Twelve months of The Mercury

July 17, 2019 12:01 am

The sun rises over the Virginia Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A year ago today, stressed, sleep-deprived, picking over the wording of my introductory column and anxious about our roster of stories, I waited for the Mercury’s website go live.

I had left a 13-year career in newspapers for the new world of online-only, nonprofit news, and, as I contemplated the year ahead, the unknowns loomed.

How would the political establishment — the agencies, politicians, advocates and other fellow capital denizens that we needed to engage with to do journalism — receive us? How would we balance the need to publish early and often with the imperative to stand out from the crowd? How would we sustain the pace of reporting and writing we’d set without burning everyone out?

Luckily for me, I had convinced the right people to come along for the ride. Mechelle Hankerson, Ned Oliver, Katie O’Connor, and our most recent addition, Sarah Vogelsong, are all veteran Virginia journalists who know the state’s people and places and are keen to catch what’s falling between the cracks in an increasingly fractured media environment and a diminished statehouse press corps.

I’m very proud of the work we’ve done over the past 12 months, pieces that adhere to strong standards of journalism while going off the beaten path and looking behind talking points to elucidate longstanding policy debates.

I hope you agree and will continue to support us and our work.

It’s a given that the media world will continue to change, with no relief in sight for the beleaguered papers that have traditionally produced the lion’s share of American reportage and the increasing emergence of new outlets like us, with varying funding models and missions. We have and will continue to hang our hat on original, enterprising reporting on state government and policy.

Donations help us bring you the reporting and opinion of outstanding Virginia freelance journalists like Mason Adams, Roger Chesley and Samantha Willis (among others) as well as help us get to far-flung parts of the state to report on topics like the abrupt Blackjewel LLC bankruptcy that left nearly 500 Virginia mine workers in the lurch and the divisions over medical marijuana and casino gaming in Bristol, as well as other trips that are crucial to covering the state. Veteran Virginia energy and environmental columnist Ivy Main also is among our regular contributors.

There are scores of articles that I could highlight, but I’ll focus on a few from each of the months of our first year that I think best illustrate our approach and the type of coverage and insight that was tough (or impossible) to find elsewhere.


It had been more than year since the General Assembly passed legislation opening the door for localities to set up needle exchanges to curb the rate of disease transmission amid the opioid epidemic. Katie O’Connor set out to find out why none had opened yet, discovering that recalcitrant police agencies played a big role. Ned Oliver reported on strategies under consideration to encourage mergers between struggling cities and counties. And Mechelle Hankerson explored the increase in self-identified socialists on the left and what it might mean for Virginia politics.


Mechelle Hankerson went past the talking points to examine and explain Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposal to use a windfall from federal tax reform to expand the earned-income tax credit. And Ned Oliver and Katie O’Connor uncovered the degree to which Virginia hospitals take their patients who can’t pay to court. The numbers were eye-popping: “Virginia medical providers filed more than 400,000 lawsuits over the past five years, netting more than $587 million in legal judgments against their patients,” they reported.


As campaign season got into full swing, Mechelle Hankerson broke down the fraudulent signature scandal that ensnared Congressman Scott Taylor and what it illustrated about the effectiveness of state oversight.

“The law is pretty clear,” one lawyer told her. “There can be no investigation from the Department of Elections once they certify it. They don’t have the staff, they don’t have the means and they don’t have the budget to go out and check signatures.”

And as politicians continued congratulating themselves on Medicaid expansion, Katie O’Connor’s reporting revealed the web of cause and effect that create a yawning gap in dental coverage in Virginia.


Another goal of ours was to bring readers political coverage that went beyond the horse race. And in October, Mechelle Hankerson delved into the  congressional race between Denver Riggleman and Leslie Cockburn to explore the fault lines on Israel and anti-Semitism, a theme that has also played out on the national stage in liberal politics. Ned Oliver looked at who was backing controversial Senate candidate Corey Stewart and why.

Another aim was to take a fresh look at some of Virginia’s perennial policy debates — such as Virginia’s archaic ABC laws, including the food-to-liquor “ratio,” and whether they still serve a purpose. Katie O’Connor examined another longstanding issue: local administration of social services agencies and what happens when they can’t fix themselves.


