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Newsroom staff sizes dwindle at local papers

Randi B. Hagi

Editor's note, September 5, 2022: After this story aired, an employee with The Daily Progress contacted WMRA with the information that they have recently hired two new reporters.

In the ongoing decline of print newsrooms, some local papers have reached new lows in the numbers of journalists they employ. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

The Daily Progress in Charlottesville has about half the number of reporters, photographers, and editors it did five years ago. Currently, it employs just one news reporter. In the past year, they've lost the reporters who covered Albemarle County, Charlottesville, the courts, and K-12 education. Their higher education and health reporter was promoted to an editorial position, and the chief photojournalist was laid off.

In their stead, only one open reporter position is currently advertised.

TYLER HAMMEL: I saw the paper shrink considerably, both in terms of staffing and resources, and I felt it was time to move.

Tyler Hammel reported on the courts, crime, and local police for The Daily Progress for four and a half years. He left in May, and is now working for a different media outlet.

HAMMEL: I would say most of the dwindling was due to attrition. … That's a common sight at any small paper, and that was a big reason for the Daily Progress shrinking, but there had been a couple layoffs.

Another factor in his decision to leave was a particularly frustrating round of contract negotiations between the journalists' union, called the Blue Ridge NewsGuild, and the paper's owner – media conglomerate Lee Enterprises.

Tyler Hammel
Tyler Hammel left The Daily Progress in May.

HAMMEL: We didn't make much money. Charlottesville has a very high cost of living. Our resources had dwindled, but we were still expected to put out a paper daily, so that often led to long hours and difficult work. And I did not feel like the negotiations from the company were addressing our concerns.

According to the guild's website, when the union first negotiated a contract with Lee in 2020, they set a minimum salary at $34,500. This year, the newsroom staff reached for $50,000. Guild documents provided to WMRA show that Lee countered with 36, and finally agreed to 38 – but only after two reporters and a photojournalist left in May.

HAMMEL: I want to make it clear – the Daily Progress is still producing impressive work … but they are covering less than they would have been able to during the time they were more fully staffed, for sure. And then there's also the issue of institutional knowledge.

Of course, this isn't the only paper in the area that's been deeply affected by layoffs and attrition. The Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg has gone from a newsroom staff of 22 to just seven in the last 10 years.

Staff at the News Leader in Staunton held their breaths as their parent company, Gannett, laid off more than 70 journalists in August, as Poynter reported. A former employee with the News Leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that those layoffs included employees at The Progress-Index in Petersburg, but none at the News Leader. A Gannett representative responded to WMRA's inquiry with a statement that did not answer whether News Leader staff had been cut.

Leadership at The Daily Progress and the Daily News-Record's publisher did not respond to interview requests.

Almost all the newspapers in our region are now controlled by corporate hands. The News Leader is just one of Gannett's 494 newspaper holdings – it's the largest newspaper owner in the country. Lee Enterprises, the third largest, owns The Daily Progress, The News Virginian in Waynesboro, and the Culpeper Star-Exponent. The Daily News-Record was bought out by the sixth-largest, Ogden Newspapers, in 2018, along with The Winchester Star and weeklies throughout the valley.

The 2022 "State of Local News Report" published by Northwestern University's Medill Local News Initiative calls out, [quote] "unprecedented consolidation in the newspaper industry, which has led to the loss of both local newspapers and journalists." [end quote] According to the report, the number of journalists employed by local and state papers has declined by 60% since 2005.

Toni Locy
Toni Locy teaches journalism at Washington & Lee University.

TONI LOCY: I think we are in a crisis, and we have been in that crisis since 2005 or 06.

Professor Toni Locy has seen the impact of corporate buyouts and the digital age unfold firsthand. Prior to teaching journalism at Washington & Lee University, Locy's 25-year journalism career included stints at then-family owned papers, including The Boston Globe and The Washington Post; as well as corporate-owned outlets, including Gannett's USA Today.

LOCY: And I honestly think that news chains, they got fat, dumb, and happy. … They did not understand what the internet was going to do to newspapers.

Locy also pointed towards a corporate mentality that she saw shy away from hard-hitting stories. And as newspapers employ fewer and fewer journalists to produce original, locally-focused reporting –

LOCY: What's filling that vacuum since 2005 has been disinformation … and that's where we are right now in this country, where people lack credible, truthful information, and in the absence of that, they're imagining monsters are coming to get them, and that they're under their beds, in their closets, lurking around corners.

In the face of local-news decline, some old-school journalists are turning to new methods of disseminating and funding in-depth reporting.

DWAYNE YANCEY: Yeah, most of us involved with Cardinal are refugees from The Roanoke Times.

Dwayne Yancey is the founding executive editor of Cardinal News, an independent, nonprofit website serving roughly the western third of the Commonwealth that's south of I-64. They launched last year to cover politics, economy, and culture.

YANCEY: All of these communities are now in the process of reinventing themselves economically, and we felt there was no one connecting the dots and telling that story.

Yancey, a McGaheysville native and James Madison University grad, worked for The Roanoke Times – which is now a Lee Enterprises paper – for 39 years.

Dwayne Yancey
Dwayne Yancey is the founding executive editor of Cardinal News.

YANCEY: The impetus for me leaving was, in the spring of 2021, there were yet another round of layoffs, and in the reorganization that followed, the newspaper abolished the political beat, and basically said that all the political coverage was going to come from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, their sister paper … and, you know, the Richmond Times-Dispatch may have fine coverage, but they're not covering our legislators, or our issues.

Cardinal started with two full-time reporters – one covering business, and a Richmond-based political reporter. They've since added one in Danville, and just hired another in Bristol, and they've started securing funding for reporters to cover the Martinsville area, education, and healthcare.

There's clearly an appetite for what they're producing. Cardinal's revenue – which is solely composed of donations and grants – has blossomed over the past year.

YANCEY: We have been amazed at the support we've gotten. We started with a dozen donors.

They now have more than 1,800. And, in another rebuttal to the corporate media model, all of their donors – no matter the size of their donation – are posted publicly on their website for transparency.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.