Leaving Virginia. Again.

July 25, 2022 12:05 am

The sun sets over the James River in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

On a sticky Sunday afternoon in August 1997, my dad and I parked along Jamestown Road in Williamsburg and got out for a brief, self-guided tour of William and Mary’s old campus. A dreamy, humid haze hung over the deserted place, with the Sunken Gardens and sylvan brick paths lush and late-summer green. 

I said something like “looks nice” before hopping back in the car for the drive back to central New Jersey.

The next time I was there was a year later, when I got off the train to report for the beginning of my freshman year at the nation’s second-oldest university. 

Ever since, I’ve been leaving (and coming back to) Virginia. This time, though — as my wife and I move our boys, calico cat and German shepherd to southern Illinois for work, family and other reasons — feels different. 

And harder.

I launched my career in newspapers here in the Old Dominion as a freelancer at the Goochland Gazette in 2004, the latest in a series of odd jobs I’d taken in the years since I graduated, moved to Richmond and tried to figure out what to do with my life. (There was the radio station, the restaurants and bars, substitute teaching, armored car guarding and appliance delivery — all good post-graduate education in their own right.)

The first news story the author ever published: in 2004 at the Goochland Gazette. (Robert Zullo/ Virginia Mercury)

I left Virginia for the first time not long after and got my first full-time reporting gig in northern New Jersey. I liked it so much I turned down a career in federal law enforcement to pursue what’s become 17 years in journalism so far. I landed next in south Louisiana, where I spent five years as a reporter and editor and, as happens sometimes, met a woman. (More on her later.)

I came back to Virginia for the first time in 2012 to become the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s city hall reporter after years of trying to get hired at the paper. This was it, I thought. Finally, a job at a metro daily in a fun, up-and-coming city. But then that woman, a talented photojournalist who by now was working in Pittsburgh, and I got engaged. And her paper hated the idea of losing her so much that they decided to bring me up to the Steel City rather than risk her coming to Virginia. 

So Julia and I got married, had our first son and became Pittsburgh Pirates fans. Then the well-known travails of the newspaper business caught up with the Post-Gazette and we got nervous about our job security. 

The Times-Dispatch graciously offered to bring me back, and there I was, back in Richmond, convinced I was here for good this time. (At a staff meeting, a TD exec even joked about it: “Are you gonna stay this time?”) My wife threw herself into a career as a freelance photojournalist, where she helped chronicle the highs and lows in Virginia news over the past six years for The Washington Post, Reuters, The New York Times and other outlets, though she did manage to get herself banned from Liberty University along the way. 

At the Times-Dispatch, unfortunately, though, the layoffs started soon after I got back from Pittsburgh and haven’t really stopped since. So with a family and a mortgage, I was pondering getting out of the business when Julia came across a listing for what became the Virginia Mercury. 

The original Virginia Mercury staff in 2018. From left, Ned Oliver, now a reporter with Axios Richmond; Katie O’Connor, now senior staff writer at the American Psychiatric Association’s Psychiatric News; Editor Robert Zullo; and Mechelle Hankerson, now the news director at WHRO in Norfolk. (Photo by Julia Rendleman)

The past four years have been the highlight of my professional life. I stressed endlessly before and during our launch over whether we’d be taken seriously, whether anyone would read us, whether our new model would be accepted and whether I was making a major career mistake and dragging others down with me. But it turns out, when you hire people who are good at what they do and let them write good stories, the rest tends to take care of itself. 

We have always asked readers to judge us by our journalism. And while the awards and accolades have been nice, the greatest satisfaction comes from seeing the Mercury republished in newspapers and websites across the states, having lawmakers cite our coverage in floor sessions and committee meetings and hearing that it’s useful for Virginians across the ideological spectrum. 

There are many things broken in our culture and our politics. The newspaper industry, which has traditionally produced the bulk of the journalism so crucial to our civic life, continues its slow-motion demise. Trust in media is way down. Too often, we see preconceived narratives shaping coverage, with the reporting reverse-engineered accordingly. Too many readers on all sides of the political and cultural divides hunt for outlets and stories that affirm, rather than challenge, their view of the world. 

The Mercury, though, will be in good hands, and the commitment to fair, tough and factual reporting on the policy and politics that affect (and sometimes afflict) the commonwealth will remain. I know Sarah Vogelsong, who has been assuming her new role as editor in chief this month, will lead the outlet to bigger and better things. 

New editor to lead Virginia Mercury

In our family, it’s time to let someone else’s career drive the ship. I’m so proud of my wife, who has worked relentlessly to break into academia and will be joining the photojournalism faculty at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where she earned her master’s degree and where she grew up.

As for me, I’ll be going back to what drew me into this business in the first place: getting out of the office and reporting, this time for our parent organization, States Newsroom, on the electric grid and renewable energy as we stare down the menace of climate change. 

It’s exciting but also bittersweet, that old cliché we still employ because nothing else (maybe there’s a German word?) really describes the mix of mirth and melancholy that comes with embracing something new and promising at the cost of leaving something (and someplace) you love behind. 

And so here I am again. The house is (mostly) packed. The chicken bones bake on downtown sidewalks. The air is thick and the James is bathtub warm. The leafy vines choke the alleys in the Fan. Where I’m typing, south of the rivah, the cicadas chirp. The bats swoop at dusk. 

Just like when I decamped for Pittsburgh nine years ago. 

Maybe time is a flat circle. 

Maybe one day I’ll be back.

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. 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. Contact him at [email protected]