If you’ve ever worked in journalism or had the misfortune of listening to a reporter complain about it, you’ve probably heard a version of this adage: The hours are long and the pay sucks, but, on the other hand, everyone hates you.
That’s why it’s probably too much to expect mass apprehension about what’s happening to Virginia’s newspapers, from The Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot in Hampton Roads to the titles across the state once owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which announced last week it was selling them to an Iowa-based newspaper company called Lee Enterprises. (Not to mention smaller papers that have shuffled off this mortal coil in the past few years).
Certainly, even before “enemy of the people” and all that, few journalists expected any tears to be shed for them by haters of “corporate media” and “liberal media,” both epithets leveled at me from left and right over the course of a 13-year career at newspapers in four states. Even so, the toxicity of our current politics and online culture probably makes it less likely than ever.
But many of us who work in Virginia media have felt the shudders reverberate through the state’s news ecosystem with each announcement of downsizing or layoffs at the state’s biggest publications, newspaper building sales in Norfolk and Richmond and last week’s news that 10 papers from Bristol to Culpeper and lots of places in between will change hands.
And no matter your political persuasion or personal position on the press, if you care about what happens at your local government, school board, police department or sheriff’s office, among other institutions, it should also worry you.
I may fail to convince you. But since many of the journalists across the state are expected to keep quiet, put their heads down and go back to their jobs while their industry crumbles around them, I thought they were owed at least this much. I was one of them not that long ago.
I finally landed a job as a city hall reporter at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in early 2012 after years of trying. I had just gone through a sale in Louisiana, where our pair of sister papers that were part of The New York Times Regional Media Group were unloaded to a start-up company from Florida, and walked right into another.
A few months after I started, Media General, whose local owners had held the paper for generations, sold almost all its newspaper holdings to Berkshire Hathaway. The mood in the newsroom was cautiously buoyant after years of layoffs, furloughs and downsizing at the RTD. After all, why would one of the nation’s richest men get into the newspaper business if he didn’t intend to invest in helping local news chart a sustainable path amid the great digital disruption?
Over the years, that optimism soured based on what I witnessed in two stints at the paper between 2012 and 2018. There was little evidence that BH was willing to expend much effort to become a real media company, invest in the digital product and aggressively grow online subscribers. That last one, by the end, had become the new Holy Grail for newspaper executives, who, in my experience, were always pitching the latest conventional wisdom on the next big business-saving pivot (grow online ad revenue! more video! contests! photo galleries! events!) to bolster steadily flagging morale.
I always thought it took too long to realize — years after falling woefully behind the internet titans on classified and digital advertising and watching print readership and revenue plummet — that the journalism, something most newspapers still, against all odds, do very well, was the only real product left to market.
Inevitably, BH started doing its own layoffs. When Buffett himself said we were all going “downhill,” it was difficult for many of us endeavoring to remain “indispensable” to our communities to see BH as anything but another fumbling newspaper chain more interested in sucking the last drops of profit out of a dying industry than figuring out a sustainable model. (Ever the inspiration to his troops, Buffett pronounced his and other local papers “toast” last year.)
As Joshua Benton and Ken Doctor wrote in a post for Harvard’s Nieman Lab, Buffett “bought Media General’s papers in 2012 for $142 million; he’s selling his papers (which do include some additional, non-Media General properties) for $140 million today. He was almost certainly able to pull profits out of them every year in between.”
What will Lee’s takeover mean? It might not be all bad. Indeed, as a veteran Virginia editor pointed out on Facebook, Lee is at least an established (albeit cold-blooded as any other) media company, unlike BH Media, which was created to run Buffett’s new newspaper holdings and was (at least it seemed to me and many others who worked for them) perennially unsure of how to manage them and slow to make digital upgrades.
I asked a Lee representative last week what Virginia journalists and the communities they serve could expect under Lee’s ownership. I was referred to statements replete with words like “synergies” but short on specifics about newsroom staffing.
“We see the Berkshire Hathaway newspapers as an excellent long-term investment because we believe in the importance of local news and advertising,” Lee spokesman Dan Hayes wrote to me. “Lee outpaces the industry in digital market share and revenue, and we have delivered exceptional performance managing the Berkshire Hathaway newspapers over the last 18 months.”
I asked if there was a plan to invest in the newsrooms or would there likely be more cuts.
“Warren Buffett invests for the long term and, as he says in the news release, he would not have done this deal with any company other than Lee because he believes Lee is in the best position to manage through the industry’s current challenges,” Hayes wrote. “He loves his newspapers and says he believes they will be in the right hands with Lee. Note his entire quote, how he adds that no organization is more committed to serving the vital role of high-quality news as Lee.”
I asked how Lee could deliver high quality local journalism without beefing up newsrooms that have been shredded by layoffs, buyouts and attrition.
“Please note again what Warren Buffett says in the news release. Lee and the Berkshire Hathaway newspapers share a common culture, always striving to deliver the best journalism we can for our communities,” Hayes said. “We have continued to do that despite the reality of staff reductions, and in some cases we have actually added staff. But, as you well know, size of staff alone is not a measure of excellence. Your own website could be Exhibit A.”
Mr. Hayes’ flattery notwithstanding, the Mercury has always set out to complement, not replace, Virginia’s daily papers, with a focus on state government and policy. It’s not within our scope or mission to tell you what the city councils in Charlottesville, Virginia Beach or Bristol; the school boards in Spotsylvania, Chesterfield or Newport News; or the police in Nelson, Lynchburg or Martinsville are up to, among the scores of other localities that make up the commonwealth.
Every weekday, we compile a list of Virginia headlines called News to Know. The overwhelming majority of those stories still come from Virginia newspapers, which, despite the indignities wrought by mostly corporate owners with a ruthless focus on siphoning the last profits from a struggling business at the expense of the news product, are still delivering, by and large, the best local reporting.
With print revenue sure to continue its long slump, limited potential for new online dollars, either via advertising or subscription, and profit margins to be preserved, the obvious prediction seems to be more downsizing at Virginia’s newspapers, from the Tidewater to the mountains and everywhere in between.
And if that’s something you’re cheering, you’re in the cut-your-nose-to-spite-your-face crowd. Because it means less reporting like this on what powerful entities and people in your community are up to, less attention focused on the unique challenges a city, county or town might face and the loss of local institutions that, while businesses, have kept public service at the front of their mission.
At the Times-Dispatch, where walking into the newsroom once meant looking out over rows of cubicles with dozens of reporters and editors, just a relative handful remain in a place that has become a gaunt shadow of its former self.
More buyouts were accepted Wednesday in Norfolk and Newport News, not long after a vulture hedge fund, one that was compared to a strip-mining operation by Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, bought a big stake in Tribune Publishing, which owns the Pilot and Daily Press. (Alden Global Capital, the same fund, also bought a stake in Lee)
Wonder why there are fewer stories? Why it takes longer for anything to appear online? Why there are more spelling and grammatical errors?
— Brock Vergakis (@BrockVergakis) February 5, 2020
What should you do?
Support them, by all means, with subscriptions, digital or otherwise. Figure out how to save them, even it means finding local investors to claw them back from the clutches of the ever-shrinking number of newspaper chains gobbling up titles in search of “synergies.”
But above all, start paying attention.
If not, don’t doubt me when I say you’ll miss them when they’re gone.
What happens indeed when a community can no longer “know itself,” as one reader lamented to The New York Times in December about the loss of his local paper.
“We are a nameless and faceless town defined only by neighborhoods,” he wrote.