Energy and environmental news has been a cornerstone of our coverage since our launch, and the Mercury was among the first outlets to report that Gov. Ralph Northam had removed two members from the State Air Pollution Control Board as it weighed a permit for a Dominion Energy pipeline compressor station. We also stuck with the story during the ugly fallout, which, at the time, was the most controversial thing about the Northam administration. And Katie O’Connor investigated why two Dominion reports on the costs and feasibility of responsibly cleaning up its coal ash ponds yielded such disparate results.

Mechelle Hankerson’s reporting on the stars potentially aligning on a redistricting constitutional amendment proved prescient and Ned Oliver looked at why local prosecutors are increasingly jettisoning cash bail.


Mechelle Hankerson and Ned Oliver were quick on the draw in getting out a story on what other localities put on the table to lure Amazon, which ultimately opted for Crystal City. Samantha Willis reported on the struggles facing black Virginia farmers. And Katie O’Connor chronicled the often crushing consequences of overcrowding at state psychiatric hospitals for people grappling with mental illness.


The first month of the year also brought the first stories from The Newsroom’s new Washington bureau, making the Mercury among the only outlets in the state with a presence in the nation’s capital and the ability to keep close tabs on our delegation.

Going into the month, we had a plan for how we were going to cover our inaugural legislative session, including tracking the major and minor policy debates that get lost in the chase-the-pack coverage that can often characterize the General Assembly. We started with a series we christened “Looking Ahead.

Katie O’Connor walked readers through a perennial legislative punching bag, the “certificate of public need,” which regulates the number of medical facilities and services available in designated regions. And we also launched a new session series, “In Memoriam,” for the vast number of bills that get left on the cutting room floor every year. Of course, this year’s unprecedented session forced us to adjust on the fly, starting with the nasty fight over a late term abortion bill that even made it into President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech .


“Can’t get uglier than this,” we thought as the calendar flipped to February. You know what happened next. Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal rocketed into the national spotlight. Days later, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, accused of sexual assault, and Attorney General Mark Herring, who admitted to wearing blackface in college, were also ensnared.  But amid the satellite truck invasion and the white-hot glare of the national spotlight, something unexpected happened: No one stepped down and the legislative gears kept grinding.


With one family’s wrenching story, Katie O’Connor shed light on the debate over whether independent living communities for seniors need more state oversight. Ned Oliver’s story on Virginia transportation officials’ collective lack of enthusiasm after a ride through Elon Musk’s tunnel made big news, becoming one of our most read stories. Mason Adams reported on the long list of violations from the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline and sought answers from the state on why it hasn’t used its power to intervene more forcefully. Mechelle Hankerson talked to teachers about why they’re leaving the profession.


As part of an effort to elucidate, we launched an occasional series called “Virginia Explained,” making digestible complex topics like carbon regulation, bare bones health insurance programs and the relative power of prosecutors to ignore marijuana laws, among others.  Robin Bravender in our D.C. Bureau interviewed outgoing Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member Cheryl LaFleur on why the two contested pipeline projects planned to cross through Virginia set off “an alarm bell.”


In keeping with our mission of monitoring public records issues, Mechelle Hankerson checked in on the massive backlog in cataloging the records of prior gubernatorial administrations. And amid a heightened focus on Virginia’s fraught, racist past, she explored how the state’s textbooks are approved and revised. Ned Oliver scored another hit with a visit to Virginia’s own “bridge to nowhere” and reported on a disturbing example of the role of racism in the state’s high eviction numbers.


In a two-part series by Katie O’Connor, kinship families, who care for relatives’ children but don’t get the same support as other foster families, told us they felt forgotten by the state’s social services apparatus. Sarah Vogelsong spoke with experts who warned that Virginia’s fisheries will be forced to adapt as the climate continues to change. Mason Adams reported that the reintroduction of elk in Southwest Virginia isn’t sitting well with everyone. And Mechelle Hankerson followed state lawmakers as they attempted to navigate the political environment after the massacre at a Virginia Beach municipal building during an election year.

This month, we’ve distilled the main points before and after the brief special session on guns, as well as the potential political ramifications. And though Democrats seized on the influence of the National Rifle Association, this story by Mechelle Hankerson makes it clear that the sway of pro-gun groups comes from their members, not their money.

That’s not too shabby for Year One. And we’re just getting started.

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers before becoming editor of the Virginia Mercury in 2018. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact him at [email protected]