instead of being involved in the real world around their own lives.

However dire many of the reports of the local news industry are, it is not going to go away, because the demand for it is not going anywhere. Yes, the newspaper industry as a whole has suffered, but people are trying new things to adapt. The UNC report examines different ways people and organizations are working to keep local news alive and vibrant.

One model that is growing are nonprofit news outlets. Last year, we saw the launch of the Roanoke based Cardinal News outlet designed to serve Southside, Virginia with a focus also on state politics in Richmond. The production of stories by this outlet has grown and so has the number of subscribers to its email list and its donor base. Martinsville still has reporters at the Bulletin and Charles Roark is still running Star News and BTW21 is there too. The Danville Register is still publishing and the Chatham Star-Tribune is not going to stop. All the local radio stations still are on the airwaves and Chuck Vipperman is pumping out daily radio style reports with his Southside News Today on Facebook. Several people are running specialized local Facebook groups that deal with local news and community issues, with the most prominent one being Bruce Hedrick’s Southside News and Views. In Danville you also have the Piedmont Shopper and a few print monthly magazines like Evince that are completely free, making money from advertisers.

I have been running this website now for almost twenty years and it has gone through various iterations during its lifetime and I am aiming to try to slowly reinvent it again. Starting as a pure financial website, I slowly expanded it to cover other topics I am interested in and last year began a foray myself into writing a few articles about the things happening around me locally. I believe that Danville and Pittsylvania County are at a historic juncture. When I moved here in 1988 the population of Danville was peaking out and entered a slow decline. Unemployment increased with the regional devastation of the tobacco and textile industries, which reached a crescendo when Dan River Mills closed up ahead of the national 2008-2009 recession.

Those years marked a bottom, I believe, for this area and growth began to slowly appear with the revitalization of downtown Danville and will pickup in the next few years with the coming Danville Caesars Casino and other job expansions in the area. Having written a book on the past history of Danville, and living here myself, these are things I’m interested in and want to see happen. When the casino came up for vote in 2020 I wrote an editorial in support of vote that I submitted to the Chatham Star-Tribune. There was opposition to the casino, just as there is always opposition from some people to anything new. Starting last year I started to do occasional blog posts about new things opening in the area and also wrote a few articles on my website WallStreetWindow, which were essentially editorials about things happening with the county politics, where an old school political machine got voted out last year, but is still trying to get all of its power back with fear campaigns, reflecting one of the ways we are going through a time of change in the area and how some still are against it.

To sum this up, I am not a reporter or journalist like you read at in the newspapers and you should be subscribing to them. What I aim to do myself here are informative posts and occasional editorials. When I do longer posts, like this one, I like to use links so people can see where I am getting my information and they can also serve as resources to come back to again, like an entry point into a topic like I am doing with this one.

I also do a free daily email digest of what I think are the top stories of the day impacting us regionally and also nationally, with a focus on economics and financial markets when it comes to the latter.

To subscribe just join my email list by clicking here.

-Mike