Commentary

A new chapter for the Mercury

July 26, 2022 12:04 am
The Virginia State Capitol.. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia State Capitol.. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

It’s a strange moment to be a journalist. 

Since the 1970s, trust in the media has dropped dramatically. The results of a Gallup poll released earlier this month found only 16% of U.S. adults now have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers. For trust in television news, the figure is lower, at 11%. 

The confidence ratings, Gallup concluded, “have never been as low as they are now.” 

There’s a variety of reasons for those declines. Disinformation campaigns deliberately spread false information and have in some cases been correlated with declining trust in journalism. Social media allows the rapid spread of dubious claims that journalists too often recirculate without vetting. And hedge funds continue to ruthlessly chip away at newsrooms that represent the nation’s longest-running journalism institutions. Between 2008 and 2020, the news industry shed almost 30,000 jobs

I cannot count the number of times I’ve been asked, “Isn’t the newspaper business dying?” (Folks, a hint: This is not a question that promotes mutually enjoyable conversation at a party.)

In Virginia, it’s hard not to conclude that newspapers are at the very least ailing. The Richmond Times-Dispatch has faced steep newsroom cuts. So too have the Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press.

Small newspapers are also disappearing. The first paper where I worked as a staffer, The Caroline Progress, shuttered in 2018, leaving the 537-square-mile county without a newspaper. It had been operating for 99 years. In the room where I worked, the shelves were full of massive bound copies of every edition of the paper going back decades — pages and pages of records of the county from which Loving v. Virginia sprang, where the State Fair of Virginia now whirls into motion every late summer, where whole communities were once dismantled with little trace left behind to make way for Fort A.P. Hill. 

As Joan Didion would say, goodbye to all that. 

I know it all sounds very bleak. And in some ways it is bleak and should provoke very real concern among the public at large. Democracy is impossible without the press to inform the public of what goes on in the halls of power and, increasingly, to act as their guide through the maze of the policymaking process. 

But just as the world changes, so does the press. Journalism has never been tied to a single format or business model. And just as we’re seeing the old forms pass away, we’re also seeing new ones emerge to fill the vacuum. 

The Virginia Mercury, as an online-only, nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet, is one of those new forms, and as I take over the editorship from founding editor-in-chief Robert Zullo, it gives me hope to see that for four years the Mercury has not only survived but thrived. In that time Mercury journalists have received some of the state’s top press honors, spurred changes in government and consistently provided in-depth coverage of issues and communities that shrinking newsrooms no longer have the capacity to cover. 

Since we announced the leadership transition this June, the question I’ve heard over and over is: “What’s going to change?” 

At core, the answer is simple: nothing. The emails, calls and (occasional) letters we receive from readers make it clear that Virginians have an appetite for the kind of coverage we provide. People want to understand what is happening in their state and what policymakers’ decisions mean. They want deep discussion of policy alongside the politics. And they want to see notice taken of not only their own struggles and successes, but those of their neighbors. 

None of that will change during my tenure. We’ll continue to write the stories that no one else is writing and investigate the issues no one else is investigating. We’ll monitor undercovered public bodies like the State Corporation Commission and explain the ins and outs of how state government operates. We’ll look for patterns in what’s happening in local governments across the state and pinpoint the issues most on the minds of Virginians and their elected representatives.

I’ll also work on building partnerships and raising money so we can continue adding to our team and providing more quality reporting on a wider range of beats, whether they be housing, labor, inequality or other areas.

If we’ve learned anything from the plight of newspapers nationwide, it’s that you can’t make more from less. You need more to make more. 

If you have ideas for how we can grow, reach out. If you want to donate, we’re grateful for every dollar. (Our parent organization, States Newsroom, lists every donor who contributes over $500 here.) 

In his farewell column Monday, Bob wrote that working at the Mercury has been the highlight of his professional life. Even before stepping into the editor-in-chief position, I could say the same. I began freelancing for the Mercury at the time of its launch in summer 2018 and joined the staff in June 2019 when the Mercury received funding to add an environment and energy reporter job — the role I’ve filled for the past three years. 

That job is a hard one to say goodbye to. While I have a background in editing — I spent a number of years editing journals and academic books — writing has always been my greatest love. The Mercury editorship was one of the few opportunities that could convince me to step back from full-time reporting. 

After all, despite the misery that is late-night committee meetings and endless regulatory proceedings and being given the runaround on the phone, I wouldn’t give up the experiences I’ve had over the past three-plus years for anything. 

I’ve gotten to stand on Summers Mountain in remote Highland County while fire teams lit lines of flame along the slopes as part of a prescribed burn. I’ve been in a boat off Oyster, Virginia, on the Eastern Shore as a curious dolphin passed to and fro beneath us. I’ve sat feet from anxious huddles of lawmakers on the General Assembly floor as they tried to hammer out last-minute deals. I’ve been in another boat 27 miles off Virginia Beach to see some of the earliest U.S. offshore wind turbines. (OK, that one wasn’t so great: I threw up five times. But I appreciated the Old Dominion’s sweet solid ground in a way I never had before when we docked.) I’ve watched the morning mist rise from the hollows of the mountains in Wise and Buchanan counties and been awed by the kudzu-covered cliffs that loom above the turns of their roads. 

Now, though, it’s time to pass the baton on to someone new as the Mercury continues to evolve and grow. 

We’ve already welcomed Nathaniel Cline, formerly of the Loudoun Times-Mirror and the Northern Neck News, to our team this month, and we’ll be making a new hire soon to cover environment and energy. While we are sad to be losing reporter Kate Masters to New York City, senior reporter Graham Moomaw will remain to keep his eagle eye on politics, and columnists Roger Chesley, Bob Lewis, Wyatt Gordon and Ivy Main will continue to offer in-depth reported commentary on all areas of state policy. 

We have a great team in place to keep you up-to-date and informed, and we hope you will continue reading the Mercury as we begin this new chapter. Please don’t hesitate to email with questions, comments and concerns at [email protected]

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

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